6 Students with special educational needs

Three people on the margins

The first person: In 1761 a six-year-old girl was captured from West Africa, given the name Phillis Wheatley, and sold into slavery in the City of Boston in Colonial America. By the time she was 17, Phillis had taught herself to read and write and had developed a special love and talent for poetry. Her owner was a wealthy businessman and sought to improve his reputation by publishing an anthology of her poems. Unfortunately he encountered stiff resistance from publishers because few people at that time believed Africans to be capable of the thought and imagination needed to write poetry. People who heard of her poetry were skeptical and inclined to think that it was faked. Eventually, to save his own reputation, the owner assembled a tribunal of 18 prominent judges—including the governor of Massachusetts and John Hancock, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence—to assess the young woman’s mental capacity. After cross-examining her, the judges finally decided that Ms Wheatley was, after all, capable of writing poetry (Robinson, 1982).

The second person: A century later, a child named Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing as a result of illness during infancy. In spite of this misfortune, though, Helen devised a language of gestural signs for communicating with a tutor, and was soon also using Braille to study both French and Latin. At ten, she wrote and published a short story. Yet like Ms Wheatley, Ms Keller also faced substantial, chronic skepticism about her capacities. Prominent educators accused her of plagiarizing others’ writings and merely “parroting” others’ ideas without understanding them (Keller, 1954; Bogdan, 2006). Eventually, as with Wheatley, a panel was assembled—though this time the members were professional experts about disabilities—to determine whether Ms Keller was in fact capable of writing what she published. The panel decided that she was indeed capable, though only by a slim margin (five judges vs four).

The third person: In 1978, Sue Rubin was born with a disability that limited her speech to disordered bursts of sound and occasionally echoing phrases of other people. She was labeled autistic because of her symptoms, and assumed to be profoundly retarded. With support and encouragement from her mother and others, however, Sue eventually learned to type on a keyboard without assistance. She learned to communicate effectively when she was about 13 and was able to go to school. Since then she has made many presentations about autism at conferences and recently co-edited a book about autism, titled Autism: The Myth of the Person Alone (Bogdan, et al., 2005).

One of these individuals experienced racial discrimination and the other two experienced physical disabilities, but notice something important: that all three were defined by society as disabled intellectually. Initially, their achievements were dismissed because of widespread assumptions—whether about race or disability—of their inherent incompetence. All three had to work harder than usual, not only to acquire literacy itself, but also to prove that their literacy was genuine and worthy of respect.

Since the time of Phillis Wheatley, North American society has eliminated slavery and made some progress at reducing certain forms of racism, though much remains to be done. In 1954, for example, the United States Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not be segregated by race, and in doing so recognized, at least legally, the intellectual competence of African-Americans as well as the moral obligation of society to provide all citizens with the best possible education. It has taken longer to recognize legally the rights and competence of persons with disabilities, but events and trends beginning in the 1970s have begun to make it happen. This chapter begins by explaining some of these and how they have altered the work of teachers.

Growing support for people with disabilities: legislation and its effects

Since the 1970s political and social attitudes have moved increasingly toward including people with disabilities into a wide variety of “regular” activities. In the United States, the shift is illustrated clearly in the Federal legislation that was enacted during this time. The legislation partly stimulated the change in attitudes, but at the same time they partly resulted from the change. Three major laws were passed that guaranteed the rights of persons with disabilities, and of children and students with disabilities in particular. Although the first two affected teachers’ work in the classroom, the third has had the biggest impact on education.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504

This law—the first of its kind—required that individuals with disabilities be accommodated in any program or activity that receives Federal funding (PL 93-112, 1973). Although this law was not intended specifically for education, in practice it has protected students’ rights in some extra-curricular activities (for older students) and in some child care or after-school care programs (for younger students). If those programs receive Federal funding of any kind, the programs are not allowed to exclude children or youths with disabilities, and they have to find reasonable ways to accommodate the individuals’ disabilities.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (or ADA).

This legislation also prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability, just as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act had done (PL 101-336, 1990). Although the ADA also applies to all people (not just to students), its provisions are more specific and “stronger” than those of Section 504. In particular, ADA extends to all employment and jobs, not just those receiving Federal funding. It also specifically requires accommodations to be made in public facilities such as with buses, restrooms, and telephones. ADA legislation is therefore responsible for some of the “minor” renovations in schools that you may have noticed in recent years, like wheelchair-accessible doors, ramps, and restrooms, and public telephones with volume controls.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA)

As its name implied this legislation was more focused on education than either Section 504 or ADA. It was first passed in 1975 and has been amended several times since, including most recently in 2004 (PL 108-446, 2004). In its current form, the law guarantees the following rights related to education for anyone with a disability from birth to age 21. The first two influence schooling in general, but the last three affect the work of classroom teachers rather directly:

      • Free, appropriate education: An individual or an individual’s family should not have to pay for education simply because the individual has a disability, and the educational program should be truly educational (i.e. not merely care-taking or “babysitting” of the person).
      • Due process: In case of disagreements between an individual with a disability and the schools or other professionals, there must be procedures for resolving the disagreements that are fair and accessible to all parties—including the person himself or herself or the person’s representative.
      • Fair evaluation of performance in spite of disability: Tests or other evaluations should not assume test- taking skills that a person with a disability cannot reasonably be expected to have, such as holding a pencil, hearing or seeing questions, working quickly, or understanding and speaking orally. Evaluation procedures should be modified to allow for these differences. This provision of the law applies both to evaluations made by teachers and to school-wide or “high-stakes” testing programs.
      • Education in the “least restrictive environment”: Education for someone with a disability should provide as many educational opportunities and options for the person as possible, both in the short term and in the long term. In practice this requirement has meant including students in regular classrooms and school activities as much as possible, though often not totally.
      • An individualized educational program: Given that every disability is unique, instructional planning for a person with a disability should be unique or individualized as well. In practice this provision has led to classroom teachers planning individualized programs jointly with other professionals (like reading specialists, psychologists, or medical personnel) as part of a team.

Considered together, these provisions are both a cause and an effect of basic democratic philosophy. The legislation says, in effect, that all individuals should have access to society in general and to education in particular. Although teachers certainly support this philosophy in broad terms, and many have welcomed the IDEA legislation, others have found the prospect of applying it in classrooms leads to a number of questions and concerns. Some ask, for example, whether a student with a disability will disrupt the class; others, whether the student will interfere with covering the curriculum; still others, whether the student might be teased by classmates. Since these are legitimate concerns, I will return to them at the end of this chapter. First, however, let me clarify exactly how the IDEA legislation affects the work of teachers, and then describe in more detail the major disabilities that you are likely to encounter in students.

