Teaching Students with Physical Disabilities
Educating a disabled population that totals approximately 6.8 million in the United States involves not only providing specialized services but also examining common perceptions that both teachers and students hold regarding students with disabilities. The main piece of legislation concerning the education of students with disabilities is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires public schools to provide students with disabilities with free education in a "least restrictive environment." Educators' views on including students with physical disabilities in mainstream classrooms can vary, with some seeing it as a way to improve disabled students' academic outcomes and promote understanding, and others viewing the practice as detrimental to both disabled and non-disabled students.
Keywords Assistive Technology; Disability; Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE); Inclusion; Individualized Education Program (IEP); Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); Least Restrictive Environment (LRE); Mainstreaming; Physical Disability; Related Services; Special Education
In America, over 8.5% of children qualify as disabled according to the guidelines established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, 2006). The federal government mandates that these children receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) within the least restrictive environment (LRE). Educating a disabled population that totals approximately 6.8 million involves not only providing specialized services but also examining common perceptions that both teachers and students hold regarding the physically disabled.
According to a report published in the Congressional Digest ("Updating the Law on Services to Disabled Schoolchildren," 2005), prior to the 1975 passage of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), an estimated one million school-aged children with disabilities were deprived access to public education. In addition, several hundred thousand children with disabilities who were able to attend public schools struggled to learn alongside their non-disabled classmates due to a lack of proper services designed to meet their special needs.
On November 29, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed into law a landmark piece of legislation that would change the course of special education in America. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), had as its overarching goal the education of all children with disabilities within the United States (Davis, 2007). Specific to achieving this goal, the Act required that all disabled children be provided with a "free appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment" (Davis, 2007 ; "Updating the Law on Services to Disabled Schoolchildren," 2005).
Furthermore, the Act included three additional purposes:
• "to assure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents … are protected;
• "to assist States and localities to provide for the education of all children with disabilities; and
• "to assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities" ("Twenty-five years of progress in educating children with disabilities through IDEA," 2005).
To achieve its stated purposes, the Act initially provided that, by 1982, the federal government would fund 40% of the costs of additional expenditures made for special education programs. Over the years, subsequent modifications changed the provision to a maximum rather than a standard of 40%. As a result, the federal government contributes approximately 18% of the cost of special education in America's public schools (Davis, 2007). This law formed the foundation for special education improvements that changed the lives of children with disabilities ("US Department of Education IDEA'97 Overview," 2003). In 1997, the Act was amended and reauthorized for the first time since its original 1975 passage. In 2004, the legislation was again re-authorized, becoming the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA).
In the IDEIA legislation, the federal government defines special education as "specially designed instruction at no cost to parents to meet the unique needs of a child with disability" ("Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004"). Specifically, such education includes "instruction conducted in the classroom, in home, in hospitals, and in other settings; and instruction in physical education" ("Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004"). Furthermore, the IDEIA legislation defines a child with a disability as follows:
a child with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance … orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004).
According to the US Department of Education, while the pre-1997 EAHCA/IDEA legislation represented substantial strides in providing children with disabilities with an adequate public education, shortcomings existed, and in order to ensure fulfillment of the mission of IDEA, amendments were required (IDEA'97 Overview, 2003). Among the specific failures present with pre-1997 IDEA, the Department of Education listed the following:
• Twice as many students with disabilities dropped out of school as compared to students without disabilities
• Many students with disabilities faced limited opportunities to excel due to the fact that they remained without access to the same curriculum and assessments as students without disabilities (IDEA '97 Overview, 2003).
To remedy these shortcomings, the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA outlined a five-fold plan committed to the following:
• "Raising expectations for children with disabilities;
• "Increasing parental involvement in the education of their children;
• "Ensuring that regular education teachers are involved in planning and assessing children's progress;
• "Including children with disabilities in assessment, performance goals, and reports to the public;
• Supporting quality professional development for all personnel who are involved in educating children with disabilities" (IDEA'97 Overview, 2003).
The 1997 reauthorization of IDEA followed by the 2004 updates and subsequent reauthorization of the law now form the basis for educating Americans with disabilities.
Educating a child with a physical disability is a multifaceted undertaking involving not only the provision of special services and the design of Individualized Education Programs, but also attention to the psychological and social factors inherent in integrating a child with a disability into a predominantly non-disabled educational setting. Issues that must be considered include the presupposition of teachers in welcoming handicapped students into their classrooms, the reaction of fellow-students for whom physical disability is not a daily part of their lives, and the reality of needing to adapt existing services or provide additional services in order to give students with disabilities equal access to public education.
Wechsler, Suarez, and McFadden (1975) conducted a study on the attitudes of teachers towards educating students with physical disabilities. The study, released near the same time as the passage of the EAHCA, was in response to a Massachusetts law requiring the integration of students with disabilities into the classroom. Regarding specific types of physical disabilities, the study selected six: heart conditions, asthma, use of crutches or braces, convulsions or seizures, impaired vision, and impaired hearing. Over half of the teachers surveyed indicated complete willingness to have a student with crutches or braces in their classes, and nearly half indicated the same regarding students with heart conditions or asthma. When the disability was more immediately impairing, however, as in the case of vision or hearing problems or convulsions or seizures, teacher willingness dropped to 34 percent, 32 percent, and 27 percent, respectively. When asked if integration was the educational path best suited to children with physical disabilities, a decisive majority of the teachers responded that children with heart conditions, asthma, convulsions or seizures, and crutches or braces should attend regular classes full-time as do non-disabled children. In cases of visual or auditory impairment, however, the response again fell, with only 13% of teachers indicating that these students should participate full-time in a regular classroom learning environment.
A more recent study reported by Idol (2005) in which eight schools were surveyed to determine, among other things, staff perceptions of including students with disabilities in regular classrooms, most of the teachers showed support for inclusion. Furthermore, the teachers believed that inclusion was not only beneficial to the disabled students, but it was also beneficial to the non-disabled students in their classrooms. Idol's study included both physical and mental disabilities.
However, support for integration is not unanimous, and on the opposing side of the issue stand educators who hold...
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