After 10 Years of Mainstreaming: The Disabled Are Making Impressive Gains

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The federal special-education law, the much maligned, much touted, and otherwise much talked about Public Law 94-142, makes the presumption that, all things being equal, integration is better than segregation. "To the maximum extent appropriate," it reads, "handicapped children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are [to be] educated with children who are not handicapped ... [S]pecial classes, separate schooling, or other removal of handicapped children from the regular educational environment [may] occur only when the nature or severity of the handicap is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily."

Taken in context, there could be no doubt of the framers' intent. They wanted more integration. So they made it presumptive: The burden of proof was on those who would segregate. Anyone who would send students from the regular class and the regular school would have to demonstrate that the student could not benefit from the more integrated program.

Despite this obvious preference for integration, neither the law nor its regulations provided guidance on how to achieve it. The concept of "least restrictive environment," a central element of the law, was as potentially elusive a phrase as its parent concept, "appropriate public education." It was a concept whose full meaning for particular children with specific disabilities could only be derived through experimentation with various educational strategies.

At its inception, many educators believed the integration policy, no matter how it might be implemented, would force fundamental change in public schools. They feared it could mean slowing down or watering down the education of regular students. Ten years later, we now have some of the first concrete evidence of its effects on American education. Researchers have found no significant signs that integration slows down or in any other way impedes the education of nondisabled students. But that is not to say that integration has had little influence on public schools.

Throughout the United States, we think about education--particularly special education for the most disabled--differently.

Evidence of integration abounds. Vermont has established a statewide consulting service to assist local districts in integrating severely and profoundly disabled students in rural public schools. Albuquerque, N.M., has a policy of serving every student, no matter how disabled. In North Carolina, more than two-thirds of the special-education classes for autistic students are located in public schools. In Madison, Wis., 102 severely and profoundly disabled students who live in the Central Wisconsin Center, a state institution, attend regular public schools each day. DeKalb, Ill., recently closed its segregated school for disabled students.

One obvious effect of integration is that it throws segregation into question. If Albuquerque, N.M.; Madison, Wis.; and even rural Vermont can integrate their most disabled and, often, multiply-disabled students, then on what basis do other communities justify continued segregation? Missouri and Ohio, two states that operate regional segregated schools, find themselves embattled in litigation over just this question. Parents and professionals who have seen the promise of integration are now pressing for its broad adoption.

In designing a program for severely and profoundly disabled students in DeKalb, officials wanted a curriculum that would be practical, adapted to the communities in which the students live, and as free as possible from the trappings of special education. While teachers employ such techniques as task analysis and behavior shaping, they do it without a rigid, laboratory language. To teach a student grocery shopping, teachers prepare a detailed task analysis of "grocery-store behavior,'' and then actually take students to area stores where they can learn to locate a shopping cart; wheel it down the right side of each aisle; find the vegetable, meat, and dairy sections; match pictures with actual products; unload their carts on the checkout counter; count and pay money; receive change; and collect their groceries. By using "natural environments" such as community grocery stores, teachers hope that special-education students can generalize their learning to similar real life-settings (e.g., other stores).

At the Riverton Elementary School in Portland, Me., eight students with severe disabilities learn what people in the field of special education now call "functional programming." There and elsewhere, special educators train students for community life. Riverton teachers reject traditional simulated training; severely handicapped students do not sort beads or place geometric objects through appropriately shaped holes. Instead, objects of daily life become the teaching materials: One severely disabled student learns to turn knobs to open doors, two others learn to walk from the bus to the classroom, another operates a tape recorder as a leisure-time activity. Functional curricula assist students toward the goal of greater independence in the community.

For many districts nationally, integrated schooling has served as a stepping-off point for special vocational programming. In Urbana, Ill., for example, severely handicapped students leave the schools each day to work at such sites as local cafeterias, a film center, and a university faculty center.

Also at Urbana, staff members experiment with other new and potentially more effective ways of educating students with disabilities. Prairie Elementary School staff members have introduced the concept of "integrated therapy." Developmental therapists trained in occupational and physical therapy work with teachers and aides to integrate occupational and physical therapy into the classroom curriculum. The integrated-therapies approach avoids the problem of having to shuttle disabled students in and out of classes for special services.

A statewide system that serves autistic students in North Carolina's public schools has popularized parental involvement as another effective teaching method. This "parents as co-teachers" strategy reflects four assumptions: Children spend most of their time with their parents; parents have the longest continual involvement in their children's lives; parents have the greatest stake in facilitating their children's development; and whether or not their impact is positive, parents will try to teach their children. Staff members and parents practice curricular activities together. Teachers interview parents about the skills they would most like their sons and daughters to exhibit. They help families solve the behavioral problems of their youngsters that interfere with adjustment to the family and community. In short, the North Carolina approach enables parents to be as active in their severely disabled children's education as they typically have been with that of their nondisabled children.

Invariably, integration-minded programs assign students to what the specialists now call "age-appropriate" activities. As with "integrated therapies" and "parents as co-teachers," this is one more means of "normalizing" special education. Teachers who employ the "age-appropriateness" principle no longer give high-school students, no matter how severely disabled, activities usually associated with preschoolers or elementary-age students. They would not, for example, ask a high-school student to assemble a Donald Duck puzzle. Instead, older students learn skills that they will need as adults. In LaGrange, Ill., the special-education program operates a group home where special-education students live for several weeks at a time in their final years of high school. At that time, they learn independent living skills, including shopping, personal hygiene, house cleaning, recreation, and cooking.

Of course not all integration strategies come from curricular practices. Social integration is a case in point. In "reclaiming" severely disabled students, school officials have had to struggle with ways of promoting social integration. For this they have needed, in most cases, only a healthy respect for common sense.

A student at the Down East School in Bangor, Me., for example, receives lunch through a gastronomy tube, then goes into the lunchroom to assist another student in distributing milk. Most integration programs ensure that disabled students participate in a full range of nonacademic and extracurricular activities.

There are many ways to evaluate the importance of this apparent revolution in education for severely and profoundly disabled students. We cannot help but be impressed with the fact that such widespread integration guarantees interaction and understanding between disabled and nondisabled students on a scale that has never before been even physically possible. Yet perhaps equally important, through these extensive integration practices, special education gains public exposure and acceptance and schools demonstrate to their communities that severely disabled students belong and can learn.

Vol. 02, Issue 31, Page 24

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