Responsibilities of teachers for students with disabilities

The IDEA legislation has affected the work of teachers by creating three new expectations. The first expectation is to provide alternative methods of assessment for students with disabilities; the second is to arrange a learning environment that is as normal or as “least restrictive” as possible; and the third is to participate in creating individual educational plans for students with disabilities.

Alternative assessments

In the context of students with disabilities, assessment refers to gathering information about a student in order both to identify the strengths of the student, and to decide what special educational support, if any, the student needs. In principle, of course, these are tasks that teachers have for all students: assessment is a major reason why we give tests and assignments, for example, and why we listen carefully to the quality of students’ comments during class discussions. For students with disabilities, however, such traditional or conventional strategies of assessment often seriously underestimate the students’ competence (Koretz & Barton, 2003/2004; Pullin, 2005). Depending on the disability, a student may have trouble with (a) holding a pencil, (b) hearing a question clearly, (c) focusing on a picture, (d) marking an answer in time even when he or she knows the answer,

(e) concentrating on a task in the presence of other people, or (f) answering a question at the pace needed by the rest of the class. Traditionally, teachers have assumed that all students either have these skills or can learn them with just modest amounts of coaching, encouragement, and will power. For many other students, for example, it may be enough to say something like: “Remember to listen to the question carefully!” For students with disabilities, however, a comment like this may not work and may even be insensitive. A student with visual impairment does not need be reminded to “look closely at what I am writing on the board”; doing so will not cause the student to see the chalkboard more clearly—though the reminder might increase the student’s anxiety and self-consciousness.

There are a number of strategies for modifying assessments in ways that attempt to be fair and that at the same time recognize how busy teachers usually are. One is to consider supplementing conventional assignments or tests with portfolios, which are collections of a student’s work that demonstrate a student’s development over time, and which usually include some sort of reflective or evaluative comments from the student, the teacher, or both (Carothers & Taylor, 2003; Wesson & King, 1996). Another is to devise a system for observing the student regularly, even if briefly, and informally recording notes about the observations for later consideration and assessment. A third strategy is to recruit help from teacher assistants, who are sometimes present to help a student with a disability; an assistant can often conduct a brief test or activity with the student, and later report on and discuss the results with you.

If you reflect on these strategies, you may realize that they may sometimes create issues about fairness. If a student with a disability demonstrates competence one way but other students demonstrate it another, should they be given similar credit? On the other hand, is it fair for one student to get a lower mark because the student lacks an ability—such as normal hearing—that teachers cannot, in principle, ever teach? These ethical issues are legitimate and important, and I therefore return to them in Chapters 11 and 12, which discuss assessment in much more detail.

Least restrictive environment

The IDEA legislation calls for placing students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (or LRE), defined as the combination of settings that involve the student with regular classrooms and school programs as much as possible. The precise combination is determined by the circumstances of a particular school and of the student. A kindergarten child with a mild cognitive disability, for example, may spend the majority of time in a regular kindergarten class, working alongside and playing with non-disabled classmates and relying on a teacher assistant for help where needed. An individual with a similar disability in high school, however, might be assigned primarily to classes specially intended for slow learners, but nonetheless participate in some school-wide activities alongside non-disabled students. The difference in LREs might reflect teachers’ perceptions of how difficult it is to modify the curriculum in each case; rightly or wrongly, teachers are apt to regard adaptation as more challenging at “higher” grade levels. By the same token, a student with a disability that is strictly physical might spend virtually all his or her time in regular classes throughout the student’s school career; in this case, adjustment of the curriculum would not be an issue.

For you, the policy favoring the least restrictive environment means that if you continue teaching long enough, you will very likely encounter a student with a disability in one or more of your classes, or at least have one in a school-related activity for which you are responsible. It also means that the special educational needs of these students will most often be the “mildest”. Statistically, the most frequent forms of special needs are learning disabilities, which are impairments in specific aspects of learning, and especially of reading. Learning disabilities account for about half of all special educational needs—as much as all other types put together. Somewhat less common are speech and language disorders, cognitive disabilities, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (or ADHD). Because of their frequency and of the likelihood that you will meet students for whom these labels have been considered, I describe them more fully later in this chapter, along with other disability conditions that you will encounter much less frequently.

Individual educational plan

The third way that IDEA legislation and current educational approaches affect teachers is by requiring teachers and other professional staff to develop an annual individual educational plan (or IEP) for each student with a disability. The plan is created by a team of individuals who know the student’s strengths and needs; at a minimum it includes one or more classroom teachers, a “resource” or special education teacher, and the student’s parents or guardians. Sometimes, too, the team includes a school administrator (like a vice-principal) or other professionals from outside the school (like a psychologist or physician), depending on the nature of the child’s disability. An IEP can take many forms, but it always describes a student’s current social and academic strengths as well as the student’s social or academic needs. It also specifies educational goals or objectives for the coming year, lists special services to be provided, and describes how progress toward the goals will be assessed at the end of the year. Exhibit 6 shows a simple, imaginary IEP. (But keep in mind that the actual visual formats of IEP plans vary widely among states, provinces, and school jurisdictions.) This particular plan is for a student named Sean, a boy having difficulties with reading. IEPs, like the one in the figure, originally served mainly students in the younger grades, but more recently they have been extended and modified to serve transition planning for adolescents with disabilities who are approaching the end of their public schooling (West, et al., 1999). For these students, the goals of the plan often include activities (like finding employment) to extend beyond schooling.  See below.

Student: Sean Cortinez

Birth Date: 26 May 2002

Period Covered by IEP:

September 20xx – July 20xy

Address:

Phone:

School: Grant Park Middle School

Grade Level: 3

Teacher(s): G. Eidse

Support Team

List specialists (educational, medical, or other) involved in assisting the student: Resource teacher, instructional aide (part time):

Special Curriculum Needs to be Addressed:

List general needs here; use separate sheet(s) for specific, short-term objectives as appropriate:

Sean can read short, familiar words singly, but cannot read connected text even when familiar. Needs help especially with decoding and other “word attack” skills. Some trouble focusing on reading tasks. Sean speaks clearly and often listens well when the topic interests him.

Special Materials or Equipment Needed:

Modified test procedures and reading materials as required. Signatures:

Parent or guardian:K. Cortinez

Teacher(s): G. Eidse

Principal:L. Stauffer

Date of IEP Meeting: 26 October 20xx

Exhibit 6: A sample individual educational plan. (Note that actual visual formats of IEP plans vary.)

