By Ethan Krupp
There is no special grocery store, or a special library, or a special clothing store. But there is “special education.”
Historically, special education classrooms are for students with different developmental disabilities with curriculums catered to individual needs. In this piece, Wisconsin officials and parents consider how the state has fared in its inclusion of children with special needs into the general-education classroom as part of a curricula strategy and what changes might make the situation ideal.
While new studies change the landscape of special education, the baseline idea has remained consistent, and is outlined by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction: to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education.
Special education teacher and recent UW-Madison graduate Jenny Sanger said, in a perfect world, special education would be much less special.
“It should just be included in general education studies,” Sanger said. “All teachers should know how to help special education students, not just the more trained teachers.”
It’s the critical problem facing special education advocates today: Should special education stay completely isolated, completely integrated into the general education curriculum, or responsibly combine the two?
Two current strategies in special education are mainstreaming and inclusion, according to Beth Swedeen, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities (WBPDD).
If a special education student is mainstreamed into a general education classroom, he or she must meet the standard at which the class moves, meaning the student can keep up with the class. By comparison, inclusion means that a general education classroom will meet all students’ educational needs, including Special Education students.
Mainstreaming is a much older practice, first introduced in the late 1980’s, compared to inclusion, which was introduced more recently into Special Education curriculums, according to Swedeen.
Kate Coffin, a UW-Madison senior from Stoughton, Wis., has a brother, Brad, who was diagnosed with mental retardation as a 4-year-old. In elementary school, Brad learned in general education classrooms, but in junior high school and beyond, his learning experience was more focused in the special education classroom — away from general education students.
“He had so many healthy relationships with students in regular classrooms, so it was really sad when he wasn’t in class with them anymore,” Coffin said. “It was an important relationship not only for Brad, but also for general education kids as well.
“People still ask me, ‘How’s Brad? What’s he up to now?’ They definitely missed him in class.”
Although Coffin would have preferred to see more inclusion in Brad’s curriculum, she feels grateful for his high school experience.
In Wisconsin, families of special education students can opt to have that student remain in a high school until he or she turns 21, which is what happened to Brad. His curriculum focused on life skills and vocational tasks, including how to clean, do laundry, stuff envelopes, and other home-economic type classes, according to Coffin.
Now, Brad works as an administration assistant and does janitorial work at Stoughton High School.
“Dane County has been great to my family and my brother by providing him with work after school and beyond,” Coffin said. “He feels like a productive member of society, which is the most important thing.”
Dane County, and specifically Madison is on the forefront of special education advocacy and research. In an article published in the New York Times in August of 2010, nationally, about 12 percent of students are identified as disabled, but in the Madison school district, 17.5 perfect are identified as disabled.
The same article said it costs the Madison School District $23,000 to educate a child with autism versus $12,000 for a general education student. But UW Professor Colleen Capper said inclusion of autistic students is cheaper than segregation.
A main reason Madison is considered one of the top three cities in the country to successfully implement inclusion is due to The Waisman Center, an organization which conducts research through UW-Madison.
According to its website, The Waisman Center aims to focus on “Advancing and disseminating knowledge about developmental disabilities and neurodegenerative diseases.”
The Waisman Center’s four main focuses include researching the biological and behavioral elements of developmental disabilities, providing services to those with disabilities and their families, training students and post-doctoral fellows to become researchers and clinical doctors, and reaching out to the community through various mediums including a Children’s Theatre for those with disabilities.
Dr. Joan Ershler, Director of the Waisman Early Childhood Program, explains how she believes inclusion works:
“In each classroom, there will be a regular early childhood ed teacher, and someone who is an early special-ed teacher, or someone who has had a lot of experience working with children with special needs. So inclusion follows a team teaching approach. We don’t have lead teachers. We just have teaching teams, and that supports inclusion, because all the teachers are responsible for all the children.”
According to Ershler, this method of inclusion means that the special education teachers are not just working with the special-ed students, but providing insight on how to include everyone in different activities. Similarly, the general education teacher will see each student as a child first, and not someone defined by his or her disability.
“If teachers really stick to the beliefs that everyone should participate in some way in every activity, then you should make sure that when planning activities that there are different ways that different children can show you what they know,” Ershler said.
The Waisman Center, along with organizations like WBPDD and Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP) provide special education advocacy to both the classroom and the community.
According to a January Huffington Post article, the American Psychiatric Association’s fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in May 2013 will include a new definition of autism, leaving many wondering whether the new standard will exclude people from a diagnosis and state services provided for those with autism.
Wisconsin is one of three states in the country with a Children’s Long-Term Care Waiver, which covers intensive in-home autism services, or a similar type of disability, according to Swedeen.
This means that families with a child who has autism have the opportunity for a therapist to visit their home up to 40 hours a week. Families are worried they will not be eligible for that service, if the definition of autism changes drastically, especially families with a recently diagnosed child who are looking for support.
“Families who have the ability to relocate really look at Madison because of these services,” Swedeen said.
The landscape of special education changes frequently varies for each child. For some children, full inclusion is appropriate, while others may need a responsible version of inclusion, according to UW-Madison student and Special Education major Morgan Cox.
“It’s not responsible to have full inclusion for each student,” Cox said. “Some need different types of attention and need to learn different skills. But it’s important all students are together in a classroom.”
Cox added that as a co-teacher, she has the ability to help all students.
“I see a child who wants to learn, not someone who is disabled. Responsible inclusion is the best way to make everyone feel that way,” Cox said.
For right now, inclusion is the leading practice in special education, but researchers and teachers will continue to find new ways to find new ways to meet all students’ educational needs.
“School is designed to prepare kids for life,” said Swedeen. “If we’re not preparing kids to interact with each other, to learn with each other, they’re not going to be prepared to interact and do things together in life.”