The mythology of bad teachers empowered by entrenched unions is only one part of a national disaster that has crept up on us over recent decades with the passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Meant to provide legal protections for the disabled, the side effects of these laws has been to undercut funding and appropriate learning environments for normal children.
By stating this fact, I am risking a rain of fire from incensed parents of disabled children. These parents have been a primary inciting force of these laws, alongside adults with disabilities, and have ensured federal and state tax dollars will flow into programs that aid the disabled.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 … assures certain protections to certain students with disabilities. §504 states that:
“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . .”. 29 U.S.C. 794(a).
One result of these laws has been the “mainstreaming” of students with disabilities into American public school classrooms. IDEA mandates that students with disabilities receive a “Free and Appropriate Education in the Least Restrictive Environment.” Previously, students with disabilities with conditions such as autism, developmental delay, emotional/behavior disturbance, intellectual disability, orthopedic impairment, learning disability, learning disabilities and speech and language impairment may have been placed in special schools where teachers with specialized training could focus directly on their special needs.
Mainstreaming works for many types of disabled students but does not work so well for many others. School districts face lawsuits from distraught parents if their disabled child is perceived not to be treated “equally” with other students. There’s also a cost factor, with estimates upwards to $100,000 per year per student for a special needs environment, according to one article detailing a situation in Georgia. The risk of lawsuits and soaring costs for special needs education causes school districts to place disabled students into classrooms with “normal” children.
A veteran educator dealing with special needs students for over 30 years in a major metropolitan school district cited one example of the outcome of such policies.
“One of the things we tried was to put her in an art class. She sat there the entire hour voicing this loud moaning cry.” He imitated the sound. “I don’t know how anyone expected her to learn anything. She functioned at the intellectual level of a six-month-old infant.”
What this educator could not quantify was the effect of this person’s behavior on the rest of the class over the eight years this student remained in this secondary level school. Did anyone else learn anything in that art class or was this a wasted hour in their day, an hour when they might have learned how to draw perspective, or blend complimentary colors if not for the loud cries steadily emanating from the severely disabled person in their midst?
What’s been lost in our urge to help those with special needs is the primary mandate of our schools—to educate the next generation of scientists, artists, technicians, educators, workers, and leaders for our nation. The commendable stated objective of the ADA, to make it possible for everyone with a disability to live a life of freedom and equality, is deceptively simple and ignores the reality: people with many types of disability will NEVER be able to live a life of freedom and equality.
This is not something many parents of such children are willing to accept. Many of them believe if their child mingles with regular kids and attends the same classes, they will graduate high school and go on to college. It’s a heartbreaking situation.
In our public policy pursuit of this fantasy, we’re continuing to overlook the collateral damage. Consider one experience of an elementary teacher in a private Christian school in a small Midwestern state. At the start of the 2018 school year, a new student was introduced to her class. Neither parents nor administrators introduced the child to the teacher or explained her needs. Instead, the teacher soon discovered that she would be expected to change the child’s diapers, spoon feed her, and deal with increasingly loud, belligerent, and violent behavior. The teacher’s aide, meant to assist in teaching a class of over 30 young squirmy children, was forced to devote her entire schedule to managing the disabled girl.
“Finally, at the end of the semester,” the teacher remarked, “my documented chronology of abuses by this student forced the administration to contact the parents and the student was removed from the school. I feel like I’ve lost an entire semester with the rest of these kids.”
The decision by a private school to accept ID kids is often a financial one—the school needs the tuition money. Private schools are not under the same federal mandate to mainstream kids with disabilities because they don’t rely on public funding. This helps explain the push to channel tax dollars to private schools and may in part have to do with maintaining the freedom to deny admission to severely disabled students.
Not all disabilities lead to chaos in the classroom. Young people with physical disabilities may require specific desk heights and schools free of stairs, but they can still participate in the learning process alongside non-disabled students. It’s the intellectually disabled who pose the greatest challenge in mainstreaming.
Intellectual Disability (ID), formerly known as mental retardation, is an ongoing and perhaps increasing condition in the U.S. Criteria for ID include an IQ under 70 in addition to deficits in two or more adaptive behaviors that affect everyday, general living although many variables move the determination up or down these markers. Conditions meeting this definition include Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome.
