(Guest post by Torrie Bryant – Learn more about Torrie by visiting our Contributors Page)
Ever since the mid 1970’s there’s been a major debate over educational placement for kids with significant special educational needs in the US. Should kids, with disabilities attend specialized schools or should they attend specialized classes housed at a mainstream school, or should they attend grade level classes with various and sundry forms of accommodation? There are no easy answers. No kid is the same. What works well for one kid, may not work well for another kid. Yet, despite that fact, ever since the advent of the mainstreaming law the Ideal Educational Placement has been pushed as solitaire mainstreaming with accommodations from K-12 (with perhaps a few years spent in an Special Needs preschool). There really is little to no discussion about promoting a viable continuim of placement, ranging from a specialized school (which may or may not be residential) to a day school to a regional specialized program to a solitaire placement with accommodations. The focus is Inclusion/Mainstreaming As Much As Possible. Other placements are demonized as “segregated’ or the equalivant of sending a kid to Willowbrook State School. The unspoken attitude is that, with mainstreaming/inclusion the kid with a disability will not “suffer” from being “segregated” at a special needs school/program, and that they will be able to experience ALL the typical white picket fence experiences of childhood, if they attend an inclusion/mainstream educational setting. It sounds good, and there are some kids who actually thrive (meaning they may not even have social-emotional issues,common to many if not most special ed kids) in such a setting.
But overall the kids who thrive tend to be the type of kid who simply need some relatively mild accommodations, to access the curriculum. They tend to be the type of kid who probably would have succeeded in the mainstream even before mainstreaming became popular. That’s awesome for them, and it’s good that public schools cannot legally deny those students a place, as they could before the mainstreaming law.
Before mainstreaming it wasn’t that unusual for public schools (especially in rural or areas with not a lot of resources) to basically tell students with low incidence disabilities “ We can’t serve you. Go to the state Deaf or Blind (or other specialized) School”.
One thing that pro mainstream advocates (who hypothesize that mainstreaming/inclusion will mean a much better education) seem to completely miss is that there still is special ed in public schools. Simply sending a deaf or hard of hearing, or blind/low vision or kid with whatever low incidence disability to The Local Neighborhood School, doesn’t automatically mean that they will be able to access the curriculum. Most of the time all a neighborhood school can offer is a Resource Room type of education, with teachers who while they may be expert at educating kids with learning disabilties, ADD and other relatively high incidence conditions don’t have a whole lot of training in how to teach kids with lower incidence disabilities. In other words, public special ed tends to take a “one room schoolhouse” approach to educating kids with disabilities. So low incidence kids get lumped in with kids who are in the resource room/sped because it is a dumping ground. They may just get minimal accommodations. If they do not succeed with minimal accommodations, they’ll suffer and fall through the cracks majorly. I know of many horror stories. I know of a hard of hearing student who thinks she got a better education by being mainstreamed. Yet she cannot even write a coherent sentence, and constantly misunderstands what she reads. She never even got traditional resource room support, and as a matter of fact, did not even get support from a teacher of the deaf, until she was a junior in high school. Then I know of mainstreamed students with severe expressive language disorders who cannot even write something as simple as ‘The dog can run.”, without using proper syntax or grammar. If they had attended a school that had a specialized program for students with severe expressive language disorders, they might have done much better. I know of countless falling through the cracks b/c of inclusion horror stories. The unspoken attitude (in the mainstream) is that “Oh, just pass this kid along and they’ll just end up on disability.” Unfortunately, there are still severe low expectations in the mainstream. Even the kids who are smart but receive sped support or take a mix of sped/regular classes can deal with this attitude. I was the type of student who took not one but TWO foreign languages. Yet the unspoken attitude because I did not succeed with a minimal accommodations approach, was that I wasn’t even going to go to college. I can also remember being in a Honors Latin class. Let me repeat that. A Honors Latin class, and being asked if I was going to a special school after graduation?!?!?! Students with low incidence conditions,(ie hearing loss, sight loss and others) also do not have real access to well trained teachers, and often may be the only kid with their type of disability in their school, or even their entire school district.
As a matter of fact, a school district can legally give kids with disabilities a minimal accommodations eduction and still be said to be legally in the “safe zone” of giving a kid a FAPE. For example, a mainstream school could legally give a hard of hearing kid, the traditional minimal dhh (deaf and hard of hearing) triad of, speech therapy , FM device usage, and a note taker. (and if the district is REALLY generous a teacher of the Deaf, who usually just sees the student briefly. ). The kid would just have to be barely passing their classes (and in some cases might just be socially promoted) They would also be pulled out for things like speech therapy or Teacher of the Deaf time, or other specialized things (which in turn means that they would miss in-class time).
