As more students leave special school environments to transition into mainstream schools as part of a policy towards integration, what are the issues and challenges for disabled students and their parents, mainstream teachers, schools and systems in ensuring that their education can learn what they need to achieve independence.

18 November 1988 – Richard Llewellyn as Disability Adviser to the Premier of SA speaking at Regency Park Centre for Young Disabled

Challenges of integrating students from special schools into mainstream schools

My thanks to Dr. Rees of the Institute for The Study of Learning Difficulties for inviting me to address you all this afternoon. Dr. Rees has asked me to discuss some of the issues involved in the integration of children with physical disabilities into regular schools. Before I commence, I would like to acknowledge the advice and assistance of Vonni Braybon, Peripatetic Teacher and Dave Gold, Resource Guidance Officer, South Australian Education Department.

The general policy of the South Australian Education Department states that education, “should permit the maximum useful association between disabled children and others consistent with the interests of both”. This paper offers no magic answers. I am attempting to raise questions and issues in note form about issues that students, teachers, parents, schools and the education system may face during the integration process.

Issues for the disabled student

A significant challenge for the individual physically disabled student who is transitioning from a special school lies in adapting to an environment where the child’s disability may be perceived as significant by their non-disabled peers. Sensitivity to this issue may also re-emerge during adolescence to such a degree that some disabled students may seek the company of other disabled people where they feel more accepted. How should the regular school address that issue?

How can we best prepare physically disabled students for the degree of independence and self-direction they will require to progress in a class of as many as 30 students where the regular class teacher is unable to anticipate the day-to-day problems encountered by the disabled student in a complex social setting?
As teachers and parents, how can we encourage the disabled child to see and develop their strengths rather than dwell on their weaknesses?

Issues for parents of disabled students

In what ways can we ensure that parents develop realistic expectations of the regular school? Parents will have to work with teachers and Principals who have not the degree of knowledge about disability and individual programs, to which they have been accustomed in a special school setting or might expect.

It is helpful to remember that integration generally involves in its first stage, the movement of a physically disabled child from a resource-intense situation such as Regency Park to a less well-resourced setting in the mainstream school.

Many parents although eagerly awaiting their child’s integration into a regular school, initially feel isolated from the range of expertise and support that was available at the centre where their child attended. To some extent, that is little different from the adjustment that all parents make as their children move through play group, pre-school, junior primary, etc. and the direct parent involvement diminishes. It is one measure of the child’s increasing independence.

Parents may have to come to terms with the compromises that will have to take place within the regular school. The regular classroom is a busy and dynamic place where teachers make many moment-to-moment decisions about the best management of their pupils. A normally ambulant child may need to move in a wheelchair when the class moves longer distances around the school which may be a source of annoyance to the student. In the real world, just as non-disabled students must learn to tolerate the inevitable frustrations of life, so too do disabled students.

Having a disabled child attend a regular school can place considerable stress on the parent who is inclined to be over-protective. Many real factors contribute to over-protectiveness, repeated surgical procedures and recurrent hospitalisations do much to intensify parental anxieties and the child’s own sense of inadequacy. Having the opportunity to confront the range of new experiences in a mainstream school is fundamental to the development of self-esteem and a resilience to failure. An ‘over-protected’ child is not allowed to experiment and in time may develop a pervasive sense of fear in new situations.

An area that requires more care and consideration is the impact on siblings of having their disabled brother/sister attend the local school. Siblings may need help in managing their feelings in relation to their normal peers and in accepting their disabled brother/sister. Attending the same school can heighten unresolvable problems in this area. Some parents feel they have no other option than to have them in separate schools if a climate of acceptance, problem-solving and objective setting cannot be established. Sometimes, we do have to acknowledge that the existing regular school setting is unworkable because the required level of resources is not available in that particular school.

Issues for teachers in mainstream schools

It is OK if people have not got instant answers or solutions to the range of problems that might occur within the regular school setting. What can be done to assist the process of creating the right climate for a frank exchange of confidential information about the child between the parent and the teachers? Can we get to a point where teachers are able to say, “Is there anything I need to know about your child that may affect how he/she will cope in the class?” Likewise for parent to be able to say to the mainstream schoolteacher, “Is there anything about my child that you would like to know and that might have some influence on how he/she copes in the classroom?”

Will teachers be able to find the additional time to explain the details of a program, particularly if the parent of a younger child is adjusting to seeing their child’s disability in relation to his/her non-disabled peers?

