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Classroom placement decision importantcomment (0)

April 13, 2000

By By Alice L. Elmore


Thirty years ago, they were often spoken of in hushed tones, if at all. The doors of public schools were frequently closed to them, and they sometimes were met with stares when they went to the grocery store or anywhere else for that matter.

Race was not their common bond; neither was gender or social standing. Members of this group encompassed all demographics, but were frequently shun­ned almost everywhere they turned. Fortunately, this was not a permanent fate for Alabama’s children with disabilities.

“It was quite a struggle many years ago. Things have drastically changed,” said Bess Hatcher, an advocate for people with special needs in the Birmingham area. Her adult son Steve has Down Syndrome and

en­tered Alabama’s public school system as the special education program began to develop.

“At the time of Steve’s birth, school was not mandatory for the disabled,” Hatcher said.

So Steve — at the age of five — was enrolled in the Pigman Center, formerly the Opportunity Center, the first kindergarten class for children with special needs. At the time, private programs, such as Pigman Center, were one of only a few educational options available to exceptional children.

“We were told when Steve was born to put him in an institution. We were told that he would never read,” Hatcher said. “They didn’t think this type child could work.”

Steve began attending Edgewood Elementary School in Homewood after leaving the Pigman Center at age nine. From there, he went to Green Valley Middle School and then on to Berry High School as a part of the school’s first class of students with special needs.

Steve took typical classes in high school such as drivers’ education, art and history. While special education classes and traditional curriculum took up a portion of his day, Steve also spent time at a vocational school. His senior year, he was part of a regular homeroom.

“I never was sure if he interacted with the other kids in his homeroom,” Hatcher said.

That question may have been answered when Steve celebrated his birthday in May as his class was nearing graduation. Steve came home with a huge handmade birthday card signed by each person in his homeroom.

Now 38, he lives independently in an apartment. Every morning, he drives to Montclair Hospital, where he has worked for 15 years in the food service division.

“He reads books and really enjoys reading the newspaper,” Hatcher said. “He can be taught everything, just at a slower pace.”

Unfortunately, this concept wasn’t completely acknowledged by the nation’s public school systems until the early 1970s. Today, parents of children with special needs may find it hard to fathom the limited opportunities their children may have had in years past.

Fortunately for these children and the almost 50 million Americans with mental and physical disabilities there are few areas of law developing more rapidly than that of special education.

Thanks to federal legislation known as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), each child in Ala­bama is entitled to what is termed as a free and appropriate public education.

IDEA was developed as a result of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects the civil rights of people with mental and physical disabilities. IDEA both requires and insures states provide a free and appropriate public education to every child.

Special education has continued to develop and progress since IDEA came to fruition.

Children with special needs were initially housed separately, often in trailers or school basements. Early on, these children were rarely grouped according to their individual needs or ages and almost never given the opportunity to participate in regular classroom activities.

“The classes were (separate from the other classes), but no one seemed to mind . Most parents were just so glad their children were finally getting the education services that were appropriate or that they so desperately needed,” said Cindy Wester, an early childhood special educator at Vestavia Elementary School East.

Wester’s 22-year-old daughter Becky has spina bifida and began school in a self-contained special education kindergarten class in the early 1980s.

With time, the philosophy developed that self-contained classrooms did not constitute the most appropriate education for every child with special needs. Parents and educators began considering the benefits of inclusion, including most special education students in regular classroom environments with aids and support whenever possible.

While inclusion is not a requirement set by IDEA (it isn’t even mentioned in the legislation), the law does mandate that children must receive services in the least restrictive environment.

As their daughter got older, the Westers supported this notion. They felt strongly Becky would benefit from being in a regular classroom that provided special accommodations as they were needed. Becky remained in the regular curriculum for the next 12 years, graduating with a regular diploma in 1996 from Vestavia Hills High School.

“I have found inclusion to be both socially and academically beneficial for most children with special needs,” Wester said. “It provides positive role models for children with special needs and helps typical students respect individual differences.”

However, as both Wester and education professor David Finn point out, full inclusion is not appropriate for every child.

Placement (in a regular classroom) is the last decision that should be made,” said Finn, an associate professor at Samford and director of the Children’s Learning Center. “A child’s skills, functionality should be determined first, along with the goals and benchmarks the school intends to help the child reach.”

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