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Teaching students with intellectual disabilities in regular classrooms: good for kids, or good for budgets?

Some say the practice of mainstreaming students with disabilities in regular classrooms is a controversial subject. Some say it benefits all students; others say it's a cost-cutting trick that denies services.
Some say the practice of mainstreaming students with disabilities in regular classrooms is a controversial subject. Some say it benefits all students; others say it's a cost-cutting trick that denies services.

The practice of mainstreaming students with disabilities in regular classrooms is required by law as long as its "conducive to learning." Some say such inclusiveness benefits all students. Others say its a cost-cutting trick that denies needed services.

The heroine of Sean Adelman's new Nancy Drew-style children's book series is Sam, a middle-grade girl with Down syndrome. "Sam's Top Secret Journal: Book One" takes on issues of bullying and exclusion as Sam and her brother John solve a crime and help a friend escape danger. The things Sam does in the book are based on the abilities of Adelman's own daughter, Dev, who also has Down syndrome.

Adelman, an orthopedic surgeon in Seattle, is an advocate for inclusion of special education students in regular classrooms — a practice often called mainstreaming. In a TEACH magazine article about his new book, Adelman says inclusion of students with disabilities benefits entire student bodies by teaching kids about diversity in the real world and helping them develop empathy.

"Friends must learn to accept one another’s limitations and flaws and to complement one another’s weaknesses by contributing their strengths," Adelman wrote. "Friends also quickly learn that superficial differences are far less important than shared values, trust and humor."

Teaching students with disabilities in regular classrooms is a complicated and controversial subject, however. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990 requires all schools to provide services for children who need special education in the "least restrictive environment conducive to learning." The law requires that children with disabilities be educated with children who are not disabled to the extent that is appropriate. Philosophies and policies for carrying out the law vary, though.

The Special Education Advisor blog defines mainstreaming as "selective placement of special education students in one or more 'regular' education classes." In some schools, mainstreaming of students with disabilities is used only for those classes in which the child has ability to keep up with peers, according to SEA.

Inclusion, the philosophy Adelman prefers, is defined by SEA as "the commitment to educate each child, to the maximum extent appropriate, in the school and classroom he or she would otherwise attend." The philosophy involves bringing support services to the child within the classroom instead of taking the student to the services, and stipulates only that the child will benefit from being in the classroom.

Although IDEA became law more than two decades ago, its implementation remains spotty. A study released last August showed that the New York City Department of Education is making good progress toward reforms that will reverse a longstanding practice of segregating special education students in their own classrooms and schools, the New York Times reported.

What appears at first glimpse to be good progress might not be, according to psychotherapist Melinda Clayton, who practices in Florida and Colorado. In a blog for Yahoo!, Clayton writes that the real motivator behind downsizing special education classrooms by mainstreaming students with disabilities into general education classes is a desire to save money, not an effort to do what's best for students with disabilities.

The cost for specialized services to children with disabilities far outweighs the cost of mainstreaming them into regular classrooms where they are unlikely to receive the specialized services they need, Clayton wrote. She compares the push toward mainstreaming students from special education classes to the 1980s movement to downsize mental health institutes, which resulted in an increase in homelessness because individuals could no long receive needed supports.

Though some children will benefit from inclusion in general education classrooms, many need specialized services specific to their particular mosaic of disabilities and will suffer as a result of not receiving them, she wrote.

"We do a disservice to these children when we cite 'equality' as the reason for removing supports when what we really mean is 'funding,' Clayton wrote. "If we're going to take services away from special populations, let us at least be honest about our reasons for doing so."

The Wisconsin Education Association Council weighed in on special education inclusion's pros — the belief that all students belong together in a regular classroom; and cons — that inclusion is a coercive and prescriptive policy aimed at cutting costs. The council concluded that success with inclusion of students with disabilities can't be undertaken lightly.

"It is critical that any district or building considering more inclusive practices take the time necessary to plan effectively," according to WEAC. "Real inclusion involves restructuring of a school's entire program and requires constant assessment of practices and results. … Constant reflection is necessary if we ever hope to be able to make clear determinations about which specific strategies will help children to become happy, contributing citizens."