Whereas at a School or a program for the Deaf, the kid could take advantage of an all inclusive specially designed curriculum, built in specialized things (like speech therapy/auditory training/ additional tutoring in ASL) access to well trained teachers of the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing peers, which would translate into a better social life, and thus better social-emotional development. (social issues are a MAJOR problem, among mainstreamed oral and signing kids alike. It is a perenial topic at the Clarke School for the Deaf’s Annual Mainstreaming conference). They could finally be the smart kids, instead of victims of educational neglect. Their parents would no longer have to fight clueless special ed administrators/teachers who scream and fight any out of the box suggestion as “ too expensive” or “ you’re trying to get a private school education out of a public school”. Imagine an IEP where there was little to no fuss about accommodations. Imagine a school where teachers were well trained in Deaf Ed, or Blind Ed, or intellectual disability education or whatever low incidence disability education. Instead of fifteen or twenty minutes of “supplemental pullout time”, kids would be taught the skills they needed, and it would be built into the school day. Like instead of one on one time (amounting to a once a week visit) with a teacher of the blind, where a blind/low vision student would get fifteen minutes of Braille or blindness skills, the student would instead get a set up such as academic classes (and the option of taking selected mainstream classes, through a school that actually is experienced with teaching blind/.low vision students), and classes specifically for things like O&M, and Braille literacy. Some students could even get REAL skilled vocational training (meaning something beyond training to be a bagger at a supermarket or other “vocational” training that would only prepare them for extremely low skilled jobs. Some of the deaf residential schools actually offer skilled vocational training such as automotive repair or what have you.
The latest pro inclusion rhetoric paints mainstreaming as some sort of innovative educational path. It is not, and has not been truly innovative for at least 25 years. It WAS initially an innovative path, but that is because students who’d had the advantage of a few years at deaf school or blind school or other specialized schools were being mainstreamed. Those students had the advantages of specialized skill training, as well as having had a social skill network from their specialized schools. Meaning they’d had exposure to other kids like them, as well as the advantage of an alumni network, that they could use to draw on to network for jobs. The experts thought “If these kids are doing so well, might as well mainstream them ASAP! Imagine the achievement levels THEN!” So the experts pushed a “disabled students have the right to grow up in typical listening/sighted/fill in the blank environments“ mentality.. They can do SO much better and not be “segregated”. They pushed the opinion that specialized classes equated with “segregation.”, without realizing that most mainstream teachers tend not to have the specialized training to teach very specialized skills. The gross majority of kids with disabilities (and that means all kinds, from sensory to cognitive to emotional to what have you) HAVE been mainstreamed, for decades now. According to inclusion/mainstream theory, that should mean that special ed kids should be achieving at a par with their nondisabled peers. Most sped students do not have cognitive challenges. Yet, when standardized test results come out, sped students tend to have low levels of achievement. There’s still huge levels of unemployment, as well as kids getting certificates of attendance, instead of diplomas. To give just one example, back in the old days before mainstreaming became the norm, deaf white males were employed at a higher rate then the white male population in general. Now unemployment in the deaf community is sky high. That may be because when mainstreaming became popular, it broke the back of the ability of dhh students, to network and find dhh friendly employers. Now, with prejudicated potential employers it can be extremely hard to even break into the job market. Take a deaf/hard of hearing job seeker, with a “deaf” accent. Not neccasarily a very difficult to understand voice, but simply an obviously “deaf” accent. Think the way Marlee Matlin or Heather Whitestone speak. Unfortunately, a lot of uneducated people (including people who are in charge of hiring decisions for the job market) may hear the deaf accent, and wrongly assume that the job seeker is mentally disabled or otherwise incapable.
It also ignores the fact that in the past few years American mainstream education has become very college prepatory. There really isn’t a lot of educational programming out there for kids (both with and without disabilities) who simply want to enter the skilled job market after graduation. The blue collar job market has shrunk immensely in the past 20 years. Most mainstream educational programming, focuses on advanced academics.(ie this school has 7 AP classes!) There’s no real training in teaching kids actual job skills. And this isn’t just a problem with kids with disabilities. The job market is glutted with people who are “well educated” but are struggling desperately to find a job. Barbra Ehrienrich wrote a whole book, Bait & Switch about that. It does seem like kids with disabilities can do decently being mainstreamed in the early years of elementary, but then start having major issues as things get harder or more academic. As a matter of fact, as recently as 10 years ago, it was very common for oral deaf kids to do well initially but then transfer to the oral deaf dorm schools (like Clarke, Central Institute for the Deaf and others) for middle school.
