Mainstreaming Your Physically Challenged Child
When a physically challenged teen navigates his wheelchair down the halls of his high school, the way in which he reacts with and to other teens can depend a lot on how he got there to begin with. While many think that mainstreaming physically challenged teens to public schools is best, the constraints of time and effort must be taken into effect.
Traditional "mainstreaming" through public schools consists of allowing physically challenged students to be placed in certain regular education classes or activities. While this seems easy enough and is thought to be common practice, the number of mainstreamed teens widely varies.
"The percentage of students who are mainstreamed or included varies from state to state, city to city and town to town," says Anne S. Larkin, Ph.D., professor in the special education division and director of the Say Yes to Education Scholarship Program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. "Some systems are fully committed to the concept, and their goal is to bring children with disabilities into their schools and provide the best services possible for these children. These schools develop excellent in-service and training for their faculty and paraprofessionals to ensure success for all students. However, other systems are being more cautious and sometimes [are] unwilling to include children with special needs and, therefore, their numbers are small and their commitment not as strong, or they will only include children with mild to moderate disabilities."
Mainstreaming vs. Inclusion
Where traditional mainstreaming allows disabled teens to participate in "some" classes and activities, the concept of inclusion allows these same teens to participate in all public education classes and activities.
According to Larkin, this may be an even better option to minimize segregating disabled teens. "Inclusion is bringing students into regular classrooms to be active participants in all the same activities as their peers to the extent possible," she says. "They may be fully included, or partially included, depending on the determination of the IEP team. [An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a specialized agreement between all aspects and personnel including parents, teacher, doctor or other medical professional, principal, school board, etc., to ensure the needs and wants of a person who is physically challenged are being met.] Both mainstreaming and inclusion are common practices in most states. But oftentimes, inclusion offers better options and creates better relationships between the 'included' students and their peers, their teachers and other school staff."
"My son attended a private school for disabled children through fourth grade," says Candy Faith, a human service intake worker in Macon, Georgia. "As he got older, he didn't like being treated different, so we discussed his attending public school. We had options: him attending a special education program at the public school or attending classes from the regular curriculum with the other kids his age. After talking it over and over and over, he decided he wanted to be included in all of it, not mainstreamed. He's still in public school. He's doing very well."
The Main Effects
When mainstreaming and inclusion are done well, it is a wonderful experience for everyone involved. A properly thought out and executed plan for inclusion and/or mainstreaming can result in all parties learning to appreciate differences and to treat everyone with respect and dignity.
"We have learned that if regular education students understand the issues and have been given good information about how to be helpful to the student with special needs, they are very supportive," Larkin says. "Yet, if the transition planning is not carefully monitored, the experience can be very painful, especially for the student with special needs. They can feel quite isolated. This is the exact opposite of what we hope to achieve. This is why we need to prepare everyone."
On Academic Performance
If one believes that all children can learn, then the physically challenged student's academic performance can do nothing but improve in an inclusive setting. However, in order for this to occur, many things must be in place. "For the student to succeed academically, socially and emotionally, there are numerous areas to be addressed," Larkin says. "First, the teachers and specialists must know the child's academic profile, as well as his/her learning style and behavioral issues. Most importantly, they need to carefully observe the student and learn about his/her strengths and always work with the strengths, not the deficits. In addition, teachers, specialists and paraprofessionals must know how to provide adaptations and accommodations to the curriculum, be trained in positive behavioral strategies and should welcome parents as equal and important members of the team."
"One of the most important things my teen's school did when he was transferred from a private setting was include me as a part of the entire education process," says Kathy Patterson, a homemaker from Peoria, Ill. "I am his parent, and no one knows my son better than me – except him. So it is only right that they involve both of us in the preparation, planning and implementation of all aspects of his education. It helped both of us feel a lot better about the whole process."
Why inclusion? According to Larkin, it is what makes us individuals that we should welcome and celebrate. "All of us live in one world and need to welcome diversity," Larkin says. "As our children with special needs become adults, they will be living in our communities, working at different jobs and participating in all the social activities that they have access to. They have a right to live a normal and happy life like everyone else. Why inclusion? ... Because it is right!"