How do we provide support to teachers and parents who are working through their own feelings of uncertainty about how successful they will be in integrating the disabled child? Sometimes the feelings of frustration, disappointment and sense of helplessness bubble over so that teachers and parents may interact angrily towards each other. Can we develop regular meetings with a facilitator present to help overcome those difficulties? Finding the right conditions for reasonableness and good-will requires a flexible approach in the regular school setting.

Can teachers have the confidence to say to anxious parents, “Is there somebody you would like to bring to our meeting so you can discuss important issues with them afterwards?”

When teachers become the parents of school aged children, they are often surprised at how influential and long-lasting the comments made to them by the teachers of their own children can be. Regular classroom teachers can be very supportive by outlining a realistic academic and social program and by encouraging parents to accept an active role in planning for the child’s stay at school.

Do teachers have the opportunity to look at their own feelings to determine whether these are causing a markedly different reaction to the disabled child? Are feelings of anger, depression or pity adversely affecting his or her approach to the disabled child and to the whole class?

What preparation and ongoing information will be given to the regular class, about the child’s disability? Can the teacher encourage the student to speak frankly about the disability in such a way that it informs with dignity, his/her non-disabled peers.

Some teachers express concern about how they can ‘discipline’ a disabled student. As with all forms of behaviour intervention, it is best if the teacher focuses on the specific behaviour rather than on the person who committed it. It is the behaviour that is unacceptable, not the child. Being judged by the same standards of behaviour as other children makes the physical disability more irrelevant.

Issues for a mainstream school in the integration process

Schools have to ensure that physically disabled students have suitable access to key areas within the school. These will include regular classrooms, resource centres, language centres, laboratories, computer rooms, etc. Similarly, schools will need to have thought about the access a student will have to the social activity of recess lunch and after school. Some ‘social engineering’ might be required to help include a student with restricted mobility in social activity around the school.

Professional persons working with children have a legal responsibility towards their care and safety. This responsibility is termed ‘the duty of care’. For young children (under 7 years) and disabled students, there is a much higher expectation of the care required and hence the legal responsibility of teachers and principals is much greater.

Schools will have to consider such things as instigating procedures to protect more frail children from identified aggressive students. Safety training procedures for emergency situations should occur regularly and be documented. Much of the duty of care responsibility is common sense and is incorporated into the daily routine of regular schools, however some disabled children require more exceptional overall management and care.

The toileting issue can become quite complicated for some schools. Many teachers would have been trained during times when the question of needs of disabled students was not mentioned. A number of teachers are therefore doing things as part of their job that they previously had not considered, eg. toilet assistance, dressing and giving medication. Whilst many teachers take these things ‘in their stride’, others do not wish to do them.

For this reason, schools need to take added care when enrolling disabled students with special needs so that both the student and the school staff are ‘willing’ agents in the situation. Teachers are often not in a good position to undertake additional time-consuming duties because of their responsibilities to other children.

Fortunately, schools can apply for additional School Assistant time to offset the time taken to deal with mobility and toileting needs of the student. Some staff will need training in the lifting and handling of students. In a regular school setting, the key concept is flexibility of approach to work solutions to problems, which make the best use of resources.

Some parents of disabled students will periodically need a listening ear and someone to talk to about school related problems. Schools can assist this by formally identifying a contact or focus person. It most likely will be the class teacher, although any interested staff member could fulfil that function.

Some parents and even teachers have found it helpful to discuss their problems with other parents or other teachers who are in similar situations. Schools can foster these ‘self-help’, ‘mutual support’ or ‘hub groups’ as they are sometimes called. This strategy is particularly useful for some parents and teachers of the more severely disabled students and can be either a one-off meeting or be ongoing. All of us can gain greater insight into our problems when we share our experiences with those who face similar problems, providing we are generally seeking positive outcomes and we are not locked into a cycle of despair.

Issues for parents of disabled students

In what ways can we ensure that parents develop realistic expectations of the regular school? Parents will have to work with teachers and Principals who have not the degree of knowledge about disability and individual programs, to which they have been accustomed in a special school setting or might expect.

It is helpful to remember that integration generally involves in its first stage, the movement of a physically disabled child from a resource-intense situation such as Regency Park to a less well-resourced setting in the mainstream school.

