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Including children with disabilities at school: good for kids, or good for budgets?

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 3:25 p.m. MST

Devon Adelman (in green shirt) on the night she learned she made the cheerleading squad at Seattle's Nathan Hale High School. Devon, who has Down syndrome, benefits from inclusion in regular school activities.

Susan Adelman

Devon Adelman's life as a student at Seattle's Nathan Hale High School is quite ordinary.

Like almost any other 17-year-old girl, Devon sometimes tries to avoid doing homework. She plays on an intramural basketball team, and she's a member of the cheerleading squad. With her long golden hair, ready smile and "happy-to-be here" attitude, it's easy to imagine Devon as a Nancy Drew-style adventuress busily unraveling neighborhood mysteries. In fact, she inspired such a character in a new mystery novel written by her father, Sean Adelman, "Sam's Top Secret Journal."

While Devon might seem like your average high school student, she's actually quite extraordinary. She was born with Down syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality that causes developmental delays, mild to severe mental retardation and a particular set of facial characteristics. Because of her different ways of learning, of acting — of being — she has endured more than her share of teasing, bullying and being left out.

Devon's joys and heartbreaks have made her parents strong advocates for inclusion of special education students in regular school classrooms, a flashpoint of controversy in schools around the nation. On one side of the debate are people like Devon's parents, Sean and Susan Adelman, who believe children with disabilities benefit from attending school with everyone else — and that their classmates learn important lessons about empathy and acceptance.

A differing viewpoint is held by some education watchdogs, who say the ever-increasing number of special education students in regular classrooms is overwhelming teachers and slowing down the pace of learning for other children. A growing number of parents whose children have disabilities are speaking out against inclusion as a one-size-fits-all solution. Both groups say that the push to place children with disabilities in regular classrooms denies them specialized services they need, and claim that inclusion is about saving money, not about serving kids.

Conflicting voices

One of those voices belongs to Melinda Clayton, a nationally certified disability analyst and licensed psychotherapist in Colorado and Florida.

"The underlying philosophy [of inclusion] is a good one," Clayton said. "We want all members of society to be fully accepted and valued, and to have access to the resources they need in order to live up to their fullest potential. Unfortunately, what sometimes happens, as happened with downsizing mental health institutions in the '80s, is that we don’t have adequate supports in place in order to make the transition a successful one."

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, of 1990 requires public schools to provide services for special education students in the "least restrictive environment conducive to learning." The law requires that children with disabilities be educated with children who are not disabled to the extent that is "appropriate," a word that leaves much open to interpretation. One result has been a rush to include — or mainstream — as many special education students as possible in regular classrooms.

However, schools sometimes fail to provide the needed supports children with disabilities need to succeed, Clayton said, and that sets them up for failure. Children with developmental disabilities often need a full-time aide beside them in regular classrooms if inclusion is to be successful, as well as opportunities for speech therapy, tutoring and other special needs. And, experts say, the type of inclusion must be suited to the child's individual needs. It doesn't always happen that way.

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