By Dr. Terry Graham
Originally published in 1997.
Full inclusion -- integration of students with disabilities into regular classrooms -- is a trend that has gained nationwide attention. Inclusion advocates, such as The Association of Persons with Severe Handicaps, contend that all children with disabilities should be "included." The National Council on Disability recently stated that most students with sensory loss should be taught in regular classrooms (Special Education Report, 1993).
But why advocate full inclusion for all children if you can't insure that all children will truly feel included? Residential schools have been working for over 150 years to help children who are deaf or blind experience the personal fulfillment of feeling included. In school settings such as those provided by the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind (AIDB), specially-trained and qualified instructors help students overcome education, communication and social barriers of isolation and loneliness.
Inclusion proponents argue that residential schools are inferior because children are being educated in a restrictive environment. They contend that placement in a regular classroom is the least restrictive environment for all children who have a disability.
Yet, it is socially correct for intellectually or financially elite students to compete for opportunities to attend residential math and science schools, says (former) Alabama School for the Blind Principal Ron Garrett*. "The bottom line here is that these students are searching for special programs or services they can't get in the regular classroom."
Albert Shanker, President of the America Federation of Teachers, is one of the nation's most vocal critics of the full inclusion movement. Shanker warned against the placement of all students with disabilities in regular education classrooms without regard to the nature or severity of the student's disability, ability to function in the class, the educational benefits, or the impact on the rest of the class. Tempered by practicality and reality, Shanker believes that students should be treated in terms of what's best for them, not in terms of an ideology. Education must consider the impact that placement decisions will have on the child with a disability and the impact on other students in the class.
"Multidisabled students should be included to the extent they can in the regular classroom," said Dr. Erminel Love-Trescott**, (former) principal of AIDB's Helen Keller School of Alabama, which serves children who are deaf, blind and multidisabled. "But I do not agree with full inclusion when the individual needs of the child are not considered. Decisions should be made by an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) committee of parents, educators and those most closely involved with the child's education program."
Blind and Low Vision
Prominent groups representing people who are blind and other special education advocates have also encouraged educators to exercise caution regarding the goal of teaching all students with disabilities in regular classrooms. Eight organizations representing people who are blind recently condemned the goal of teaching all students with disabilities in regular classrooms including: the American Council for the Blind, American Foundation for the Blind, the Blinded Veterans Association, The Canadian Council of the Blind, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and the Association for Education and Rehabilitation for the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER).
According to a 1993 edition of The AER Report, the organizations adopted the following position on full inclusion:
"If provided with timely and adequate specialized services by appropriately-certified teachers, students who are blind or low vision can develop skills that will enable them to achieve success and independence... But, if these students do not receive appropriate instruction designed to develop competencies that meet the sensory deficits of blindness and low vision, critical learning opportunities will be lost...In this context, ample opportunities for instruction in such areas as Braille, abacus, orientation and mobility, and use of prescribed optical devices must be made available to students, as needed.
"Educational decisions must be made on a case by case basis consistent with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which guarantees a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment from among a full continuum of alternative placements...Educational decisions should not be made simply on the basis of philosophy, limited school budgets, administrative convenience, or concerns about socialization.
"Full inclusion in regular classrooms for all students with disabilities irrespective of individual needs is in sharp conflict with procedural guarantees of IDEA. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)...is not one sole physical location. It is, rather, a principle which if properly applied, matches the need of the student with an appropriate school setting which provides meaningful challenges, realistic expectations, and maximum opportunities for achievement and development of a healthy self-esteem.
"The regular classroom may be considered the LRE if the student possesses sufficient readiness and survival skills and can be provided adequate support, specialized services and opportunities to develop skills to the best of his or her potential...
"In cases where the needs of the student cannot be met in the regular classroom, an alternative education placement must be provided and be recognized as the LRE for that particular student. Such alternative placements should not be negatively viewed as discriminatory or as 'segregated' settings when legitimately warranted to develop the needed skills for future integration in school and society."
Deaf and Hard of Hearing
In a 1992 address, I. King Jordan***, (former) president of Gallaudet University, said that the concept of least restrictive environment has been distorted as it applies to deaf children. According to Jordan, choosing the least restrictive environment for a child was supposed to involve a continuum of several placement options, each available to meet the needs of different children.
Options on the continuum include placement in a regular classroom; in regular school with support services; in a special classroom within a regular school; in a residential school; and, for some children, in an institution or hospital. Jordan contends that this framework has been flip-flopped from a continuum to a hierarchy, with the regular classroom at the top and the other placements at the bottom.
This move has been damaging to the education of children with hearing loss, Jordan says. Placement of a child who is deaf in a special program is sometimes less restrictive than placement in a regular classroom. Isolation and lack of true communication with others can be devastating for deaf children.
John Tiffany****, (former) Principal at Alabama School for the Deaf (ASD), agrees with Jordan. "Because of our resources and expertise in the field of deafness, ASD is the least restrictive environment for many deaf students.
"Communication is the key for deaf children and only in an environment where they can communicate freely with their teachers, peers, principal, cafeteria workers, school counselor, etc., is the deaf child truly in the least restrictive environment."
"Schools for the deaf could be more appropriately compared to boarding schools which provide a variety of opportunities for children who are deaf to experience an education like hearing children do," said Tiffany. "These opportunities are the exception, not the rule, in most public schools in this country. Children who are deaf are often excluded from many activities due to the communication barriers their deafness presents."
Full Inclusion and AIDB --
AIDB believes that educational placement decisions regarding children with vision or hearing loss must be made on a case by case basis.
AIDB has urged Congress to amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide a clear and concise statement regarding Least Restrictive Environment, making it clear that parents, students and consumers have the option to choose the most appropriate teaching and learning environment for their children. A quality education should be provided in whatever environment is chosen.
AIDB believes that making individual placement decisions necessitates weighing options and understanding that a given environment may have advantages and disadvantages for teaching specific skills.
AIDB does not support full inclusion when defined as every child in a regular classroom without regard for the needs of the individual student.
AIDB supports inclusion if it is determined to be the most appropriate placement option based on the individual needs of the child.
AIDB proposes a placement model that would replace the continuum with a circle -- with the child in the middle of the circle surrounded by an array of options. The AIDB model would eliminate the hierarchy of the regular classroom at the top (as the best option) and the residential placement at the bottom (as the worst option). The AIDB model requires that individual needs be identified through a comprehensive, multidisciplinary evaluation and that placement decision is made by choosing from the circle an option that best addresses the individual needs of the child. This model encourages placement decisions that fit the unique needs of the child, instead of forcing the child into a specific placement.
The overriding need today is for service that is relevant to changing social and economic conditions and the highly-scientific and technological forces. Recognizing that each child has unique education and social needs, it is critical that educators design programs to fit the individual needs of the child, rather than fitting the child into an already-designed program.
AIDB takes pride in its ability to tailor services to meet the unique educational and social needs of students who are blind and deaf. Consequently, we believe residential placement at AIDB will continue to be the most appropriate placement option for many of Alabama's children with hearing and vision loss.
But AIDB is also committed to providing technical assistance and other special services to students with vision and hearing loss who are enrolled in Alabama public schools. Our goal is to provide quality services, which will prepare every individual with vision or hearing loss in Alabama to be a fully-functioning person, regardless of where they are placed.
* Mrs. Charlotte Lowry is the current principal of Alabama School for the Blind.
** Mrs. Christy Atkinson is the current principal of the Helen Keller School of Alabama.
*** Dr. T. Alan Hurwitz became the 10th president of Gallaudet University, January 1, 2010.
**** Mr. Paul Millard is the current principal of Alabama School for the Deaf.