What Is The “Least Restrictive environment” for Physically Disabled Students?

In Everyone has one, Opinion by Cara Liebowitz

A physically disabled child is never on equal terms with his or her able-bodied peers. The other children are always able to do things that the physically disabled child cannot in the classroom: for instance, write with a pencil or pen.

I realize, of course, that Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are designed to bridge this gap, however, the IEPs do not cover the little things that a child with physical disabilities is unable to do. It only focuses on the big picture and not the small. When a child gets frustrated because he or she takes twice as long to do science labs as the rest of the children, that is restricting. When, day in and day out, a child’s legs are sore because they are being shoved under tables that cannot fit their wheelchair, that is restricting.

Any time a child is not being provided an equal opportunity with their able-bodied peers, however unintentional the mistreatment may be, it is still restricting the child’s ability to learn. Even if IEPs are designed to correct these issues, once the child is actually in the classroom, the IEP is tossed away as easily as a used tissue.

Teachers are busy, too busy to take the time to read a child’s IEP and make note of the accommodations listed. Even if the teacher actually reads the IEP, in the hustle and bustle of the classroom, they tend to forget. Sometimes they don’t even realize that a child is struggling. For instance, a child has on their IEP that a teacher must be with them at all times during a fire drill so that they don’t get trampled in the crowd.

However, when it comes down to the actual drill, the teacher understandably forgets as they try and get out of the building. This is not only restricting the child, it is downright dangerous.

In theory, the IEP is the solution to all our problems. In practice, it is merely a vague stirring in the back of a harried teacher’s mind, or a meaningless piece of paper sitting on their desk. So the child is being restricted, not by their disability, but by the staff and others who violate IEPs, or who don’t make an effort to see that the child is provided an equal opportunity as the rest of the children.

Even if a child appears to be “doing fine” in their current educational setting, there still can be restricting factors that hinder their academic potential, and these factors may or may not be easily correctable with time, effort, and money.

IDEA and Section 504 state that children with disabilities are entitled, just like every other child, to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). A FAPE, according to the U.S Supreme Court, is “…personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction.”

However, the writers of IDEA and Section 504, and the Supreme Court, fail to acknowledge the theory of the “whole child”. This focuses on all aspects of a child: educational, medical, social, etc. Even if a child is in the “least restrictive environment” for them academically, this may not be the case socially.

This is especially true in middle and high school, where children form exclusive groups and cliques. When a child has an aide following them around all day, it hinders social contact. Not many children at that age are comfortable enough with themselves and their peers to talk freely when there is an adult around, even if the adult is a little ways away.

Therefore, the child is either ignored or shunned from the group, viewed as an oddity. The child then spends his or her days with no friends and extremely lonely. They may even be bullied, whether it is verbally or physically. In this way you are hindering the child’s social growth.

Inclusion, like so many other topics discussed in this editorial, is a great idea on the surface. However, if the child is not happy in their mainstreamed environment, but is doing well on tests, then is the inclusive environment really the solution for them?

Ultimately, the “least restrictive environment” overall may be segregation in special education classes, or, in the case of the physically disabled student, a different school geared towards physically challenged children.

Do not be afraid of the word segregation! There is such a stigma attached to that word, when, really, segregation may be the best option for a child’s well-being and for preserving their self-esteem. There, a child will not face the daily barriers that they face in a mainstreamed environment: whether it is academic, physical, or social.

The child will perform better academically when it is truly a level playing field, with other kids that face the same or similar challenges.

Schools specially geared towards accessibility will be much more freeing than a school that only has accessible doors in the back, and a rickety old freight elevator that’s barely big enough for one wheelchair, let alone two. Ultimately, a child will have a better social experience as well.

Segregation with other physically disabled students allows the child the chance to participate in activities that he or she could never do before. This leads to new social contact. In a place where wheelchairs and crutches are the norm, nobody is afraid of the girl in the wheelchair, and nobody will make fun of her for it. In essence, inclusion is not the excellent idea everybody seems to think it is.

I feel very strongly about this topic. In my own years in the inclusion system I have encountered countless barriers, physically, academically, and socially that restrict my environment. On numerous occasions these experiences have damaged my self-esteem and the overall tone of going to school. Every year, it seems, a new issue has arisen, whether it’s a teacher violating the IEP, a battle to be free of my aide, or just plain making friends.

All the aspects of school for me are influenced by my disability. I believe that in order to truly have the “least restrictive environment” major changes need to be made to our pre-existing laws. These new laws need to focus on not only a child’s academic needs, but also their needs socially. They also need to make sure that there is some way the IEP is followed, and that regular education teachers actually read the IEP.

Also, the IEP is not the be all and end all. The teachers need to go beyond the IEP to make sure that the child is getting the same education and experiences as their able-bodied peers-even if it’s not given in the exact same way. Only then will we truly have a “least restricting environment”.

Email us at nathasha@audacitymagazine.com for your questions or comments.