By Eric Jager, originally published on LinkedIn, 2/18/15
Mine was a lonely voice in a recent LinkedIn autism group conversation about strategies for including students with disabilities in a mainstream classroom setting. It had been generally accepted in this discussion that “mainstreaming” and “inclusion” should always be the goal in education. It was further established that “segregated” classrooms or schools for the disabled are inferior environments to be avoided whenever possible.
This mindset that inclusive school settings should always be the end-game is not new or confined to discussions on social media. After all, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that students with disabilities should have the opportunity to be educated with non-disabled peers, to the greatest extent appropriate. This is the basis of the concept of the least restrictive environment (LRE). It is commonly accepted that “segregated” and remote education settings are always less desirable because they are always more restrictive and isolating.
I prefer to describe my son’s school environment as “specialized” rather than “segregated” because it is more accurate and doesn’t have an unnecessarily negative connotation.
I watched that LinkedIn conversation on inclusion for about a week, curious to see if there would be any contrarians entering the fray. When I finally made my lonely voice heard and expressed my view that specialized settings were sometimes preferable for students with serious disabilities including my child, I was advised that this thinking was not in the best interest of my child and that it was arguably immoral. This commenter’s child attended a mainstream school because he would be part of mainstream society as an adult. This came from someone who appeared to be a proud and knowledgeable autism advocate. I followed up with my justification—a few of the reasons that I believe that an out-of-district school placement is sometimes the best option to achieve a more mainstream adulthood for a student with autism.
Here are five reasons why I insist on a
segregated specialized school environment for my child:
1) Specialized schools attract specialized staff, with special training to work with students with disabilities.
Our teachers, therapists and administrators are knowledgeable about the IEP process (after all, every student has one). They welcome our input, and are comfortable addressing behavioral challenges which are typical to children on the lower end of the spectrum. As a result, we are spared many of the challenges that in-district parents face when asking for specialized support from school staff. It’s harder to negotiate for anything when the person at the other end of the table can’t easily provide what you want and sees you as a disruptive force.
2)Students with severe autism have an opportunity to learn social skills at their own pace.
Opponents of specialized schools complain that students will not have the opportunity to socialize with typically-developing peers. However, many students with autism need specialized and on-going social skills training to have meaningful and satisfying interactions with other children. My son is using and further developing the social skills he has acquired in the classroom during extracurricular activities which also involve non-disabled peers. The volunteers who assist with our special needs soccer program, for example, are the kind of kids who have the patience to communicate with autistic children in way which will help them to build on existing skills.
3) Staff, students and parents can gain a perspective on inclusion than they can’t get in a mainstream school.
My son’s school serves kids with autism and kids who are classified with “multiple disabilities.” When I first volunteered to help out during the school’s Olympics day, I was struck by the fact that every student was expected and encouraged to participate in each activity. Kids who would never walk, had minimal ability to move their limbs and were capable of little or no communication shot hoops and hit a golf ball with my assistance. My son who is non-verbal and who will never live independently is learning what it means to include peers with even greater challenges. He’s learning about patience and acceptance in the same way as the volunteers at his soccer program.
4) Frequent, coordinated programs to prepare students for public interaction are part of the curriculum.
Mainstream schools and classroom teachers don’t spend lots of time, energy and resources preparing students to independently navigate public settings like supermarkets, banks and movie theaters. As a parent, I can insist my public schools create a program to meet my child’s need with respect to these experiences (maybe with the assistance of an attorney.) Alternatively, I can seek out an environment that prioritizes these experiences as part of the curriculum. For us, this was a no-brainer.
5) An earlier and more comprehensive focus on vocational skills and job training based on the individual student’s skills and interests.
Most mainstream educators, like most of society, believe that students who are severely affected by autism are unemployable. Many specialized schools, however, exist under a mandate to train disabled students for meaningful paid employment post-graduation. My 13 year-old non-verbal son has already received job training and as he moves through his upper grades, his vocational training will be refined based on his interests and demonstrated ability. I could have insisted that his public school provide the vocational training and resources necessary to prepare a non-verbal student with significant behavioral challenges for employment (as some disability advocates would suggest), but it would have been a long, drawn-out battle (which would have consumed lots of time and possibly money)and the results would not have been satisfying.
I have found that there are additional benefits which may go along with a specialized school including a heightened focus on safety and security, low student-staff ratios and the lack of sleepless nights typically associated with fears of bullying.
I do understand that it is difficult to generalize about the benefits of a specialized school setting and that it is not the appropriate environment for all students with a disability. The same can be said of “mainstream” school settings. In the end, we are all just taking a pragmatic approach to achieve the same goal of inclusion.