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Special Educators Object to Mandate on Equipment

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By Debra Viadero

WASHINGTON--Directors of school special-education programs are objecting to a proposed Education Department rule that they say could force schools to provide a wide range of costly special equipment to students with disabilities.

"At a time when American education is under attack for lack of effectiveness, any expansion of the related services we provide without funding would eliminate some of our present success and destroy what effectiveness we have," wrote Brenda Robinette, the director of special education in Gate City, Va. "How will our schools survive?"

The proposed rules are intended to flesh out changes in federal special-education law made by the Education of the Handicapped Amendments Act of 1990, a law that was widely considered to be essentially a fine-tuning of existing federal law in the field.

The act required schools to take steps to help disabled students make the transition from school to work or to further study, and it extended special-education entitlements for the first time to children with autism and traumatic brain injury.

Thomas Irvin, the acting director of the division of assistance to the states in the Education Department's office of special-education programs, said the proposed rules on assistive technology, published in the Aug. 19 Federal Register, expand on language in a legislative report on the law indicating that these services should be considered part of school special-education programs for some students. The law also added a definition of assistive-technology services borrowed from earlier legislation that provided incentives for states to make such equipment more accessible to all disabled individuals.

The proposed rules state that schools must "ensure" that special equipment is available to a disabled child if that child "requires assistive- technology devices, or services, or both in order to receive a free, appropriate education." They further state that the services and equipment can be provided "either as special education, related services, or as supplementary aids and services that enable a child with a disability to be in regular classes."

The rules define those devices as equipment or systems "used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities."

A department spokesman said it had received 276 written responses through the comment deadline of Nov. 18.

'Ambiguity' Cited

The problem, the special educators said in dozens of letters, is that the rule is too broadly worded, and they questioned whether the department may have overstepped its legal bounds.

"Without further guidance, there would appear to be no limitation in what technology could be included in these definitions," wrote Jeffrey V. Osowski, the special-education director for New Jersey.

Special educators said the definitions might include a wide range of such items as wheelchairs, hearing aids, eyeglasses, and prosthetic devices. The ambiguity in the rules, wrote John M. Collins Jr., a Chicago lawyer, "raises the expectations of parents without warrant."

He suggested that schools might choose to yield to parents' demands for the equipment rather than fight them in a costly dispute-resolution process.

Moreover, much assistive-technology equipment is expensive. A Braille printer, for example, can cost as much as $10,000, one writer said.

Critics of the broad language in the proposal, who include the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, say the rules could address the problem by specifying that the devices or services must be education-related.

The purpose of the new rules is to provide access to technologically related services for children who need them. Often, families do not know about--or cannot afford--such equipment for their disabled children.

"This is the only way in which many children with severe and multiple disabilities will be able to participate in and receive an education in a regular classroom," Norman Kieke, the executive director of United Cerebral Palsy of Capitol Area Inc., wrote in a letter supporting the proposal.

Transition Rules Faulted

Comments received by the department also took issue with provisions in the proposed rules requiring schools to take the lead in planning for students' transition from school.

The rules would require schools to include transition plans in the individualized education programs written for students age 16 and older and to involve other public agencies responsible for providing those services. Schools also would be required to develop an alternative plan if other agencies failed to act.

"It could become impossible to graduate a student from special education unless he or she has a job," wrote James G. Wilhelm, the director of special education for the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District in Wisconsin.

He and other writers said the provisions place a heavy burden on schools because they cannot compel other public agencies to participate.

Mr. Irvin, of the special-education office, said the department's staff currently is analyzing the comments and determining whether the proposed regulations go too far.

The final regulations are scheduled to be published next year.

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