In 2017, what qualifies as the "Least Restrictive Environment" for SPED Students?

More than 40 years after the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) guaranteed the right of students with disabilities to free and appropriate public education in the ‘least restrictive environment’, more than half of the students who are classified as having an intellectual disability are educated in classrooms segregated from their non-disabled peers.  In 2017, is this necessary? Is it even ethical? I don't believe so. 

Permitting students with disabilities to attend the same school or study in the same classroom with their non-disabled peers was a giant step forward in protecting the civil right of all Americans. It’s now time to reconsider our responsibilities to students with disabilities given the affordances of digital technologies that were not available when IDEA was first passed.  In 2017, let’s raise the bar from providing the ‘least restrictive’ environment to providing the ‘most inclusive’ environment.  I define ‘most inclusive’ as enabling students with disabilities to be educated in a manner that maximizes their learning gains while minimizing barriers to direct engagement with their teachers and peers.  To put it more simply, to help students with disabilities students they belong.

How do we make our classrooms more inclusive?

Schools can help all students ‘fit in’ and succeed by embracing digital curricula that (1) adapts instructional content to meet the student’s learning needs and (2) provides the teacher with guidance on how to respond to each student’s needs. I created Books That Grow for this specific purpose.  Using our platform, a teacher can assign one text to a class, and every student will see the ‘same’ text presented differently, based on their individual reading ability.  Now, a student with a reading disability can sit alongside his or her non-disabled peers, discreetly read a modified version of the text, and join in the class discussion.  Inclusion means having the choice to be like everyone else.

Inclusion is academically beneficial for both disabled and non-disabled students

There is a growing body of evidence to support that inclusion is the most effective way to educate students with disabilities. A recently published, systematic review of research evidence highlights several studies that demonstrate the benefits of inclusion.  One particular study demonstrated that learning-disabled students in inclusive settings were more than three years ahead of their segregated peers in reading, writing, and literacy skills.  Numerous studies also demonstrate non-disabled students also benefit from being educated in inclusive classrooms. Dr. Thomas Hehir, a Professor of Education at Harvard University writes,  “Effectively including a student with a disability requires teachers and school administrators to develop capacities to support the individual strengths and needs of every student, not just those students with disabilities.”  

Inclusion promotes tolerance and empathy

Beyond the academic benefits, research demonstrates that inclusive education promotes tolerance and empathy. Dr. Hehir’s research also found that, “non-disabled students who are educated in inclusive classrooms hold less prejudicial views and are more accepting,” of others.  In an era of increasing meanspiritedness - where disabled students are subjected to bullying and attacks both online and offline - it’s imperative that we help all students develop empathy and respect for people who are different from themselves.  

With inclusive classrooms, everyone wins. As a society, if we want to promote inclusion in 2017, it makes sense to start in our schools. 

About the author
Daniel Fountenberry is the Founder and CEO of Books That Grow - an instructional platform that supports the inclusion of special needs students in mainstream classes.