Least Restrictive for Whom?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that students with disabilities be educated with non-disabled children to the maximum extent appropriate. That last phrase “to the maximum extent appropriate” is generally ignored or the assumption is made that the more a child with a disability is with plain kids, the more appropriate the placement is. That is very often NOT the case. And seldom is the question asked, most appropriate for whom?
It used to be that whenever families wanted a “more restrictive” placement for their child, i.e. have the child educated in a placement with more students who were like the child with the disability, that request was dismissed out of hand as being too restrictive. Parents were told that children with disabilities had to be educated in the least restrictive environment or LRE.
In fact, our school recently received a request from a public school system to identify 1-2 students who could be returned to an LRE. No mention at all was made of what would be better for the child. The request is all about numbers and how many students will be placed with children who do not have disabilities.
Things may be changing. Courts are stepping in with some common sense. A First Circuit court (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island) has said that placement decisions must consider the child’s needs and not be made by “mechanically choosing the least restrictive environment. While an IEP need not maximize a child’s potential, each child must receive personalized instruction and sufficient support services to benefit educationally”. And the recent Endrew Supreme Court decision has made it clear that the benefit must be substantive and not minimal.
A Fourth Circuit court (South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia) has found that although mainstreaming is preferred, it is inappropriate when a child’s disability “would make it difficult for the child to bridge the disparity in cognitive levels between him and the other students".
One of the big arguments for having children with disabilities with plain kids is that the children with the disabilities would benefit from being with plain kids. Whose idea is that? Look around, I don’t know about you but my friends are birds with similar feathers. I notice that people flock to be with others who have similar socio-economic status, similar political beliefs and similar faith leanings even if the actual faith is different. Left and right wing folk don’t usually hang out in the same nest.
And so it is true for kids with disabilities. They tend to be friends with people who are like they are just like the rest of us birds. We are all more comfortable, rightly or wrongly, with our own flock. That is where we can be most like ourselves. So when people tell me less restrictive it is for children with disabilities to be with kids who don’t have disabilities- I can’t help but ask the question- Least Restrictive for Whom?