If you have a student with an IEP, you can expect two consequences for teaching. The first is that you should expect to make definite, clear plans for the student, and to put the plans in writing. This consequence does not, of course, prevent you from taking advantage of unexpected or spontaneous classroom events as well in order to enrich the curriculum. But it does mean that an educational program for a student with a disability cannot consist only of the unexpected or spontaneous. The second consequence is that you should not expect to construct an educational plan alone, as is commonly done when planning regular classroom programs. When it comes to students with disabilities, expect instead to plan as part of a team. Working with others ensures that everyone who is concerned about the student has a voice. It also makes it possible to improve the quality of IEPs by pooling ideas from many sources—even if, as you might suspect, it also challenges professionals to communicate clearly and cooperate respectfully with team members in order to serve a student as well as possible.

Categories of disabilities—and their ambiguities

So far I have said a lot about why inclusion has come to be important for teachers, but not much about the actual nature of students’ disabilities. Part of the reason for delaying was because, to put it simply, disabilities are inherently ambiguous. Naming and describing “types” of them implies that disabilities are relatively fixed, stable, and distinct, like different kinds of fruit or vegetables. As many teachers discover, though, the reality is somewhat different. The behavior and qualities of a particular student with a disability can be hard to categorize. The student may be challenged not only by the disability, but also by experiences common to all students, disabled or not. Any particular disability, furthermore, poses problems more in some situations than in others. A student with a reading difficulty may have trouble in a language arts class, for example, but not in a physical education class; a student with a hearing impairment may have more trouble “hearing” a topic that he dislikes compared to one that he likes. Because official descriptions of types or categories of disabilities overlook these complexities, they risk stereotyping the real, live people to whom they are applied (Green, et al., 2005). Even the simplifications might not be a serious problem if the resulting stereotypes were complimentary—most of us would not mind being called a “genius”, for example, even if the description is not always true. Stereotypes about disabilities, however, are usually stigmatizing, not complimentary.

Still, categories of disabilities do serve useful purposes by giving teachers, parents, and other professionals a language or frame of reference for talking about disabilities. They also can help educators when arranging special support services for students, since a student has to “have” an identifiable, nameable need if professionals are to provide help. Educational authorities have therefore continued to use categories (or “labels”) to classify disabilities in spite of expressing continuing concern about whether the practice hurts students’ self-esteem or standing in the eyes of peers (Biklen & Kliewer, 2006). For classroom teachers, the best strategy may be simply to understand how categories of disabilities are defined, while also keeping their limitations in mind and being ready to explain their limitations (tactfully, of course) to parents or others who use the labels inappropriately.

That said, what in fact are the major types of disabilities encountered by teachers? Let us take them one at a time, beginning with the more common ones.

Learning disabilities

A learning disability (or LD) is a specific impairment of academic learning that interferes with a specific aspect of schoolwork and that reduces a student’s academic performance significantly. An LD shows itself as a major discrepancy between a student’s ability and some feature of achievement: the student may be delayed in reading, writing, listening, speaking, or doing mathematics, but not in all of these at once. A learning problem is not considered a learning disability if it stems from physical, sensory, or motor handicaps, or from generalized intellectual impairment (or mental retardation). It is also not an LD if the learning problem really reflects the challenges of learning English as a second language. Genuine LDs are the learning problems left over after these other possibilities are accounted for or excluded. Typically, a student with an LD has not been helped by teachers’ ordinary efforts to assist the student when he or she falls behind academically—though what counts as an “ordinary effort”, of course, differs among teachers, schools, and students. Most importantly, though, an LD relates to a fairly specific area of academic learning. A student may be able to read and compute well enough, for example, but not be able to write.

LDs are by far the most common form of special educational need, accounting for half of all students with special needs in the United States and anywhere from 5 to 20 per cent of all students, depending on how the numbers are estimated (United States Department of Education, 2005; Ysseldyke & Bielinski, 2002). Students with LDs are so common, in fact, that most teachers regularly encounter at least one per class in any given school year, regardless of the grade level they teach.

Defining learning disabilities clearly

With so many students defined as having learning disabilities, it is not surprising that the term itself becomes ambiguous in the truest sense of “having many meanings”. Specific features of LDs vary considerably. Any of the following students, for example, qualify as having a learning disability, assuming that they have no other disease, condition, or circumstance to account for their behavior:

      • Albert, an eighth-grader, has trouble solving word problems that he reads, but can solve them easily if he hears them orally.
      • Bill, also in eighth grade, has the reverse problem: he can solve word problems only when he can read them, not when he hears them.
      • Carole, a fifth-grader, constantly makes errors when she reads textual material aloud, either leaving out words, adding words, or substituting her own words for the printed text.
      • Emily, in seventh grade, has terrible handwriting; her letters vary in size and wobble all over the page, much like a first- or second-grader.
      • Denny reads very slowly, even though he is in fourth grade. His comprehension suffers as a result, because he sometimes forgets what he read at the beginning of a sentence by the time he reaches the end.
      • Garnet’s spelling would have to be called “inventive”, even though he has practiced conventionally correct spelling more than other students. Garnet is in sixth grade.
      • Harmin, a ninth-grader has particular trouble decoding individual words and letters if they are unfamiliar; he reads conceal as “concol” and alternate as “alfoonite”.
    • Irma, a tenth-grader, adds multiple-digit numbers as if they were single-digit numbers stuck together: 42 + 59 equals 911 rather than 101, though 23 + 54 correctly equals 77.

With so many expressions of LDs, it is not surprising that educators sometimes disagree about their nature and about the kind of help students need as a consequence. Such controversy may be inevitable because LDs by definition are learning problems with no obvious origin. There is good news, however, from this state of affairs, in that it opens the way to try a variety of solutions for helping students with learning disabilities.

Assisting students with learning disabilities

There are various ways to assist students with learning disabilities, depending not only on the nature of the disability, of course, but also on the concepts or theory of learning guiding you. Take Irma, the girl mentioned above who adds two-digit numbers as if they were one digit numbers. Stated more formally, Irma adds two-digit numbers without carrying digits forward from the ones column to the tens column, or from the tens to the hundreds column. Exhibit 7 shows the effect that her strategy has on one of her homework papers. What is going on here and how could a teacher help Irma?

 

Directions: Add the following numbers.

