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Panel Asked To Stop 'Morally Wrong' Application of Special-Education Law

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Washington--Advocates for deaf, blind, and learning-disabled students last week urged federal lawmakers to rethink commonly held assumptions about what it means to teach handicapped children in the "least restrictive" educational environment possible.

The calls for a new interpretation of existing statutory language came on the first day of Congressional hearings scheduled for the reauthorization of some programs under The Education of the Handicapped Act--the landmark collection of federal laws known as an educational "bill of rights" for people with disabilities.

The law requires schools to educate handicapped children "to the maximum extent appropriate" in the "least restrictive" educational environment.

But advocates told the House Subcommittee on Select Education last week that educators in general--and federal special-education officials in particular--are misinterpreting the term "least restrictive environment" to mean, invariably, a regular classroom in a child's neighborhood school.

For many children, the witnesses contended, the "least restrictive" classroom is the one that serves their individual needs best--whether it is a special school, the regular classroom, or a special-education resource room.

"It is morally wrong, education4ally unsound, and delivers an erroneous message to parents and others, to imply that the child in a placement other than the regular classroom in a neighborhood school is in a 'more restrictive environment,"' said Phillip Hatlen, chairman of the California-based Joint Action Committee of Organizations Serving the Visually Handicapped.

He said blind and visually impaired children need special instruction in orientation and mobility, independent-living skills, career education, and other areas that are not always taught in the regular classroom.

Likewise, advocates for the deaf said that these children--95 percent of whom enter school with little or no exposure to English--are often placed in classrooms where they are unable to communicate with peers or teachers.

"We want nonhandicapped people to respect our opinions and listen to us when we tell them this isn't working," said Larry Stewart, a deaf psychologist from Illinois who spoke on behalf of the National Association of the Deaf.

The witnesses called for no major changes in the law. Instead, they said, federal education officials should disseminate guidelines to help educators first determine how best to serve an individual handicapped child and then decide where to do it.

"The irony is that the law is a good one," said Lawrence Siegel, a California lawyer who represents the8families of children with disabilities. "Despite the law, there is a federal policy filtering down to the states for generic mainstreaming."

Federal Opposition

An identical recommendation was contained in a comprehensive report issued last March by the federal Commission on Deaf Education. (See Education Week, March 30, 1988.)

At that time, Madeleine C. Will, the Education Department's assistant secretary in charge of special education and rehabilitative services, opposed such changes in departmental guidelines.

A strong proponent of mainstreaming, Ms. Will said the department already encourages a "balanced approach" to the problem.

She said altering that policy would send the wrong message, implying that providing a "a good-quality, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment" is not possible.

Neither a spokesman for Ms. Will nor Thomas Bellamy, who heads the office of special-education programs under the assistant secretary, would comment on the testimony last week.

A Narrow Focus

The hearing was the first of three scheduled as part of the reauthorization process. A second hearing before the same subcommittee was scheduled for March 14 and the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped has tentatively scheduled an April 3 hearing.

Only Parts C through G of the act--which encompass discretionary programs in research, personnel training, model demonstration projects, information dissemination, and technical assistance--are being reauthorized this year. And Congressional staff members said they expect no major new programs to emerge from the reauthorization.

Upcoming hearings are expected to deal with personnel shortages in the field, the needs of seriously emotionally disturbed students, and a number of other issues--some not yet determined.

At the March 7 hearing, the subcommittee also heard from witnesses who said that special-education programs are failing to meet the needs of many minority students. More than one-third of special-education students are members of minority groups, according to Representative Major R. Owens, a Democrat from New York and chairman of the subcommittee.

Rosalyn M. Simon, a Maryland-based educational consultant on minority issues, said minority students are overrepresented in some categories of handicaps, such as mental retardation, and underrepresented in others.

She also said educators should make more of an effort to reach minority parents, who, because of economic, attitudinal, cultural, and information barriers, often do not participate in the education of their disabled children.

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