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How Should the Disabled Be Educated?

The movement toward `inclusion' is sparking controversy among teachers, parents, and education experts

By Laurel Shaper WaltersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 5, 1994


When Mallori Montiel was ready for kindergarten, her parents faced the choice between sending her to a regular school in their district or a special school for students with disabilities.

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``I didn't want to make a wrong decision that would affect her for the rest of her life,'' says Kim Montiel, Mallori's mother. The turning point came when Mallori's early-childhood teacher asked: ``Do you want to teach her to be handicapped or do you want to teach her to be normal?'' Ms. Montiel recalls.

For the past five years, Mallori, now a fourth-grader, has attended regular classes at Wyland Elementary School in a working-class suburb of St. Louis. She rolls her wheelchair into the cafeteria at lunch time and sits with the rest of her class. If there's a school field trip, Mallori goes along. ``It's been absolutely wonderful,'' her mother says.

A civil rights issue

In school districts across the nation, an increasing number of disabled students are sitting in classrooms, eating in lunchrooms, and playing on playgrounds with their peers rather than being isolated in special classrooms or schools with other disabled children.

Of the 5.17 million ``special-needs'' students in American public schools, 35 percent spent at least 80 percent of their time in regular classes, according to the US Department of Education.

Including disabled students in regular classes is a civil rights issue for some advocates. ``People have the right to be with the rest of the community and shouldn't be denied access to it,'' says Douglas Biklen, a professor of education at Syracuse University in New York and author of ``Schooling Without Labels.''

``Clearly, students do more poorly when they feel as though they are not accepted, as though they are outsiders,'' Mr. Biklen says. ``That's really the message of segregated schooling.''

But the movement toward ``inclusion'' is sparking controversy among teachers, parents, and education experts. ``The inclusion forces certainly have some parents on their side who are adamant that they want their kids in regular classes in their neighborhood school,'' says James Kauffman, a professor of special education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. ``But there are other parents, in at least equal numbers, who want their children in special classes or special schools.''

The debate centers around how far to take the concept. Should even the most severely handicapped students be placed in regular classrooms? And should students remain in regular classes all day or be pulled out for special instruction for portions of the day?

Teachers' unions have spoken out against ``full inclusion'' of all students regardless of their disability, calling it a ``budget-cutting device using the fig leaf of altruism.''

When disabled students are ``dumped'' in regular classes without support services, the results can be disastrous for the needy students, regular students, and overwhelmed teachers, union officials say.

``Many districts have used the concept of inclusion to save money,'' says Karen Waldron, a professor of education at Trinity University in San Antonio. ``Inclusion done properly is actually more expensive because you need to hire even more professionals who can go in the regular classroom and make it work.''