42

23

11

47

97

+ 59

+ 54

+ 48

+ 23

+ 64

911

77

59

610

1511

Exhibit 7: Irma’s math homework about two-digit addition

Three out of the six problems are done correctly, even though Irma seems to use an incorrect strategy systematically on all six problems.

 

Behaviorism: reinforcement for wrong strategies

One possible approach comes from the behaviorist theory discussed in Chapter 3. Irma may persist with the single-digit strategy because it has been reinforced a lot in the past. Maybe she was rewarded so much for adding single-digit numbers (3+5, 7+8 etc.) correctly that she generalized this skill to two-digit problems—in fact over generalized it. This explanation is plausible because she would still get many two-digit problems right, as you can confirm by looking at it. In behaviorist terms, her incorrect strategy would still be reinforced, but now only on a “partial schedule of reinforcement”. As I pointed out in Chapter 3, partial schedules are especially slow to extinguish, so Irma persists seemingly indefinitely with treating two-digit problems as if they were single-digit problems.

From the point of view of behaviorism, changing Irma’s behavior is tricky since the desired behavior (borrowing correctly) rarely happens and therefore cannot be reinforced very often. It might therefore help for the teacher to reward behaviors that compete directly with Irma’s inappropriate strategy. The teacher might reduce credit for simply finding the correct answer, for example, and increase credit for a student showing her work—including the work of carrying digits forward correctly. Or the teacher might make a point of discussing Irma’s math work with Irma frequently, so as to create more occasions when she can praise Irma for working problems correctly.

Metacognition and responding reflectively

Part of Irma’s problem may be that she is thoughtless about doing her math: the minute she sees numbers on a worksheet, she stuffs them into the first arithmetic procedure that comes to mind. Her learning style, that is, seems too impulsive and not reflective enough, as discussed in Chapter 5. Her style also suggests a failure of metacognition (remember that idea from Chapter 3?), which is her self-monitoring of her own thinking and its effectiveness. As a solution, the teacher could encourage Irma to think out loud when she completes two-digit problems—literally get her to “talk her way through” each problem. If participating in these conversations was sometimes impractical, the teacher might also arrange for a skilled classmate to take her place some of the time. Cooperation between Irma and the classmate might help the classmate as well, or even improve overall social relationships in the classroom.

Constructivism, mentoring, and the zone of proximal development

Perhaps Irma has in fact learned how to carry digits forward, but not learned the procedure well enough to use it reliably on her own; so she constantly falls back on the earlier, better-learned strategy of single-digit addition. In that case her problem can be seen in the constructivist terms, like those that I discussed in Chapter 3. In essence, Irma has lacked appropriate mentoring from someone more expert than herself, someone who can create a “zone of proximal development” in which she can display and consolidate her skills more successfully. She still needs mentoring or “assisted coaching” more than independent practice. The teacher can arrange some of this in much the way she encourages to be more reflective, either by working with Irma herself or by arranging for a classmate or even a parent volunteer to do so. In this case, however, whoever serves as mentor should not only listen, but also actively offer Irma help. The help has to be just enough to insure that Irma completes two-digit problems correctly neither more nor less. Too much help may prevent Irma from taking responsibility for learning the new strategy, but too little may cause her to take the responsibility prematurely.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (or ADHD) is a problem with sustaining attention and controlling impulses. As students, almost all of us have these problems at one time or another, but a student with ADHD shows them much more frequently than usual, and often at home as well as at school. In the classroom, the student with ADHD may fidget and squirm a lot, or have trouble remaining seated, or continually get distracted and off task, or have trouble waiting for a turn, or blurt out answers and comments. The student may shift continually from one activity to another, or have trouble playing quietly, or talk excessively without listening to others. Or the student may misplace things and seem generally disorganized, or be inclined to try risky activities without enough thought to the consequences. Although the list of problem behaviors is obviously quite extensive, keep in mind that the student will not do all of these things. It is just that over time, the student with ADHD is likely to do several of them chronically or repeatedly, and in more than one setting (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). In the classroom, of course, the behaviors may annoy classmates and frustrate teachers.

Differences in perceptions: ADHD versus high activity

It is important to note that classrooms are places that make heavy demands on not showing ADHD-like behaviors: students are often supposed to sit for long periods, avoid interrupting others, finish tasks after beginning them, and keep their minds (and materials) organized. Ironically, therefore, classroom life may sometimes aggravate ADHD without the teacher intending for it to do so. A student with only a mild or occasional tendency to be restless, for example, may fit in well outdoors playing soccer, but feel unusually restless indoors during class. It also should not be surprising that teachers sometimes mistake a student who is merely rather active for a student with ADHD, since any tendency to be physically active may contribute to problems with classroom management. The tendency to “over-diagnose” is more likely for boys than for girls (Maniadaki, et al., 2003), presumably because gender role expectations cause teachers to be especially alert to high activity in boys. Over-diagnosis is also especially likely for students who are culturally or linguistically non-Anglo (Chamberlain, 2005), presumably because cultural and language differences may sometimes lead teachers to misinterpret students’ behavior. To avoid making such mistakes, it is important to keep in mind that in true ADHD, restlessness, activity, and distractibility are widespread and sustained. A student who shows such problems at school but never at home, for example, may not have ADHD; he may simply not be getting along with his teacher or classmates.

Causes of ADHD

Most psychologists and medical specialists agree that true ADHD, as opposed to “mere” intermittent distractibility or high activity, reflects a problem in how the nervous system functions, but they do not know the exact nature or causes of the problem (Rutter, 2004, 2005). Research shows that ADHD tends to run in families, with children—especially boys—of parents who had ADHD somewhat more likely than usual to experience the condition themselves. The association does not necessarily mean, though, that ADHD is inborn or genetic. Why? It is because it is possible that parents who formerly had ADHD may raise their children more strictly in an effort to prevent their own condition in their children; yet their strictness, ironically, may trigger a bit more tendency, rather than less, toward the restless distractibility characteristic of ADHD. On the other hand (or is it “on the third hand”?), the parents’ strictness may also be a result, as well as a cause of, a child’s restlessness. The bottom line for teachers: sorting out causes from effects is confusing, if not impossible, and in any case may not help much to determine actual teaching strategies to help the students learn more effectively.

