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OVERCOMING BARRIERS:
STRATEGIES FOR RAISING EXPECTATIONS OF STUDENTS WITH SEVERE DISABILITIES

Presenter
Mary Sagstetter, M.A.Ed.
AbleNet, Inc.
1081 Tenth Ave S.E.
Mpls, MN 55414-1312

In the reauthorization of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1987, there exists a strong emphasis for all students to gain access to the general education curriculum. This legislative mandate supports gaining access to the general education curriculum for students with severe disabilities to provide the opportunity to learn through the "good teaching methods" of general education instruction. Frequently, low cognition of students with severe disabilities is sighted as a barrier to accessing the generalized curriculum and it excludes those students in participating in the learning experience of the instruction. Therefore, these individuals do not have the same access and opportunities as their typical peers.

When considering why students with severe disabilities are not included in instructional activities, in either self-contained or inclusive settings, three points for discussion arise. The first point is pre-service training provided to educators. The second point focuses on the high rate of teacher turnover in the field of special education and the third point relates to the low expectations for these students in current educational programs.

Regarding the first discussion point of pre-service training of educators, it must be noted that a clearly delineated list of knowledge and skills related to students with severe disabilities, or a clear description of relevant expertise required to meet the needs of students with severe disabilities, does not exist (Ryndak, et.al, 2001). According to Rainforth (2000), " When considering the expertise required in providing service to students with severe disabilities, the research offers little guidance. Many teacher education programs only offer limited instruction regarding educating students with serve disabilities. Although in 1998, the Council for Exceptional Children and other organizations did reveal a broad list of skills that should be demonstrated by educators in teaching students with disabilities, these lists did not encompass the depth of skills required to meet the needs of students with severe disabilities. (Ryndak, et.al, 2001).

The second point is the high rate of teacher turnover in the field of special education. Public schools are increasingly overcrowded and short-staffed. Educators especially those dealing with students with significant disabilities find increasingly fewer resources at hand to assist the educational process. Currently, the national special education teacher/student ratio is 1:16. Compounding this situation is the high turnover rate of special education staff (22% of all new teachers, nationally, leave the profession in the first three years). These staffing realities create significant challenges to providing quality individualized instruction and learning opportunities to students with significant disabilities, whether in self contained or included settings.

The third point for discussion relates to the low expectations for students with severe disabilities. Low cognition is the frequent barrier sighted for why these students are not expected to engage and attend to activities. It is has been believed by many over the years, that if a student cannot display the understanding of concepts that exposure and involvement in general curriculum is pointless. An example of that type thinking that is still prevalent is represented in the following quote:

"We just assumed he couldn't read because he was Down's. There was this assumption-always for the kids with severe disabilities-they're not going to be able to read; they're not going to be able to write. I bought into that. (Kliewer & Landis, 1999)

Researchers in the areas of Literacy and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) support the theory that students should be provided the opportunity to learn. Beukelman & Mirenda (1992), support the theory that children with severe cognitive deficits are capable of learning and benefiting from AAC. Mirenda (1993) further states, "The notions that children are too physically, too cognitively, or too communicatively disabled to benefit from experiences with written language, are not supported by current emergent literary research!" Literacy is a goal for all!" As stated by Koppenhaver (1999), "If you don't teach child to read, the child will never learn to read." One must begin by having the expectation that the student with severe disabilities can learn. Then it is possible to start where they student is at and teach from that level. Students learn through active engagement with their world; students with severe disabilities need to be expected to engage.

Given these discussion points, solutions do exist for these barriers. Strategies are available to change the way that teachers teach and students with severe disabilities learn. With the proper strategies, increasing skills and knowledge in the providing educational instruction to lessen the burnout rate and addressing the issues of low expectations for students with severe disabilities is possible.

One strategy to address increasing skills and knowledge in the providing educational instruction is to use an activity framework to ensure every student is included in the regular education activities. Several frameworks are currently available and provide educators with the opportunity to consider the state standards, the intended outcome for the activity, the student objective and to identify at each step of the activity. The following is a list of some of the frameworks available:

These frameworks make it easy to plan how assistive technology can be incorporated to support all students in any activity.