Inclusion/mainstreaming also seems to brush under the rug, the fact that kids with disabilities tend to have major social-emotional issues. They struggle so much with trying to survive academically with a minimal accommodations approach, that they don’t really have a lot of energy to expend on the ins and outs of social emotional interaction. Not to mention, that they do not have the energy to pick up on incidental learning. Most learning in school, isn’t of the “sitting in the classroom listening to the teacher.” type. Most school learning is incidental, and most kids with disabilities do not have access to the ins and outs of incidental learning. That is the same with social/friendship issues. Early on, it doesn’t seem all that bad, as friendships in early elementary tend to be of the “ You like that thing? I like this thing! We’ll be best friends!” Parents are agog that their deaf/blind/whatever disability kid is PLAYING and interacting with the “normal” kids, missing that the interaction usually tends to be kind of superficial. However, as time goes on, things get worse. Kids with disabilities don’t get invited to the birthday parties, to hang out after school, to hang out on the playground, they don’t tend to be very popular. They tend to miss out on a more then superficial experience of “friendship” Unless a kid is lucky enough to attend a regional disability program or attend school in a very diverse accepting suburb, friendships in the mainstream seem to dissipate. Especially around middle and high school. It can be really bad. To the point where if a lot of mainstreamed kids had the equitant family life, everyone would be saying that their family life was strongly emotionally dysfunctional, and the authorities would be called in. Heck, recently in the news there’s been a plethora of articles and stories about bullying….sadly it is all too common for kids with disabilities to experience bullying and or severe social isolation. In fact it can be the norm.
School seems to be the base of where kids learn about social emotional interaction. Countless number of disabled kids who have experienced inclusion/mainstreaming, over the years have reported that they don’t have access to “real” friendships. Even the kids who do well academically, very often have significant social issues. (and they are severe and beyond just being “that unpopular kid”) They have no “real” friends. They may have one or two people to interact with superficially, but overall they tend not to be exactly too popular….and forget about having a boyfriend or a girlfriend. They may know how to superficially make a “friend“, (Oh these people are SUPER nice so that means they are automatically my friend) but they do not know about the sophisticated ins and outs of a real healthy relationship. Therefore, they are so lonely that they end up in really horrible relationships (both romantic and social) But they think they are great b/c it’s much better then being alone. I know of countless horror stories….such as a hard of hearing mainstreamed woman who was in an emotionally abusive relationship with a drug abuser. But she stayed in the relationship because she thought that love was blind and he could be SO sweet. Then again, I know another case where, again a woman who had significant social emotional issues due to being mainstreamed has a “boyfriend” who doesn’t even like talking to her when they hang out?!?! Had these two women been able to attend a dhh program or school, their social ability and experiences would be a LOT better.
Compare this with the social experience at a specialized school. There tends to be a sizable group of peers to hang out with and interact. Kids have real friendships and are an active part of a real community, rather then simply existing on the edge of a community. These are friendships that last years if not decades. There is a reason why homecoming at Deaf Schools is such a huge deal…..and there are usually alum from 50 plus years ago at those gatherings. You would never see that sort of thing at a mainstream school (except maybe one that had a strong dhh program). This sort of thing is not just limited to Deaf Schools. Read the alumni newsletter of the NY State School for the Blind, and there are stories of people celebrating their 80th birthdays with their school friends. Again, not something you would ever see at a mainstream school or college. On the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School Alumni site, they comment on the sorry state of social emotional development, that many mainstreamed blind and low vision kids experience. The alums say that at gatherings where products of mainstream schools and blind school alums congregate, they hear the same stories “ Gee that sounds great. I wish I had known about that.” and “ What friends? I didn’t have any real friends. Standing as part of the scenery is not the same as what you have told us about your school.” Poor social emotional development is a very real problem, and is very often brushed under the rug as a problem. It is painted as “ Oh it’s not really a big problem. It’s just a part of mainstreaming. They’ll get better social skills once they graduate.” Unfortunately social skill issues tend to plague a lot of kids throughout adulthood. That is an area of concern, as social skills are extremely important in getting a job. A kid could be a double major in something, and graduate with high honors. But if they don’t even have the ability to interact socially,(especially on a more then superficial level) they will have a very poor chance of being competitively employed. That’s even without the built in prejudice that a lot of job seekers with more obvious disabilities face. Not to mention that poor social skills can and do lead to things like people getting into horrible life relationships or having few or no friends, or even misinterpreting the friendliness of a teacher or just a normally friendly person as “OMG they’re my BEST friend.” and pretty much bombarding them with too much attention, which in turn some might see as almost obsessed/ criminal. In other words having the disadvantage of poor social skills, (due to falling through the cracks) can translate into more global life impacts, then just being not too popular in school.