Teaching students with ADHD

Research also shows that ADHD can be reduced for many students if they take certain medications, of which the most common is methylphenidate, commonly known by the name Ritalin (Wilens, 2005; Olfson, 2003). This drug and others like it act by stimulating the nervous system, which reduces symptoms by helping a student pay better attention to the choices he or she makes and to the impact of actions on others. Unfortunately the medications do not work on all students with ADHD, especially after they reach adolescence, and in any case has certain practical problems. Drugs cost money, for one thing, which is a problem for a family without much money to begin with, or for a family lacking medical insurance that pays for medications—a particularly common situation in the United States. For another thing, drugs must be taken regularly in order to be effective, including on weekends. Keeping a regular schedule can be difficult if parents’ own schedules are irregular or simply differ from the child’s, for example because of night shifts at work or because parents are separated and share custody of the child.

In any case, since teachers are not doctors and medications are not under teachers’ control, it may be more important simply to provide an environment where a student with ADHD can organize choices and actions easily and successfully. Clear rules and procedures, for example, can reduce the “noise” or chaotic quality in the child’s classroom life significantly. The rules and procedures can be generated jointly with the child; they do not have to be imposed arbitrarily, as if the student were incapable of thinking about them reasonably. Sometimes a classmate can be enlisted to model slower, more reflective styles of working, but in ways that do not imply undue criticism of the student with ADHD. The more reflective student can complete a set of math problems, for example, while explaining what he or she is thinking about while doing the work. Sometimes the teacher can help by making lists of tasks or of steps in long tasks. It can help to divide focused work into small, short sessions rather than grouping it into single, longer sessions. Whatever the strategies that you use, they should be consistent, predictable, and generated by the student as much as possible. By having these qualities, the strategies can strengthen the student’s self-direction and ability to screen out the distractions of classroom life. The goal for teachers, in essence, is to build the student’s metacognitive capacity, while at the same time, of course, treating the student with respect.

Intellectual disabilities

An intellectual disability is a significant limitation in a student’s cognitive functioning and daily adaptive behaviors (Schalock & Luckasson, 2004; American Association on Mental Retardation, 2002). The student may have limited language or impaired speech and may not perform well academically. Compared to students with learning disabilities discussed earlier, students with intellectual disabilities have impairments to learning that are broader and more significant. They score poorly on standardized tests of intelligence (like the ones discussed later, in Chapter 13). Everyday tasks that most people take for granted, like getting dressed or eating a meal, may be possible, but they may also take more time and effort than usual. Health and safety can sometimes be a concern (for example, knowing whether it is safe to cross a street). For older individuals, finding and keeping a job may require help from supportive others. The exact combination of challenges varies from one person to another, but it always (by definition) involves limitations in both intellectual and daily functioning.

As a teacher, you may hear more than one term for describing students with intellectual disabilities. If the disability is mild, teachers sometimes refer to a student with the disability simply as a slow learner, particularly if the student has no formal, special supports for the disability, such as a teaching assistant hired specifically to assist the student. If the disability is more marked, then the student is more likely to be referred to either as having an intellectual disability or as having mental retardation. In this chapter I primarily use the term intellectual disability, because it has fewer negative connotations while still describing one key educational aspect of the disability, cognitive impairment. Keep in mind, however, that actual intellectual disabilities are always more than cognitive: they also involve challenges about adapting to everyday living.

Levels of support for individuals with intellectual disabilities

Intellectual disabilities happen in different degrees or amounts, though most often are relatively mild. Traditionally the intensity or “amount” of the disability was defined by scores on a standardized test of scholastic aptitude (or “IQ test”), with lower scores indicating more severe disability. (More about these tests in Chapter 13.) Because of the insensitivity of such tests to individuals’ daily social functioning, however, current trends are toward defining intensities by the amount of support needed by the individual. Table 13 summarizes the most commonly used scheme for this purpose, one created by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAMR, 2002). Levels of support range from intermittent (just occasional or “as needed” for specific activities) to pervasive (continuous in all realms of living).

Table 13: Levels and areas of support for intellectual disabilities

Level of support

Duration of support

Frequency of support

Setting of support

Amount of professional assistance

Intermittent

Only as needed

Occasional or infrequent

Usually only oneor two (e.g. 1-2 classes or activities)

consultation or monitoring by professional

Limited

As needed, but sometimes continuing

Regular, but frequency varies

Several settings, but not usually all

Occasional or regular contact with professionals

Extensive

Usually continuing

Regular, but frequency varies

Several settings, but not usually all

Regular contact with professionals at least once a week

Pervasive

May be lifelong

Frequent or continuous

Nearly all settings

Continuous contact and monitoring by professionals

Source: American Association on Mental Retardation, 2002: Schalock & Luckassen, 2004.

As a classroom teacher, the intellectual disabilities that you are most likely to see are the ones requiring the least support in your classroom. A student requiring only intermittent support may require special help with some learning activities or classroom routines, but not others; he or she might need help with reading or putting on winter clothes, for example, but primarily on occasions when there is pressure to do these things relatively quickly. Students requiring somewhat more support are likely to spend somewhat less time in your classroom and more time receiving special help from other professionals, such as a special education teacher, a speech and language specialist, or an assistant to these professionals. These circumstances have distinct implications for ways of teaching these students.

Teaching students with intellectual disabilities

There are many specific techniques that can help in teaching students with mild or moderate intellectual disabilities, but most can be summarized into three more general strategies. The first is to give more time and practice than usual; the second is to embed activities into the context of daily life or functioning where possible; and the third is to include the child both in social and in academic activities, rather than just one or the other. Let us look briefly at each of these ideas.

Giving more time and practice than usual

If a student has only a mild intellectual disability, he or she can probably learn important fundamentals of the academic curriculum—basic arithmetic, for example, and basic reading. Because of the disability, though, the student may need more time or practice than most other students. He or she may be able to read many words by sight (day, night, morning, afternoon, etc.), but need longer than other students to recognize and say them. Or the student may know that 2 + 3 = 5, but need help applying this math fact to real objects; you (or a helper) might need to show the student that two pencils plus three pencils make five pencils.

Giving extra help takes time and perseverance, and can try the patience of the student (and of you, too). To deal with this problem, it may help to reward the student frequently for effort and successes with well-timed praise, especially if it is focused on specific, actual achievements; “You added that one correctly”, may be more helpful than “You’re a hard worker”, even if both comments are true. Giving appropriate praise is in turn easier if you set reasonable, “do-able” goals by breaking skills or tasks into steps that the student is likely to learn without becoming overly discouraged. At the same time, it is important not to insult the student with goals or activities that are too easy or by using curriculum materials clearly intended for children who are much younger. Setting expectations too low actually deprives a student with an intellectual disability of rightful opportunities to learn—a serious ethical and professional mistake (Bogdan, 2006). In many curriculum areas, fortunately, there already existing materials that are simplified, yet also appropriate for older students (Snell, et al., 2005). Special education teacher-specialists can often help in finding them and in devising effective ways of using them.

