Tuesday, February 22, 2005

On raising a child with disabilities, part 6: A problem with special education—concerning the concept of the “least restrictive environment”

Let me start with a definition: The term “mainstreaming,” also know as “inclusion,” refers to the integration of children with disabilities into classes intended for children without disabilities.

First, here’s the good news: Mainstreaming, or inclusion, is much more widely accepted now than it was 30 years ago.

Now, here’s the bad news: Mainstreaming, or inclusion, is much more widely accepted now than it was 30 years ago.

The United States federal (national) government legislation known as IDEA—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—mandates that every child in the United States receive a free education in "the least restrictive environment." The problem with the term “least restrictive environment” is that many people consider it a synonym for mainstreaming. That’s not necessarily the case. Some children with disabilities thrive in the mainstream. Some, like Z’s son, benefit most from a combination of mainstreaming/inclusion and special education. Others, like our son, do best in an exlusively special education environment.

When I was studying American Sign Language roughly two decades ago, one of the major concerns of the American Deaf Community (roughly defined as those deaf people whose primary form of non-written communication is American Sign Language) was that mainstreamed deaf children were very isolated socially. Horror stories were told of mainstreamed deaf kids who had literally never met another deaf person in their lives and/or who’d never met a deaf adult and, therefore, had no deaf role model. The deaf author of one memoir of growing up mainstreamed envied his older sister not because she was hearing, but because she had a social life.

So which environment is more restrictive for a deaf child, a mainstream class or a class for the deaf? Even in this case, one answer may not be correct for every child.



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