As most parents of children with special education needs have heard, children with disabilities are required, by law, to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) appropriate to meet their needs. The strong preference is that we have our children with special education needs in the same educational setting that they would be in if they did not have disabilities.
This provision of the federal special education laws (now known as IDEA) was a necessary part of the original legislation that parents fought to have passed. Over three decades ago, when the first version of this statute was enacted, kids with disabilities were literally prohibited from attending their public schools entirely.
The issue then was “access” to public schools.
Fast-forward more than thirty years, and while we do have our kids with special needs in our school buildings, we are still fighting to have them properly included once they get there. By “properly included” I do not mean simply placing a child with disabilities in a classroom with virtually no genuine effort to integrate him or her into the general education environment.
School districts often seem to think that “inclusion” happens by osmosis.
It takes more than just sitting a child with disabilities next to a “typical” child for benefit to befall the child with disabilities. What often passes for inclusive education these days is providing a child with a parallel environment within the regular education classroom, rather than seamlessly making that child a member of the class.
The LRE provision of the IDEA insists that school districts provide intensive support to children with special education needs before justifying removal from the mainstream, unless the child clearly requires a more restrictive environment.
And yet, so often I see school districts “give up” on the regular education environment before any real efforts at inclusion are made. I do not suggest that appropriate inclusion is easy; it is not.
It takes a comprehensive plan, willing staff, and administrative support.
But it is worth it. If we do not take the time to provide authentic inclusion, rather than the all too common token mainstreaming that is prevalent in our public schools, then we are not really far from access after all.