Many parents although eagerly awaiting their child’s integration into a regular school, initially feel isolated from the range of expertise and support that was available at the centre where their child attended. To some extent, that is little different from the adjustment that all parents make as their children move through play group, pre-school, junior primary, etc. and the direct parent involvement diminishes. It is one measure of the child’s increasing independence.

Parents may have to come to terms with the compromises that will have to take place within the regular school. The regular classroom is a busy and dynamic place where teachers make many moment-to-moment decisions about the best management of their pupils. A normally ambulant child may need to move in a wheelchair when the class moves longer distances around the school which may be a source of annoyance to the student. In the real world, just as non-disabled students must learn to tolerate the inevitable frustrations of life, so too do disabled students.

Having a disabled child attend a regular school can place considerable stress on the parent who is inclined to be over-protective. Many real factors contribute to over-protectiveness, repeated surgical procedures and recurrent hospitalisations do much to intensify parental anxieties and the child’s own sense of inadequacy. Having the opportunity to confront the range of new experiences in a mainstream school is fundamental to the development of self-esteem and a resilience to failure. An ‘over-protected’ child is not allowed to experiment and in time may develop a pervasive sense of fear in new situations.

An area that requires more care and consideration is the impact on siblings of having their disabled brother/sister attend the local school. Siblings may need help in managing their feelings in relation to their normal peers and in accepting their disabled brother/sister. Attending the same school can heighten unresolvable problems in this area. Some parents feel they have no other option than to have them in separate schools if a climate of acceptance, problem-solving and objective setting cannot be established. Sometimes, we do have to acknowledge that the existing regular school setting is unworkable because the required level of resources is not available in that particular school.

Issues of the education system

Because the handicapping effects of disability are defined by the demands of the environment, where possible the environment should be modified to reduce physical barriers. Schools built since 1981 will not have toilets with wheelchair access and ramp access to buildings. Older school buildings may have access provisions which have been added as the need arises. Some schools with upper floors may be inaccessible.

Administrators have to decide on whether it is a better use of public money to pay for expensive modifications or transport a child to a nearby existing facility. What other factors should administrators take into account when they have to decide on resource allocation beyond the initial decision as to whether the modification is essential or just desirable?

  • How long will a modification be required?
  • Will other students or the community benefit from the modification?
  • Are there other unsolvable needs which the student has and which have not been addressed?
  • What is the prevailing climate like within the school? Do staff question the advisability of the student remaining or enrolling in the school?
  • Should such things as the fact that the family are planning to move to another district, influence the decision to proceed with expensive modifications?

The system will have to ensure that future educational service delivery is based on a co-operative model where all educational decisions regarding students with physical disabilities are made collaboratively.
Some pro-integrationists have argued that the debate should be turned around so that educators are forced to argue the case for segregation.

It is the task of “the system’ to get the best possible match between the student’s needs and what is practicable. This then must incorporate parent’s wishes, medical, social/emotional and academic needs, the realistic options available coupled with the type and level of support required to make each option workable.

Before children with disabilities get to school-age, many parents will have received from a range of professionals and interested parties, advice and opinion about schooling. The system needs to ensure that parents are aware of what different schools can offer and what sort of schooling would best suit their child.

Students with disabilities have often been thoroughly assessed by a range of staff at the Childrens’ Hospital, Regency Park, etc. and this information can be made available to the school with parents’ permission. The system needs to ensure that valuable information gets through to the regular school and that the information is ‘packaged’ in ways that are useful to regular classroom teachers.

It is not realistic to expect every classroom teacher to have a sound knowledge of particular types of disability because dealing with such children is likely to be a comparatively rare event in their careers. For the system then, the best response is to approach in-service training by predicting and responding to functional issues as they occur.

Opportunities and challenges of educational integration

Perhaps if all of us can view integration as a life goal, then the achievement of this enables the individual with a disability to become an active participant in and contributing member of society.

The system must also respond to the needs of people living in isolated settings. Sometimes the ‘tyranny of distance’ forces communities to solve the problems that city people expect to be solved by experts. Nevertheless, there are resource problems that country students have that the city economy of scale can solve by the concentration of resources in a central location.

The task ahead is to build bridges between the centres of knowledge and expertise which continue to serve the very special needs of some severely disabled children and the mainstream school setting which, despite its lack of expertise, is where most physically disabled children can encounter the real world in which they will hope to achieve maximum independence.