Least Restrictive Environment, Mainstreaming, and Inclusion
The terms least restrictive environment, inclusion, and mainstreaming are often used interchangeably. They are not, however, synonymous concepts. Least restrictive environment refers to the IDEA’s mandate that students with disabilities should be educated to the maximum extent appropriate with peers without disabilities. The LRE mandate ensures that schools educate students with disabilities in integrated settings, alongside students with and without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate. Least restrictive environment is not a particular setting.
Champagne (1993) defines restrictiveness as “a gauge of the degree of opportunity a person has for proximity to, and communication with, the ordinary flow of persons in our society” (p. 5). In special education, this means that a student with disabilities has the right to be educated with students in the general education environment. The general education environment is considered the least restrictive setting because it is the placement in which there is the greatest measure of opportunity for proximity and communication with the “ordinary flow” of students in schools.
From this perspective, the less a placement resembles the general education environment, the more restrictive it is considered (Gorn, 1996). Specifically a student with disabilities has the right to be educated in a setting that is not overly restrictive considering what is appropriate for that student. Appropriateness entails an education that will provide meaningful benefit for a student. When the educational program is appropriate, a student with disabilities should be placed in the general education environment, or as close to it as is feasible, so long as the appropriate program can be provided in that setting.
Inclusion refers to placement of students with disabilities in the general education classroom with peers without disabilities. Inclusion generally connotes more comprehensive programming than the somewhat dated term mainstreaming. The courts, however, tend to use the terms synonymously. Mainstreaming and inclusion are narrower terms than least restrictive environment (McColl, 1992). Although placement in the general education classroom may be the LRE for some students with disabilities, it is not required in all cases. The IDEA requires mainstreaming or inclusion when the general education classroom setting can provide an appropriate education. This view was also expressed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Carter v. Florence County School District Four (1991):
Under the IDEA, mainstreaming is a policy to be pursued so long as it is consistent with the Act’s primary goal of providing disabled students with an appropriate education. Where necessary for educational reasons, mainstreaming assumes a subordinate role in formulating an educational program. (p. 156)
The LRE Mandate
The IDEA requires that, when appropriate, students with disabilities be educated in settings with children without disabilities. Specifically the law provides that,
to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily. (IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1412)
There are two parts to the LRE requirement of the IDEA. The first addresses the presumptive right of all students with disabilities to be educated with students without disabilities. Schools must make good faith efforts to place and maintain students in less restrictive settings. This presumptive right, however, is rebuttable; that is, the principle sets forth a general rule of conduct (i.e., integration) but allows it to be rebutted when integration is not appropriate for a student (Turnbull & Turnbull, 2002). The IDEA favors integration, but recognizes that for some students more restrictive or segregated settings may be appropriate. Clearly, the law anticipates that placements in more restrictive settings may sometimes be necessary to provide an appropriate education.
To ensure that schools make good faith efforts to educate students in less restrictive settings, the LRE mandate also requires that before students with disabilities are placed in more restrictive settings, efforts must first be made to maintain a student in less restrictive settings with the use of supplementary aids and services. It is only when an appropriate education cannot be provided, even with supplementary aids and services, that students with disabilities may be placed in more restrictive settings.
The IDEA further requires that state educational agencies ensure that the LRE requirement extends to students in public schools, private schools, and other care facilities. States are required to ensure that teachers and administrators in all public schools are fully informed about the requirements of the LRE provision and are provided with the technical assistance and training necessary to assist them in this effort.
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