Adaptive and functional skills

Students with intellectual disabilities present especially clear examples of a universal dilemma of teaching: since there is not enough time to teach everything, how do we choose what to teach? One basis for selecting activities is to relate learning goals to students’ everyday lives and activities, just as you would with all students. This strategy addresses the other defining feature of mental retardation, the student’s difficulties with adapting to and functioning in everyday living. In teaching addition and subtraction, for example, you can create examples about the purchasing of common familiar objects (e.g. food) and about the need to make or receive change for the purchases. Similar considerations apply to learning new reading or oral language vocabulary. Instead of simply learning words in a “basic reading” series (or reading textbook), try encouraging the student to learn words that are especially useful to the student’s own life. Often the student, not you yourself, is the best person to decide what these words actually are.

An adaptive, functional approach can help in nonacademic areas as well. In learning to read or “tell time” on a clock, for example, try focusing initially on telling the times important to the student, such as when he or she gets up in the morning or when schools starts. As you add additional times that are personally meaningful to the student, he or she works gradually towards full knowledge of how to read the hands on a clock. Even if the full knowledge proves slow to develop, however, the student will at least have learned the most useful clock knowledge first.

Include the student deliberately in group activities

The key word here is inclusion: the student should participate in and contribute to the life of the class as much as possible. This means that wherever possible, the student attends special events (assemblies, field days) with the class; that if the class plays a group game, then the student with the disability is part of the game; that if classmates do an assignment as a group, then if at all possible the student is assigned to one of the groups. The changes resulting from these inclusions are real, but can be positive for everyone. On the one hand, they foster acceptance and helpfulness toward the child with the disability; classmates learn that school is partly about providing opportunities for everyone, and not just about evaluating or comparing individuals’ skills. On the other hand, the changes caused by inclusion stimulate the student with the disability to learn as much as possible from classmates, socially and academically. Among other benefits, group activities can give the student chances to practice “belonging” skills—how to greet classmates appropriately, or when and how to ask the teacher a question. These are skills, I might add, that are beneficial for everyone to learn, disabled or not. (I discuss group work more thoroughly in Chapter 10, “Facilitating complex thinking”)

Behavioral disorders

Behavioral disorders are a diverse group of conditions in which a student chronically performs highly inappropriate behaviors. A student with this condition might seek attention, for example, by acting out disruptively in class. Other students with the condition might behave aggressively, be distractible and overly active, seem anxious or withdrawn, or seem disconnected from everyday reality. As with learning disabilities, the sheer range of signs and symptoms defies concise description. But the problematic behaviors do have several general features in common (Kauffman, 2005; Hallahan & Kauffman, 2006):

      • they tend to be extreme
      • they persist for extended periods of time
      • they tend to be socially unacceptable (e.g. unwanted sexual advances or vandalism against school property)
      • they affect school work
      • they have no other obvious explanation (e.g. a health problem or temporary disruption in the family)

The variety among behavioral disorders means that estimates of their frequency also tend to vary among states, cities, and provinces. It also means that in some cases, a student with a behavioral disorder may be classified as having a different condition, such as ADHD or a learning disability. In other cases, a behavioral problem shown in one school setting may seem serious enough to be labeled as a behavioral disorder, even though a similar problem occurring in another school may be perceived as serious, but not serious enough to deserve the label. In any case, available statistics suggest that only about one to two per cent of students, or perhaps less, have true behavioral disorders—a figure that is only about one half or one third of the frequency for intellectual disabilities (Kauffman, 2005). Because of the potentially disruptive effects of behavioral disorders, however, students with this condition are of special concern to teachers. Just one student who is highly aggressive or disruptive can interfere with the functioning of an entire class, and challenge even the best teacher’s management skills and patience.

Strategies for teaching students with behavioral disorders

The most common challenges of teaching students with behavioral disorders have to do with classroom management—a topic discussed more thoroughly in Chapter 8 (“Classroom management”). Three important ideas discussed there, however, also deserve special emphasis here: (1) identifying circumstances that trigger inappropriate behaviors, (2) teaching of interpersonal skills explicitly, and (3) disciplining a student fairly.

Identifying circumstances that trigger inappropriate behaviors

Dealing with a disruption is more effective if you can identify the specific circumstances or event that triggers it, rather than focusing on the personality of the student doing the disrupting. A wide variety of factors can trigger inappropriate behavior (Heineman, Dunlap, & Kincaid, 2005):

      • physiological effects—including illness, fatigue, hunger, or side-effects from medications
      • physical features of the classroom—such as the classroom being too warm or too cold, the chairs being exceptionally uncomfortable for sitting, or seating patterns that interfere with hearing or seeing
      • Students with special educational needs
      • instructional choices or strategies that frustrate learning—including restricting students’ choices unduly,giving instructions that are unclear, choosing activities that are too difficult or too long, or preventing students from asking questions when they need help

By identifying the specific variables often associated with disruptive behaviors, it is easier to devise ways to prevent the behaviors, either by avoiding the triggers if this is possible, or by teaching the student alternative but quite specific ways of responding to the triggering circumstance.

Teaching interpersonal skills explicitly

Because of their history and behavior, some students with behavior disorders have had little opportunity to learn appropriate social skills. Simple courtesies (like remembering to say please or thanks) may not be totally unknown, but may be unpracticed and seem unimportant to the student, as might body language (like eye contact or sitting up to listen to a teacher rather than slouching and looking away). These skills can be taught in ways that do not make them part of punishment, make them seem “preachy”, or put a student to shame in front of classmates. Depending on the age or grade-level of the class, one way is by reading or assigning books and stories in which the characters model good social skills. Another is through games that require courteous language to succeed; one that I recall from my own school days, for example, was called “Mother, May I?” (Sullivan & Strang, 2002). Still another is through programs that link an older student or adult from the community as a partner to the student at risk for behavior problems; a prominent example of such a program in the United States is Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which arranges for older individuals to act as mentors for younger boys and girls (Tierney, Grossman, & Resch, 1995; Newburn & Shiner, 2006).