Strategies to address teacher turnover have been implemented in some states at a state level. The programs have been designed address the burnout rate and to help retain special educators. For example, Maine has developed the Maine Support Network. This network provides support meetings, retreats, and teacher academies to give special education teachers throughout the state opportunities for collegial support, forums for problem solving, excellent training opportunities, and the opportunity to tap into state and regional resources (NICHY, 1997)

Another strategy is the theme-based teaching approach. Thematic units provide an effective way to develop curriculum and to implement student goals and objectives. It can provide educators with the "good teaching" structure that encourages active student involvement and engagement. Thematic based teaching assist students to generalize material. When a theme is encountered many times, in many ways, throughout the school day, students have multiple opportunities to practice the development of skills. Students with severe disabilities require this same exposure to materials, the opportunity to gather information and the chance to learn how to organize knowledge that the thematic approach offers. (Daniels and Stafford, 1999).

Researched complied by Arlene Kraat in 1985 indicated a number of problem of problem areas in AAC, one of them was the minimal expectations that others has on the student using AAC. A strategy to address these low expectations is offered by Caroline Musselwhite. It is to develop age-appropriate "Social Scripts" that can be used by beginning communicators. These social scripts empower students to have real conversation with others. Students can comment, ask questions, turn take and share information all within a single conversation. All students require the opportunity to get beyond eat, drink and toilet in addition to higher expectations to learn if they are to develop their skills.

Today, educators face many barriers in working with students with severe disabilities. They are not only responsible for teaching students with severe disabilities, but struggle with how much to expect from them, face burn-out and lack of time for adequate training. Securing the strategies to create activities that are engaging and that encourage others to raise their expectations of what students with severe disabilities can accomplish is paramount to the success of both educators and students.

Suggested Resources

AbleNet Inc., (2000) Research Information. Mpls, MN

AbleNet Inc., (2000) Assistive Technology Planning Tool. (available on-line) www.ablenetinc.com. Mpls, MN

Annual Report to Congress (2000) Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Beukelman, D. & Mirenda, P. (1992) Augmentative and Alternative Communication: management of severe communication disorders in children and adults. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks.

Council for Exceptional Children. (1998). What every special educator must know. The international standards for the preparation and licensure of special educators (3rd edition). Reston, VA. Council for Exceptional Children.

Dacey, et.,al. (2002). The Student Access Map: Ensuring access to the general education curriculum. (on- line). http://www.boston.k12.ma.us

Daniels and Stafford,(1999). Creating Inclusive Classrooms. Children's Resource International, Inc. Washington, D.C.

Erickson, K. (2001). 9th Summer Seminar on Literacy in AAC, Gustavaus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1987

Koppenhaver, D. (2001). 9th Summer Seminar on Literacy in AAC, Gustavaus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN.

Kraat, A, (1985). Communication interaction betweens aided and natural speakers: A state of the art report. Toronto: Ontario: Canadian Rehabilitation Council for the Disabled.

Musselwhite, C., (2001). Can We Chat: Co-planned Sequenced Social Scripts. Special Communications, Linda Burkhart Publications.

NICHY (1997). Are There Shortages of Special Educators? (Available on-line) http://www.nichcy.org/pubs/newsdig/nd27txt.htm

Rainforth, B. (2000). Preparing Teachers to Educate Students with Disabilities in Inclusive Settings: Course Design in the Absence of Local Models of Inclusive Education. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 25, 83-91.

Reed, P. (2000). Assessing Student Needs for Assistive Technology, [on-line]. Available: http://www.wati.org

Ryndak, D, et, al. (2001) Preparing Teachers to Meet the Needs of students with severe disabilities: Program Configuration and Expertise. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, Vol.26, Number 2, 96-105.

Stainback, S., Stainback, W., and Forest, M (1989).Educating All Students in the Mainstream of Regular Education. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes.

Zabala, J. (2001) SETT [on-line].Available: http://joyzabala.com/

Zabala, J. (2001) QIAT. [on-line]. Available: http://joyzabala.com/


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