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'Give Parents the Choice of Placement'

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This is one of seven commentaries on the topic of inclusion from "To the Best of Their Abilities".

Some years ago, the mother of a deaf child testified before a Congressional committee about the mainstreaming mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She had become so frustrated with her school district's understanding of mainstreaming that she changed jobs and moved her family to a more progressive district. She concluded, in tears, that the law had almost broken her son and had denied him entrance to the kind of world he needed and deserved.

With the historic exclusion of children with disabilities from regular classrooms, this story seems sadly common. But in this case, a desperate parent moved her family because the school system insisted on an inclusive program and would not place her son in a "more restrictive" placement, the state school for the deaf.

If inclusion is to be a viable and equitable reform movement, it must consider one simple question: Why would a parent fight so vigorously to keep her child out of the mainstream? This parent's point of view was no anomaly, nor are deaf children the only ones in the middle of the inclusion debate. Instead, this anecdote points out the difficulties in systematically assuming that all special-needs children would be better served in a regular classroom.

Any generic effort toward full inclusion is contrary to the individual nature of the I.D.E.A. and the individualized-education-program process, which require individual decisions based on the "unique" needs of the child and the provision of an "appropriate" education. Full inclusion also ignores the law's requirement that a "continuum of placement options" be available for all children.

Full inclusion takes most, if not all, decisionmaking power away from the individual parent. Just as parents of excluded children rightfully resented a school district that systemically determined placement, so, too, parents resent any reform that takes away their right to be involved in placement decisions. Full-inclusion advocates need to know that many parents actively and justifiably want a say in their child's educational placement.

The impact of the inclusion movement has been powerful; local and state educational agencies have moved to limit (or close) non-regular placement options. Recent court decisions are seen (and used) as "inclusion" exemplars. In Sacramento City Unified School District v. Holland, a landmark case in which the parents of a mentally retarded child successfully sued to have their daughter placed in a regular classroom, the court focused on a four-part test: Will the child advance educationally in a regular classroom? Will the child receive nonacademic benefits (social growth) from the class? Will an inclusive placement cause disruption? Is the cost for mainstreaming excessive? While Holland has rightfully reminded school districts that the burden to exclude is on them, its test is fully consistent with the I.D.E.A. and the many other courts that found that some students met the test and some did not.

Some argue that wrong attitudes and limited resources are the only barriers to full inclusion. There are children, however, for whom no amount of money or attitude shift would make a regular classroom safe. But there is a more compelling question: What of the child for whom a regular classroom is inherently restrictive and a non-regular placement fundamentally necessary and appropriate?

A deaf child, while not the only example, is nonetheless a good one. Consider the deaf child who uses sign language and for whom a regular classroom is a linguistic, social, emotional, and, therefore, educational wasteland. Seventy-five percent of all deaf children on regular campuses have fewer than two language peers. Many of the teachers lack even rudimentary signing skills, thus heightening the sense of isolation.

Conversely, a state school with hundreds of language peers, deaf teachers, and hearing teachers proficient in sign language is the kind of rich language environment that all children need. To characterize such a placement as either too restrictive or not inclusionary makes a mockery of the notion of inclusion. No amount of attitude realignment or additional funds will create more language peers or provide a rich language environment.

Accordingly, any effort to remake special education to incorporate more inclusionary philosophies or policies must consider the following:

  • To judge an inclusionary program based solely on the "where" of that program is educationally and ethically narrow. The "why" of the program is equally important.
  • The inclusion movement, if it moves toward generic full inclusion or disallows viable alternative placements, has to consider its impact on all children. The movement will falter if it replaces, even inadvertently, one victim with another.
  • The historic failure of school districts to include children is matched by an equally troubling tendency to deny, for other children, placements in non-regular programs. Misplacement has been evident at both ends of the continuum.
  • If the I.D.E.A. is to be reformed, its essentially paradoxical nature--the right to the least-restrictive education and free access to a public education--must be resolved. The I.D.E.A. (or its replacement) must encourage with equal vigor the right to be mainstreamed and the right to be in alternative placements.

How should the law be restructured? Any attempt to reconcile "least-restrictive environment" and "free access to a public education" will not change the needs of many children for alternative placements. Because of the push-pull nature of the two mandates, any effort to reform the law by shifting the weight of these two concepts will only exacerbate that inherent tension. Putting more emphasis on the "where" of the placement and ignoring the "why" (or vice versa) will not solve the fundamental problems.

Perhaps the only real way to simplify this and reduce the unnecessary friction between natural allies (parents of and advocates for children with disabilities) is to give parents the choice of placement, provided there is evidence that the child's needs can be met in the placement of choice.

Parents who want their child included should only be required to show that their child's needs can be met in the regular classroom (remembering that current law requires that support services be provided to accommodate inclusion). Conversely, a parent who seeks an alternative placement need only show that a non-regular classroom will appropriately serve his or her child.

While the full-inclusion movement has generated valuable debate as to what we mean by a quality education "for all children," it has also generated acrimony. Those who are opposed to generic inclusion are not the Dixiecrats of special education, counterrevolutionaries hanging on to an outmoded education system. The individual needs of the child must be recognized and respected. This still remains the most revolutionary concept in special education.

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