In addition, strategies based on behaviorist theory have proved effective for many students, especially if the student needs opportunities simply to practice social skills that he has learned only recently and may still feel awkward or self-conscious in using (Algozzine & Ysseldyke, 2006). Several behaviorist techniques were discussed in Chapter 3, including the use of positive reinforcement, extinction, generalization, and the like. In addition to these, teachers can arrange for contingency contracts, which are agreements between the teacher and a student about exactly what work the student will do, how it will be rewarded, and what the consequences will be if the agreement is not fulfilled (Wilkinson, 2003). An advantage of all such behaviorist techniques is their precision and clarity: there is little room for misunderstanding about just what your expectations are as the teacher. The precision and clarity in turn makes it less tempting or necessary for you, as teacher, to become angry about infractions of rules or a student’s failure to fulfill contracts or agreements, since the consequences tend already to be relatively obvious and clear. “Keeping your cool” can be especially helpful when dealing with behavior that is by nature annoying or disrupting.

Fairness in disciplining

Many strategies for helping a student with a behavior disorder may be spelled out in the student’s individual educational plan, such as discussed earlier in this chapter. The plan can (and indeed is supposed to) serve as a guide in devising daily activities and approaches with the student. Keep in mind, however, that since an IEP is akin to a legal agreement among a teacher, other professionals, a student and the student’s parents, departures from it should be made only cautiously and carefully, if ever. Although such departures may seem unlikely, a student with a behavior disorder may sometimes be exasperating enough to make it tempting to use stronger or more sweeping punishments than usual (for example, isolating a student for extended times). In case you are tempted in this direction, remember that every IEP also guarantees the student and the student’s parents due process before an IEP can be changed. In practice this means consulting with everyone involved in the case—especially parents, other specialists, and the student himself—and reaching an agreement before adopting new strategies that differ significantly from the past.

Instead of “increasing the volume” of punishments, a better approach is to keep careful records of the student’s behavior and of your own responses to it, documenting the reasonableness of your rules or responses to any major disruptions. By having the records, collaboration with parents and other professionals can be more productive and fair-minded, and increase others’ confidence in your judgments about what the student needs in order to fit in more comfortably with the class. In the long term, more effective collaboration leads both to better support and to more learning for the student (as well as to better support for you as teacher!).

Physical disabilities and sensory impairments

A few students have serious physical, medical, or sensory challenges that interfere with their learning. Usually, the physical and medical challenges are medical conditions or diseases that require ongoing medical care. The sensory challenges are usually a loss either in hearing or in vision, or more rarely in both. Whatever the specific problem, it is serious enough to interfere with activities in regular classroom programs and to qualify the student for special educational services or programs.

Physical challenges that are this serious are relatively infrequent compared to some of the other special needs discussed in this chapter, though they are of course important in the lives of the students and their families, as well as important for teachers to accommodate. Only about one per cent of US students have a hearing loss serious enough to be served by special programs for such students (United States Department of Education, 2005). Only about half that number have visual impairments that lead them to be served by special programs. For two reasons, though, these figures are a bit misleading. One reason is that many more students have vision or hearing problems that are too mild (such as wearing eyeglasses for “ordinary” nearsightedness). Another is that some students with serious sensory impairments may also have other disabilities and therefore not be counted in statistics about sensory impairments.

Hearing loss

A child can acquire a hearing loss for a variety of reasons, ranging from disease early in childhood, to difficulties during childbirth, to reactions to toxic drugs. In the classroom, however, the cause of the loss is virtually irrelevant because it makes little difference in how to accommodate a student’s educational needs. More important than the cause of the loss is its extent. Students with only mild or moderate loss of hearing are sometimes called hearing impaired or hard of hearing; only those with nearly complete loss are called deaf. As with other sorts of disabilities, the milder the hearing loss, the more likely you are to encounter the student in a regular classroom, at least for part of the day.

Signs of hearing loss

Although determining whether a student has a hearing loss may seem straightforward (“Just give a hearing test!”), the assessment is often not clear cut if it takes the student’s daily experiences into account. A serious or profound hearing loss tends to be noticed relatively quickly and therefore often receive special help (or at least receives additional diagnosis) sooner. Mild or moderate hearing loss is much more common, however, and is more likely to be overlooked or mistaken for some other sort of learning problem (Sherer, 2004). Students with a mild hearing loss sometimes have somewhat depressed (or lowered) language and literacy skills—though not always, and in any case so do some students without any loss. They may also seem not to listen or attend to a speaker because of trouble in locating the source of sounds—but then again, sometimes students without loss also fail to listen, though for entirely different reasons. Students with hearing loss may frequently give incorrect answers to questions—but so do certain other students with normal hearing. In addition, partial hearing loss can be hidden if the student teaches himself or herself to lip read, for example, or is careful in choosing which questions to answer in a class discussion. And so on. Systematic hearing tests given by medical or hearing specialists can resolve some of these ambiguities. But even they can give a misleading impression, since students’ true ability to manage in class depends on how well they combine cues and information from the entire context of classroom life.

In identifying a student who may have a hearing loss, therefore, teachers need to observe the student over an extended period of time and in as many situations as possible. In particular, look for a persistent combination of some of the following, but look for them over repeated or numerous occasions (Luckner & Carter, 2001):

      • delayed language or literacy skills, both written and oral
      • some ability (usually partial) to read lips
      • less worldly knowledge than usual because of lack of involvement with oral dialogue and/or delayed literacy
      • occasionally, tendency to social isolation because of awkwardness in communication

Teaching students with hearing loss

In principle, adjustments in teaching students with hearing loss are relatively easy to make though they do require deliberate actions or choices by the teacher and by fellow students. Interestingly, many of the strategies make good advice for teaching all students!

      • Take advantage of the student’s residual hearing. Seat the student close to you if you are doing the talking, or close to key classmates if the students are in a work group. Keep competing noise, such as unnecessary talking or whispering, to a minimum (because such noise is especially distracting to someone with a hearing loss). Keep instructions concise and to-the-point. Ask the student occasionally whether he or she is understanding.
      • Use visual cues liberally. Make charts and diagrams wherever appropriate to illustrate what you are saying. Look directly at the student when you are speaking to him or her (to facilitate lip reading). Gesture and point to key words or objects—but within reason, not excessively. Provide handouts or readings to review visually the points that you make orally.
      • Include the student in the community of the classroom. Recruit one or more classmates to assist in “translating” oral comments that the student may have missed. If the student uses American Sign Language (ASL) at home or elsewhere, then learn a few basic, important signs of ASL yourself (“Hello” “thank you” “How are you?”). Teach them to classmates as well.

