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Understanding Childhood Disabilities


Education for a Disabled Child

As children with disabilities move into the toddler stage, parents may wish to consider preschool or nursery school. Should you send your child to a special school where she will be with other children like herself and where teachers are trained to deal with your child's disability? Sometimes no special school exists, or it is very far away, requiring your child to make the lengthy trip to school each day or to become a resident at the school.

Mainstreaming your child. Even when special schools are close, you may consider mainstreaming your child -- sending her to a regular nursery school class. Many experts believe young children with mild to moderate disabilities do better if they are kept in a normal environment for as long as possible. Young children are usually more accepting of differences than older children and adults are, so a child with a disability will not necessarily feel odd or left out in a regular nursery school. Many nursery schools are willing and able to accept children with mild to moderate disabilities. Some are also willing to accept children with more severe disabilities.

Certain philosophies of education lend themselves more readily to integrating children with disabilities. If you cannot find a school in your area that has had experience with children with disabilities, you may wish to approach a Montessori school or other school with a nontraditional approach to nursery school education.

If you are considering mainstreaming in a school that has had little or no experience with your child's disability, take time to observe and to talk to the director and the teachers who will have your child. Be honest about your child's deficiencies and her needs. Ask about the school's attitudes toward disabilities in general and toward your child's disability in particular. How do teachers normally handle problems of discipline and teasing? How do they handle questions other children will ask about your child? Do you feel the teachers' expectations are reasonable and consistent with your own for children in general and for your child in particular?

If you decide to mainstream your child, be prepared to serve as a resource person for the school. You may want to visit the classroom and talk to the children about how a hearing aid works, why your child wears braces, or why she looks or talks the way she does. Be prepared for some frustration, especially in the beginning, as parents and other students work to understand your child and how to relate to her. Plan to observe school routine fairly often. If your presence upsets your child's routine, enlist the aid of friends to observe. When you observe, don't focus solely on your child. Parents of children with disabilities are frequently -- and pleasantly -- surprised when they observe how much like other children their child is.

Your Rights Under the Law

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act went into effect in 1978 and was replaced by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1993. The law requires states to provide a free, appropriate education to all children with disabilities regardless of the severity of their disability. Under the law, each child has an individualized education program (IEP) that indicates what kinds of special education and related services the child will receive. Parents have the right to participate in every decision related to the education of their child, and they have the right to challenge and appeal any decision regarding the identification, evaluation, or placement of their child.

The IDEA covers children with disabilities from ages 3 to 21 years, except in states that do not provide public education for children younger than age 5 and older than age 18. However, you may find many local school districts that provide programs for children younger than three years of age even when they are not required to by state law. Many of those programs receive federal funding.

While the law has tried to provide for the education of most children with disabilities, it has not standardized the quality of education, which can vary widely from state to state and from one school district to another. Even within school districts, certain disabilities are better served than others. Further, government budget cutbacks have had particular effect on educational programs, many of which have been truncated or eliminated altogether. Be aware that your best-choice program may not be available in your area. Many school districts provide information on what is available, as well as guidelines for parents that describe their children's educational rights. If your local district cannot readily provide you with information and a copy of applicable laws, contact your state board of education.

Raising a disabled child brings unique challenges for the parents. But there are many resources out there which can provide assistance and much knowledge available about stimulating development -- which means that a disabled child now can progress more than he may have a decade ago. And, as with any child, you can share the joy of accomplishments together!

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