Intellectual disability affects about 2–3% of the general population. Seventy-five to ninety percent of the affected people have mild intellectual disability. Non-syndromic or idiopathic cases account for 30–50% of cases [An idiopathic disease is any disease with an unknown cause or mechanism of apparent spontaneous origin.] About a quarter of cases are caused by a genetic disorder, and about 5% of cases are inherited from a person’s parents. Cases of unknown cause affect about 95 million people as of 2013.
Benefits of mainstreaming for both normal students and disabled students include exposure to diversity. But the majority of benefits are exclusive to the disabled: learning socialization skills, exposure to higher functioning children, and the challenge of competition. This says nothing about any benefit to normal children. As the 30-year veteran put it, “Here we’re spending big chunks of our limited budgets to provide an aide to accompany an ID student all day while spending nothing to assist or promote a kid with 140 IQ.”
The loss to our future society is incalculable.
Of equal concern is the inevitable observation by ID students who compare themselves to the social lives and interactions of normal students. ABC’s ongoing (2015 to present) television program “Born This Way” portrays one aspect of this effect by showcasing high functioning Downs syndrome children who aspire to marriage, stardom, and independent living. Many of the stars of this program are closely assisted by their mothers, leaving a question about what they’ve actually accomplished on their own. At times the program seems exploitative, showcasing anomalous humans for entertainment purposes. Encouraging their expectations for a normal life may ultimately prove cruel.
Before dumping severely disabled children into classrooms with normal students, schools need to ensure that teachers are prepared for the challenge. Many of them are not. Teacher education does not include techniques for changing diapers on physically mature ‘students.’
An estimated 1.8 million of the U.S. population are considered severely disabled, yet many of the disabled youth have parents who struggle to ensure their child’s future is as close to normal as possible. What parent wouldn’t? Yet as observed by one special educator,
“… research also shows that students with disabilities, whether mild or severe, often have poorer social skills and are less accepted by their non-disabled peers. So we have to ask ourselves—who are we really thinking of when we talk about inclusion? Are we thinking of the student with a mild learning disability who may easily blend in and be accepted by their abled peers, or the student with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair and must be fed by a feeding tube, who just may stick out in a mainstream crowd? Speaking from experience, I’ve seen that the best communication skills, motor skills, and social skills are developed when students work alongside peers who are like themselves—peers who share their struggles, who know what it feels like to make huge gains in small steps.”
It’s time to take a fresh look at the ADA and IDEA legislation and come to a new understanding based not only on what parents of disabled children dream for their child but also what is best for the rest of our children and the nation as a whole. The cost burden to schools is enormous. Specially trained aides are required to accompany disabled children through the day, to feed them, change diapers, and physically contain them. School budgets have not increased commensurate to the added expense of adequate staffing for meeting the needs of disabled children, and yet the nation wonders why classroom teachers are buying school supplies out of their own pockets.
Aside from the tremendous cost to taxpayers, there is no real assessment of the cost to teachers, normal students, or society as a whole for these well-intended policies, but it surely is great. Many teachers are leaving the field with its low pay and unexpected demands. Yes, there are lousy teachers out there just as all levels of competence exist in any profession. This isn’t a problem of unions or incompetence—it’s a problem of well-intentioned public policy failing to take the big picture into consideration.
 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Individuals_with_Disabilities_Education_Act#Individualized_Family_Service_Plan_(IFSP) for more details about these laws
 Multiple studies show a direct link between pollution and intellectual disabilities. See, for example, http://www.sci-news.com/medicine/link-air-pollution-intellectual-disabilities-06637.html
 Smith N. Takepart. Op-Ed: An argument against mainstreaming kids with disabilities. A special education teacher shares why she believes students with special needs thrive in schools solely for kids with disabilities. https://www.scoop.it/t/issues-in-special-education
 Approximately fifty percent of the current Medicaid budget pays out to children with disabilities. See https://www.kff.org/medicaid/issue-brief/medicaids-role-for-children-with-special-health-care-needs-a-look-at-eligibility-services-and-spending/