Visual impairment

Students with visual impairments have difficulty seeing even with corrective lenses. Most commonly the difficulty has to do with refraction (the ability to focus), but some students may also experience a limited field of view (called tunnel vision) or be overly sensitive to light in general. As with hearing loss, labels for visual impairment depend somewhat on the extent and nature of the problem. Legal blindness means that the person has significant tunnel vision or else visual acuity (sharpness of vision) of 20/200 or less, which means that he or she must be 20 feet away from an object that a person with normal eyesight can see at 200 feet. Low vision means that a person has some vision usable for reading, but often needs a special optical device such as a magnifying lens for doing so. As with hearing loss, the milder the impairment, the more likely that a student with a vision problem will spend some or even all the time in a regular class.

Signs of visual impairment

Students with visual impairments often show some of the same signs as students with simple, common nearsightedness. The students may rub their eyes a lot, for example, blink more than usual, or hold books very close to read them. They may complain of itchiness in their eyes, or of headaches, dizziness, or even nausea after doing a lot of close eye work. The difference between the students with visual impairment and those with “ordinary” nearsightedness is primarily a matter of degree: the ones with impairment show the signs more often and more obviously. If the impairment is serious enough or has roots in certain physical conditions or disease, they may also have additional symptoms, such as crossed eyes or swollen eyelids. As with hearing loss, the milder forms ironically can be the most subtle to observe and therefore the most prone to being overlooked at first. For classroom teachers, the best strategy may be to keep track of a student whose physical signs happen in combination with learning difficulties, and for whom the combination persists for many weeks.

Teaching students with visual impairment

In general, advice for teaching students with mild or moderate visual impairment parallels the advice for teaching students with hearing loss, though with obvious differences because of the nature of the students’ disabilities.

      • Take advantage of the student’s residual vision. If the student still has some useful vision, place him or her where he can easily see the most important parts of the classroom—whether that is you, the chalkboard, a video screen, or particular fellow students. Make sure that the classroom, or at least the student’s part of it, is well lit (because good lighting makes reading easier with low vision). Make sure that handouts, books and other reading materials have good, sharp contrast (also helpful with a visual impairment).
      • Use non-visual information liberally. Remember not to expect a student with visual impairment to learn information that is by nature only visual, such as the layout of the classroom, the appearance of photographs in a textbook or of story lines in a video. Explain these to the student somehow. Use hands-on materials wherever they will work, such as maps printed in three-dimensional relief or with different textures. If the student knows how to read Braille (an alphabet for the blind using patterns of small bumps on a page), allow him to do so.
      • Include the student in the community of the classroom. Make sure that the student is accepted as well as possible into the social life of the class. Recruit classmates to help explain visual material when necessary.  Learn a bit of basic Braille and encourage classmates to do the same, even if none of you ever become as skilled with it as the student himself or herself.

The value of including students with special needs

I have hinted at it already in this chapter, but it is worth saying again: including students with disabilities in regular classrooms is valuable for everyone concerned. The students with disabilities themselves tend to experience a richer educational environment, both socially and academically. Just as with racial segregation, separate education is not equal education, or at least cannot be counted on to be equal. But classmates of students with disabilities also experience a richer educational environment; they potentially meet a wider range of classmates and to see a wider range of educational purposes in operation. Teachers also experience these benefits, but their programs often benefit in other ways as well. The most notable additional benefit is that many teaching strategies that are good for students with disabilities also turn out to benefit all students—benefits like careful planning of objectives, attention to individual differences among students, and establishment of a positive social atmosphere in the classroom. Later (in Chapters 9 and 10) we will return to these topics because of their importance for high- quality teaching. But at that point we will frame the topics around the needs of all students, whatever their individual qualities.

Chapter summary

Since the 1970s support for people with disabilities has grown significantly, as reflected in the United States by three key pieces of legislation: the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The support has led to new educational practices, including alternative assessments for students with disabilities, placement in the least restrictive environment, and individual educational plans.

There are many ways of classifying people with disabilities, all of which carry risks of stereotyping and oversimplifying individuals’ strengths and needs. For the purposes of education, the most frequent category is learning disabilities, which are difficulties with specific aspects of academic work. The high prevalence of learning disabilities makes this category especially ambiguous as a description of particular students. Assistance for students with learning disabilities can be framed in terms of behaviorist reinforcement, metacognitive strategies, or constructivist mentoring.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a problem in sustaining attention and controlling impulses. It can often be controlled with medications, but usually it is also important for teachers to provide a structured environment for the student as well.

Intellectual disabilities (or mental retardation) are general limitations in cognitive functioning as well as in the tasks of daily living. Contemporary experts tend to classify individuals with these disabilities according to the amount and frequency of support they need from others. Teachers can assist these students by giving more time and practice than usual, by including adaptive and functional skills in what they teach, and by making sure that the student is included in the daily life of the classroom.

Behavioral disorders are conditions in which students chronically perform highly inappropriate behaviors. Students with these problems present challenges for classroom management, which teachers can meet by identifying circumstances that trigger inappropriate behaviors, by teaching interpersonal skills explicitly, and by making sure that punishments or disciplinary actions are fair and have been previously agreed upon.

Physical and sensory disabilities are significant limitations in health, hearing, or vision. The signs both of hearing loss and of vision loss can be subtle, but can sometimes be observed over a period of time. Teaching students with either a hearing loss or a vision loss primarily involves making use of the students’ residual sensory abilities and insuring that the student is included in and supported by the class as well as possible.

Key terms

Alternative assessment

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Behavioral disorders

Contingency contracts

Hearing loss

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Individual educational plan (IEP)

Intellectual disabilities

Least restrictive environment (LRE)

Learning disabilities

Mental retardation

Portfolio assessment

Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Sensory impairment

Transition planning

Visual impairment

On the Internet


Least restrictive environment (LRE) Learning disabilities

Mental retardation Portfolio assessment Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Sensory impairment Transition planning Visual impairment

Each of the following websites represents an organization focused on the needs of people with one particular type of disability. Each includes free access to archives of non-current journals and other publications, as well as information about conferences, professional training events, and political news relevant to persons with disabilities. (Note that the sponsoring organizations about hearing loss and about intellectual disabilities changed their names recently, though not their purposes, so their websites may eventually change names as well.)

<www.ldanatl.org> This is primarily about learning disabilities, but also somewhat about ADHD.

<www.add.org> This website is primarily about ADHD. Note that its website name uses an older terminology for this disability, ADD (no “H”) for attention deficit disorder (with the term hyperactivity).

<www.shhh.org> This one primarily discusses about hearing loss.

<www.navh.org> This website is primarily about visual impairment.

<www.aamr.org> This one is primarily about intellectual disabilities or mental retardation.

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