So exactly what is the least restrictive environment?

Cathy Pratt

Professionals and parents determining school placements for children with developmental disabilities are faced with choosing among various educational alternatives. For students who require intensive instruction, it has been traditionally assumed that educational needs can best be met in a separate educational placement. The current trend to move students from separate facilities and provide educational opportunities in students’ neighborhood schools is a significant departure from that practice. The change has created confusion about the least restrictive environment (LRE) mandate and raised questions about the effectiveness of placement options for students with developmental disabilities.

Public Law 94-142, which defines “least restrictive environment,” does not mandate specific educational placements for students with disabilities. It does not state that a regular classroom or separate facility is the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities. However, several components of Public Law 94-142 provide insight into desired placement options.

The Law does specify that educational placements must be individually determined and based on the educational objectives detailed in a student’s individualized education program (IEP). No one education placement is appropriate for all students. Some students may be able to spend a significant portion of their day in a regular education classroom, while other students may require a more intensive program. The placement should never be determined according to category affiliation or label, but rather according to the needs of each student.

A second feature of the LRE provision mandates that students with disabilities are educated to the maximum extent appropriate with their non-disabled peers. Education placements must provide students the opportunity to interact with peers who are non-disabled. These experiences are possible on an ongoing basis when a student is educated in a regular school. For students with disabilities, interacting with non-disabled peers has many benefits:

+Increased opportunities to develop and enhance friendships with their non-disabled peers
+Expanded opportunities to develop advocacy and social networks to assist in school, after-school, and community participation, and…
+Increased instructional opportunities and the chance to model age-appropriate and normalized skills.

For non-disabled peers, educating students with disabilities in an integrated setting:
+Increases opportunities to develop and enhance friendships with peers with different abilities,
+Promotes understanding and knowledge of individual differences in people,
+Expands awareness of careers in education, social services, or policy making; and…
+Increases opportunities to develop advocacy skills for peers with disabilities.

Removal from regular educational environments should only occur when the nature or severity of the handicap is such that education in regular classes with the use of supports or services cannot be achieved satisfactorily. Rather than having students start in a separate facility and “earn” placement in a least restrictive environment, the LRE mandate encourages starting students in the school they would attend if they were not disabled. Supports and additional programming are to be supplied to the home school to meet the educational needs of students as determined through the IEP.

Although the LRE mandate does not specify placement options, it does state a strong preference for regular school placement. Integrated programs nationwide have demonstrated that students with disabilities can receive the instruction they need in a regular school setting without compromising a student’s individualized education program.

Cathy Pratt
Community Integration Resource Group
Institute for the Study of Developmental Disabilities, Indiana University

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