Commentary Magazine

Including the Disabled

To the Editor:

As the director of the Office of Special Education Programs, which is charged with implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), I read with great interest Arch Puddington’s “Life With Mark” [May].IDEA is the primary federal legislation that assists states and local school districts in the education of disabled students. While I have read numerous articles written by parents about the education of their disabled children, I found Arch Puddington’s article about his son one of the most touching of these accounts.

As one who has worked on behalf of persons with mental retardation, as a federal official, a former school administrator, and a classroom teacher, I agree with Mr. Puddington that there is much positive that has been derived from the de-institutionalization of persons who are mentally retarded. I also share the view that the results of the movement toward deinstitutionalization of persons with mental illness have not been nearly as successful.

Unfortunately, I believe that Mr. Puddington’s article has mischaracterized my support of the inclusive-education movement as a “moral crusade,” and I feel compelled to respond. From both a personal and professional standpoint, I want to clarify that I believe firmly that although not every disabled student can be educated satisfactorily in regular classes, most students with disabilities should be educated with their nondisabled peers.

Whether an individual like Mark could receive an appropriate education in an inclusive setting or would be better served in a self-contained program simply is not a determination that can be made categorically. First and foremost, IDEA requires that each disabled student’s educational-placement decision be made on an individual basis in light of the student’s unique abilities and needs. The first placement option considered for each disabled student is the regular classroom in the school that the student would attend if not disabled, with appropriate aids and services. In addition, the range of aids and services that can be provided to facilitate the disabled student’s placement in the regular classroom must be thoroughly considered. All too often, despite what is legally required, this individualization does not occur.

It is important for readers to know that there is ample evidence that inclusive education works better for most students, and is far more preferable to segregated educational alternatives, particularly for students with mental retardation. Students with disabilities will one day be adults who, it is hoped, will be living and working in our communities. Inclusive education starting in early childhood and continuing through high school supports the attainment of this goal.

Thomas Hehir
Office of Special Education Programs
Department of Education
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

Arch Puddington touches upon the corruption of the 1975 act mandating public schools to provide “special education” for handicapped youngsters like his son Mark. He speaks of how the definition of “handicapped” has expanded to the point where 17 percent of students in Massachusetts now are categorized as eligible for such services.

Examples of this corruption of laudable intentions occur with frequency at a well-known high school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, famed for its artistically gifted students, where I am employed. We often get calls from middle-class and upper-middle-class parents who demand to have their children evaluated free of charge by our School Based Support Team (SBST) for eligibility for extended-time tests, usually when they are in the 11th grade, the time when College Board testing commences. More often than not we find that these students are high achievers with reading and math scores in the upper deciles. But these parents know their rights, which are that the SBST must evaluate them; these are the same evaluators who are employed to evaluate severely handicapped youngsters like Mark.

The complaints we get from our SBST staff are that the cases described above take up so much time and staff that services to the truly needy are commensurately diminished or delayed. Mr. Puddington is correct in that the funding should not be cut, but that the programs as written should be tightened and reformed.

Frederic Wile
New York City



Arch Puddington writes:

While I appreciate Thomas Hehir’s generous comments, I remain unconvinced of the wisdom of a broad application of the inclusion doctrine, whereby handicapped children, including the mentally retarded, are placed in regular classrooms rather than in separate special-education settings.

As is usually the case with advocates of inclusion, Mr. Hehir emphasizes legal questions and the presumed rights of the handicapped over the much more critical question of whether inclusion is sound educational policy. As for Mr. Hehir’s reference to evidence of inclusion’s success, most accounts in fact stress its shortcomings, problems, and failures, particularly with regard to retarded children who find themselves unable to cope with the material in a regular class or are simply neglected by the regular education teacher.

Mr. Hehir is obviously aware of inclusion’s difficulties; he writes of students whose particular needs are not being met “despite what is legally required.” This kind of language is distressingly reminiscent of the arguments raised by the defenders of an earlier, rights-based, educational experiment: busing for school integration. Busing, it should be recalled, was likewise justified both as a matter of children’s rights and on educational grounds. Officials like Mr. Hehir habitually cited the “ample evidence” that busing was good for the schools—indeed, that busing actually enhanced the quality of education while ensuring social equity. The results, unfortunately, were as many critics predicted: busing failed on all fronts, and actually contributed to the racial isolation within the public schools, the very thing the policy was meant to correct. I fear similar consequences if inclusion were to be imposed along the thoroughgoing lines which many officials seem to favor.

A crucial element missing from the comments of inclusion supporters is any reference to the opinions of disabled children’s parents. Perhaps I should not be surprised on this score. The parents of the disabled have lately emerged as an object of criticism by, among others, conservative educational reformers, who mutter about “pushy” parents as constituting an overly aggressive special-interest lobby. In my experience, however, the parents of the disabled not only are prepared to do battle for their children’s education but have a balanced sense of their children’s abilities, potential, and limitations. Some parents, to be sure, strongly favor inclusion; many more, I suspect, would view inclusion as a threat to their child’s education, psychological well-being, and happiness. These views should be given paramount consideration before the disabled are made the latest victims of dubious educational reform.

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