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More than half of all states now guarantee special-education services to disabled preschoolers, according to a survey by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

The survey is the association's second annual study tracking the progress states are making in implementing the Education of the Handicapped Amendments Act of 1986, or P.L. 99-457. The law requires states to serve disabled preschoolers by the 1991-92 school year or risk losing federal special-education aid for handicapped infants and toddlers.

The poll, conducted over the summer, found that 26 states now serve handicapped toddlers at age 3 or younger.

Moreover, special-education directors in almost every other state said they expected similar mandates to be in place in their states by the 1990-91 school year. Legislatures in nine of those states have already passed laws requiring such services within the next two years.

Only 22 states and the District of Columbia had mandated early-intervention services for preschoolers a year ago when the first survey was taken.

Said a spokesman for the group: "We're generally pleased at how much activity is taking place in almost all of the states."

A coalition of 26 national education and mental-health organizations is lobbying federal lawmakers to ban the use of corporal punishment in federally financed school programs for disabled children.

"We feel very strongly that our particular group of kids are very vulnerable in this area," said Chris Koyanagi, a lobbyist for the National Mental Health Association and a spokesman for the coalition.

Although apparently no formal studies have been done on the subject, those familiar with the issue believe that disabled children are more likely than their nonhandicapped peers to be subjected to physical punishment in school. They note that research has shown that corporal punishment is employed disproportionately often against black male students--a group that is also more likely than others to be identified as handicapped.

The coalition argues that paddling or spanking can have especially serious effects for many handicapped children, in part because of their physical conditions. The members cite, for example, a recent case involving a child with a degenerative bone disease who had to be rushed to a hospital emergency room following a paddling in school.

Federal lawmakers could protect handicapped children from such abuses, the coalition maintains, by amending the Education of Handicapped Act to outlaw corporal punishment in programs funded under the law. The group's campaign is timed to coincide with the reauthorization of the special-education law, which is now pending in the Congress.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has announced plans to donate $8.4 million to programs that help disabled people, particularly young adults, live independently.

Foundations officials say the grant is the largest single gift of private funds ever provided to benefit the disabled.

"The intent is to focus on that very neglected group of young adults that should be moving into independent living but, for some reason, is not," said Denise Graveline, a spokesman.

The grants will go to community-based organizations run by and for the disabled. The deadline for applications is Jan. 6.

For information, write Lex Frieden, Independent Living Research Utilization, 3400 Bissonnet, Houston, Tex. 77005.

More than 7 million American children are mentally retarded, have a learning disability, or have suffered severe emotional problems, according to a new study.

Released late last month, the study is the first national survey of children's health since 1981 to be conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. It is based on 1988 surveys of 17,100 children under age 18.

"What's significant about the data is that, when you think about all of the various health problems of children, these things rank among the very top," said Nicholas Zill, executive director of Child Trends Inc., the Washington-based group that helped design the study.

A study by a San Francisco State University researcher suggests one promising strategy for promoting acceptance of handicapped children in mainstream classrooms.

C. Lynn Fox, an education professor at the university, paired 86 learning-disabled 5th and 6th graders with 86 nonhandicapped classmates. Some of the pairs were assigned activities designed to uncover mutual interests. Others were given academic tasks. A third group of pairs was removed from the classroom and given no special tasks. And an additional group remained in the room but received no special assignments.

At the end of eight weeks, Ms. Fox found, only the nonhandicapped children in the pairs working together on activities of mutual interest said they liked their partners significantly better.

"If we want to help learning-disabled students become more accepted by their peers, then it's important that we provide opportunities for them and their nonhandicapped classmates to learn, in a social sense, what they have in common," she said. A report on the study was published in September in Exceptional Children.--dv

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