If you're a school-age parent, you've seen it firsthand: America's school kids are more diverse than ever. Our schools serve a rainbow of children of all levels, often including children with evident disabilities.  

While such classrooms may seem ordinary today, veterans of American public education can testify: this is anything but old hat.  As recently as the sixties, many disabled children were deemed ineducable, and might spend childhood either at home or in an institution.  Then, in 1975, Congress passed its landmark Education for All Handicapped Children Act, today known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.  It's federal law: every child is entitled to a “free and appropriate public education.”

So what does this mean in everyday schools? There's still plenty of pressure to place special needs kids in “special day” settings, away from “typical” classrooms, and indeed, say advocates, occasionally that's the best plan.  But, says Ron Hager, Senior Staff Attorney for the National Disability Rights Network, “the law has been evolving,...our first goal is to look for supplemental supports within the classroom setting.”  

In schools, this process is called “inclusion,” and it means, for instance, that an autistic child who might once have been sent to a special school may now be able to spend most of the day in a regular class, accompanied by a one-to-one aide and monitored under a special, individualized plan.  

In the respected Edina Public Schools, for example, Director of Special Services Penny Kodrich, Ed.S., estimates that around 11% of students in the district receive some form of special education, almost always provided within regular school settings even with severe conditions, such as autism.  “We clearly prefer inclusion,” she says. “We believe that children with disabilities learn best when they are in settings with typical peer models…but of course we also provide extensive staff training and paraprofessional training.  We want it to be doable for the child.”

So what should you do if you're facing these choices for your child?  Here are three practical tips from advocates in the field:

  Do your research.  Especially with conditions which are increasing, such as autism, don't hesitate to go online, or to consult professionals.  And remember, says Hager, to “find other people that have gone through this. You want to know what programs are out there, and what resources. It's definitely a critical piece.”

.  Talk to your child.  “I'm amazed at how many parents don't do this,” says Maggie Roberts, Associate Managing Attorney at Protection and Advocacy in California, which advocates for disabled citizens. “Actually, a lot of children are very eloquent about their needs.”   This does not, of course, mean that the child must make a final decision; but her point of view should be central to yours.

Be a “good shopper.”  Schools may describe good programs, warn both Hager and Roberts, but as a parent, you know your child best.  “Go and look,” says Roberts, “and see how it goes. If possible, let the child go, too.”  Hager adds, “The goal is to have your child be as successful as possible.”

Finally, no matter what your child's disability, says Kodrich, a veteran teacher and program coordinator who sees parents and children daily, “I always urge parents to work together as a team with us. It goes so much further. Let the district know [your] wishes, dreams, hopes and goals.” No matter how clear a diagnosis may seem, individual educational decisions must still be made case by case. For Kodrich, the bottom line remains firm: “Districts,” she says, “want to do right by any child with disabilities.”  Besides, it's the law.