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Integrating Students with Severe Disabilities

— Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

Students with severe handicaps are those "having physical, mental, or emotional problems to a degree requiring educational, social, psychological, and/or medical services beyond those traditionally offered by regular and special education" (Kelly & Vergason, 1985, p. 156). These students in the past may have been placed in segregated special schools and/or large state institutions. They were excluded from regular neighborhood schools and classrooms because they typically lacked skills such as ambulation; the ability to communicate their needs easily; and/or self-care skills, particularly dressing, toileting, and independent eating. Other reasons for exclusion included the unusual medical problems of some and the deviant behavior exhibited by others. In addition, many professionals and parents felt that the specialized services needed by these students could be delivered most efficiently in settings other than regular neighborhood schools and classrooms. 

What are Some Benefits of Integrating Students With Severe Disabilities Into Regular Classrooms?

Students with severe disabilities can benefit from well-planned and -organized integration experiences. In integrated school environments, regular class students are provided unique opportunities to learn first-hand about human differences and similarities and how to approach and interact with members of society who have severe disabilities. Researchers have found that, generally speaking, nondisabled students who have had opportunities to interact with students with severe disabilities hold more positive and accepting attitudes toward them than do students who have not had such opportunities (e.g., Voeltz, 1982). Such interactions can also reduce nondisabled students' fear of students with severe disabilities and promote understanding (McHale & Simeonsson, 1980). 

What Needs to be Done to Facilitate Integration?

When students with disabilities are placed in regular public schools and classrooms, teachers generally find an abundance of opportunities for positive interactions. Opportunities exist from the beginning of the day, when students are entering the halls, interacting with each other, and using lockers; throughout the day, in regular education classes, at recess, lunch, library, and special activities; to the end of the day, when waiting for buses or participating in extracurricular activities. 

Teachers who have been involved in integrating students with severe disabilities have found that careful planning is required to take full advantage of the available interaction opportunities. In other words, positive interactions between students with severe disabilities and others in a regular school environment will rarely happen spontaneously at first; they must be planned for and encouraged in a systematic fashion until the students get to know and feel comfortable with one another. 

How can Problems Associated With Access and Scheduling be Overcome?

Special and regular education staff should discuss issues such as the role of special educators in regular education classes (Can the special education teacher co-teach with the regular class teacher?); school transportation (Will the students with severe disabilities be able to ride on the same buses as their nondisabled peers?); and position of students with disabilities in the lunchroom (Will they sit with lunchroom partners who have disabilities or at tables with nondisabled students?). Many modifications in typical school routines (e.g., early lunchroom arrival or departure, entering school at a separate door, sitting at a separate lunch table), made initially to minimize difficulties for students with severe disabilities, either are unnecessary or soon become unnecessary. Modifications of building usage, scheduling, or program access should be minimized or avoided if at all possible. 

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