I am a product of American mainstream/inclusion education (the 80‘s and 90‘s) . I experienced the problems and downsides, and none of the theorized “upsides”. On paper, I probably would have been the perfect candidate for mainstreaming, even before 1974. I attended a special needs preschool, (since I had low muscle tone and a significant spoken language delay due to being hard of hearing) and caught up rapidly. I was first mainstreamed in kindergarten. As a matter of fact, when I was three or four, I somehow taught myself to read. (this was after I had only been in hearing aids for a few months or a year) Kindergarten was pretty easy. But around first or second grade the real problems started to crop up. I was lucky enough to not have any language deficits. About the only special education available was the Resource Room. Meaning one of the set ups where generic special ed teachers taught kids with ADD,LD and other high incidence disabilities. I was in the resource room for handwriting, spelling and math. For support services I got the dhh triad of sitting in front of the room, a body worn auditory trainer (complete with harness) and speech therapy. I am surprised I even got that much. I remember during an IEP meeting, one of the admins telling my parents that “I wasn’t really deaf” so the school didn’t have to provide all that much?!?!. I did OK early on, except for thinking I was the only kid in the universe who had to wear hearing aids, as well as the severe social issues of not really fitting in. I attended a very cookie cutter suburban elementary school, with not a lot of diversity. So I tended to be the target of bullying. I would get tacks on my chair, and very mean phone calls, as well as having to deal with severe social isolation, due to being the “different” kid. Although I do clearly remember sitting in my second grade classroom staring at a worksheet about sylabul and long and short vowel sounds, and being completely puzzled as to how I was supposed to figure something sound related out. I was also completely lost in music class. I could hear the music but had no idea what a quarter note was, or how to read music. That would have been like asking a blind/low vision kid to understand the concept of regular print (without using Braille or large print).
However, academics began to get harder around fourth grade. Although I didn’t hit the oral deaf “fourth grade ceiling”, I STILL began to have issues academically. About the only difference was that I put my foot down and refused to wear the auditory trainer any more. Then came the nightmare of junior high school. Again I was just plunked in the front row, expected to learn like a hearing kid, instead of a deaf kid. Social issues were HORRIBLE. Imagine the typical middle/school junior high. Even kids without disabilities struggle socially then . It’s the era of Mean Girls and Reviving Ophelia, the time of severe cliques. One thing I remember in junior high, is receiving an obscene letter. My parents tried to handle it through the schools, but the attitude was that “boys will be boys. It was just an innocent prank. The feelings of that freaky sped kid doesn’t really matter.” Again, I was the smart kid, but because the sped support services were so bad, and the special ed admins and staff so clueless about how to teach a low incidence disability kid. I was completely and utterly overwhelmed with things like preparing research papers, and translating what I knew to practice. The staff even objected when I wanted to attend an outdoor survival program that happened in 7th grade. ( I was the first kid with a disability to do it.) The only good thing about junior high, was the end of it. High school was a nightmare. I got blamed for underachieving, when in fact, I was drowning in a sea of very poor accommodations. Socially it was horrible. I was stereotyped as mentally handicapped, and made fun of and ostracized. I even had my bike stolen, simply because it was mine!!!!!! One time I was out walking around, and some boys cruising in their car, told me I sucked. Again, the social experience impacted my school work. I spent many days wishing I could do something or that there was another alternative to high school. I had absolutely zero friends. I took mostly academic level classes with a special ed math class and study hall.
I barely graduated, and barely got into college. It was a nightmare that NO kid with a disability should have to go through. Yet there are still many many students (with all sorts of disabilities) who are miserable and not being adequately served/educated in the mainstream. Why do we continue to think that inclusion/mainstreaming is so innovative, and THE ANSWER? Maybe we need to rediscover the fact that what works for one student, may not work for another. Because of that the best educational policy is offering a viable continuim of placement, ranging from residential schools to day programs to self contained classrooms and even solotaire mainstreaming with minimal accommodations.
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