Sharman Word Dennis, M.Ed.






I have been working with families and children with special needs, and those diagnosed as being “differently abled” since I was in high school.


Back then, in 1968, programs for children with special needs were segregated and self-contained. Educators “helped” those with special needs. Back then that was a really an acceptable approach.


When I began teaching children with special needs, it was at the time of the creating of the law that was the groundbreaking piece of legislation for children with special needs. This law was the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Public Law 94-142),


During the beginning stages of the implementation of this law, the focus was on assigning “labels” to programs or children.  At that time, the “label” generated the funds. One year I taught a classroom of children who with the label of “communication disorders”, the next year they were labeled something else, same children, and same classroom. However, the “label” drew the funds that provided the services. At that time, the placement of children with special needs was still in segregated, self-contained classrooms.


Years passed and special education moved to the process of “mainstreaming”. For me this meant taking children from self contained classroom and putting them back in the mainstream- the “regular classroom” when it was determined that “these” children could function in the regular classroom environment. Mainstreaming occurred in different configurations. Mainstreaming occurred for some children I taught for a few hours a day to a couple of days a week.




Time marched on and special education moved to the concept of “inclusion”.  For me inclusion began in 1986 under Public Law-99-457. This law extended the public school's responsibility to include the education of children ages 3 to 5, and established programs for infants and toddlers with special needs. Children with special needs were included in the general education environment from the beginning. Children received the special education and support services listed in their Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) for children birth to three years or their Individualized Education Program (IEP) from children 3-21 years.


Now we are in the 21st century and we operate under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 . Statistics from the 50 states and the District of Columbia, reported in Fall 2007, indicated that children with special needs spent more than 80% of their time inside regular education classrooms [1]


In my work as an educational advocate, I observe the children who are “included” in the general education classroom. What I see as an advocate and educator is a child who is sitting in a general education classroom with 29 other children but the child is isolated. This child usually has a dedicated aide, a person sometimes trained, sometimes untrained. This aide is to work only with that one child. 


The result is that the child is often working one on one with the dedicated aide. The “dedicated” aide is often not helping to include the child in the activities of the classroom or the exchanges that occur between children in that class. The child may possess skills that are not known to the other children. If the child is an artist, the classroom teacher does not utilize this child’s skill to establish communication with the child’s peers. How children in a classroom communicate with each other is a key in enhancing educational development. The classroom teachers are often more concerned with the child’s grades than the total inclusion of the child into the culture of the classroom or the total development of the child. There is often little or no communication between the general education classroom teacher, special education teacher and therapist. Therefore, the support to the child is often in isolation and therefore does not always enhance the child’s educational development.


Schools are meeting the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law. Children are included yet isolated at the same time.


WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Does this mean we go back to segregated schools or classrooms for children with special needs?


In my opinion, it means that we train staff on the intent and spirit of the law, about child development, about classroom cultures and about how what happens in the classroom helps to define the child’s future.


We need to move forward in how we teach all children. To isolate children with special needs when they are in a general education classroom is a disservice to that child and all the other children in the classroom.      

[1]Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Data Analysis System (DANS), OMB #1820-0517: "Part B,
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Implementation of FAPE Requirements," 2007.  Data updated as of July 15, 2008.

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