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Specila Education Column

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College textbooks that portray the parents of handicapped children as "incompetent" or "troubled" may be giving the wrong message to special educators, according to an expert in the field.

Speaking at a national conference this summer on new federal programs for handicapped children, Lisbeth Vincent, a professor of special education at the University of Wisconsin, said she had reviewed a number of recently published texts for special education, occupational therapy, nursing, physical therapy, and related disciplines and found a disturbing portrait of the families of the handicapped.

According to the textbooks, such families suffer from an excessive amount of stress, often resulting in divorce, child abuse, and other problems.

"What grows out of that is a real notion that these families are not competent people, that they're different than we are," she said. As a result, educators may tend to discount parents' ideas about what their children are capable of achieving. The scientific evidence to justify such unflattering portrayals is inconclusive, Ms. Vincent said. Among the more recent studies, she noted, no differences have been found in rates of divorce or child abuse for families of the handicapped and those with "normal" children.

An estimated 30,665 children in the 3- to 5-year-old age group will receive special-education services for the first time this fall through new federal programs for handicapped preschoolers, according to the U.S. Education Department.

The preschoolers will be served under section 619 of the Education of the Handicapped Amendments Act, P.L. 99-457, passed last year. The program provides strong incentives for states to serve handicapped 3- to 5-year-olds. Another section of the law, Part H, sets up a new grant program for handicapped infants.

The expected increase in handicapped preschoolers served will raise the total enrollment of preschoolers in special-education programs to 296,448--a 12 percent increase over last year, according to the department.

The offices of the Education Department devoted to civil-rights enforcement and special education have signed a long-awaited agreement that describes how they will work together to enforce federal laws for the handicapped.

Concerned that some complaints from states had been falling between jurisdictional cracks, members of the Congress had been asking for the new "memorandum of understanding" since 1984, when the last one was placed under review. The new pact will guide the administration by the two offices of both the Education of the Handicapped Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, two laws that sometimes overlap.--dv

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