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E.D. Recommends Merging Programs For Deaf-Blind, Severely Handicapped

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Washington--Federal special-education programs for the nation's 5,400 deaf-blind children should be merged with those serving other severely handicapped children, the Education Department told lawmakers last week.

The controversial suggestion is among a small number of changes recommended by the department this year as the Congress looks to reauthorize the discretionary programs funded under the Education of the Handicapped Act.

That landmark law is best known for its provision entitling handicapped children to a "free, appropriate public education." But the law's other sections, which expire this September, authorize a total of $170 million a year for programs supporting research, personnel training, services for special handicapped populations, information dissemination, and a number of other areas.

Charles E. M. Kolb, the department's deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation, told the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped April 3 that programs for the deaf-blind and severely handicapped should be merged because the two populations have similar needs.

"Our experience ... has been that the capacity to provide quality services for students with deaf-blindness is inextricably linked to the capacity to provide quality services to low-incidence, multiply handicapped students with similar characteristics," he said.

More than 83 percent of the deaf-blind students served in those projects have other handicapping condi4tions, he noted.

The department last year had called for merging the two programs, but lawmakers never took up the issue.

The renewed proposal drew sharp criticism last week from associations representing deaf-blind and blind people. Spokesmen for the groups warned at a House hearing that the needs of the smaller deaf-blind population would become lost in the consolidation.

"This proposal must categorically be rejected," said Roderick J. McDonald, president of the American Association of the Deaf-Blind Inc.

"Deaf-blindness presents unique educational needs," such as the need to learn to use a cane or read Braille, he added.

Mr. McDonald, who is deaf and blind, said he has been served since childhood in separate programs designed for the blind, the deaf, the severely retarded, and the deaf-blind.

"I think I know where the shoe fits," he told the House Subcommittee on Select Education.

The department also recommended a number of relatively minor changes in the law, including extending the next authorization period from three to five years.

Another controversial issue that has surfaced in the hearings so far has to do with the part of law that directs schools to teach handicapped children in the "least restrictive" educational environment possible. The House panel heard from a number of organizations concerned about the way educators are interpreting the provision.

Earlier, the subcommittee had received testimony from groups who asked the Congress to clarify the8terms because the phrase was almost always being taken to mean the regular classroom--rather than the educational setting that best suits an individual child's needs. (See Education Week, March 15, 1989.)

At the panel's April 4 hearing, however, several groups serving severely handicapped and mentally retarded children cautioned against changing the current federal emphasis on teaching handicapped children in neighborhood schools.

"The law is very clear on regular school placements," said Fred Orelove, who spoke on behalf of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps. Even so, he argued, "in many states, the majority of students with severe and profound handicaps are denied the right to attend their neighborhood schools."

"If you did any one thing to refocus the expenditure of federal money," said James Gardner, senior vice president of the Association for Retarded Citizens of the U.S., "it would be to outlaw special schools."

In other highlights of the two days of hearings, witnesses called for changes in the law to:

Address a nationwide shortage of special-education personnel, which is said to be reaching crisis proportions; (See Education Week, April 5, 1989.)

Better serve children with serious emotional disturbances--an estimated one in five of whom are not receiving the help they need; (See Education Week, March 8, 1989.)

Help schools accommodate the growing population of children who are dependent on medical technology; and

Improve services for the increasing number of children who are recovering from traumatic brain injuries.

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