Although more schools are enrolling children who have disabilities in regular classrooms, an expert in special education made the radical suggestion yesterday that they be "separated from the general school population and given intensive, relentless instruction."
Dr. Naomi Zigmond, a professor of special education at the University of Pittsburgh, discussed her uncommon views with members of the Learning Disabilities Association of America in a keynote address that kicked off its 44th annual international conference at the Westin Convention Center hotel.
"Because of the pressures for state testing and accountability and a desire to make kids feel normal and to expose them to what everyone else gets, we have been forgetting that special education is supposed to be special," said Dr. Zigmond, who has studied special education for 41 years.
"It's time for unconventional thinking," she said. "Because those things have taken precedence over what special education was invented for and that is to force the education system to provide something special to students with special needs."
Few issues in education generate more debate than the highly emotional question of whether to include special education children in mainstream classrooms.
Federal laws have long supported the idea that all pupils, including those with severe and profound disabilities, should be included and educated in classrooms with nondisabled peers, preferably in schools that they would attend if they weren't disabled.
Dr. Zigmond's views did not necessarily reflect those of her audience.
"I don't believe plunking a learning-disabled kid in a classroom with a teacher who can't meet their needs is beneficial to a student," said Sheila Clark-Edmands, an education consultant from Kennebunk, Maine. "But putting them in a self-contained class with a special ed teacher who's not informed isn't beneficial either."
The annual convention, which ends Saturday, is expected to draw 1,500 people from across the United States and eight other countries to network and explore the many facets of learning disorders through a variety of workshops led by some of the most notable figures in the field.
The most common learning disabilities are dyslexia and dyscalculia (serious trouble with math). Learning disabilities happen because of the way a person's brain takes in and processes information.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is sometimes thought of as a learning disability, but it's not usually considered one because most kids with ADHD can learn in school without special assistance, even though they might be easily distracted and can't sit still in class.
Many of the attendees are teachers and parents of children with learning disorders.
"This event is an opportunity for us to enlighten people who are already in the learning disability field," said Sheila Buckley, executive director of LDA in Pittsburgh. "But it's also an opportunity to bring the issue of learning disabilities to the forefront so there's greater awareness and advocacy for those affected by it."
The LDA convention was set for the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. But the building has been off limits to the public since Feb. 5, when a section of flooring in the second-floor loading dock area collapsed.
Connie Parr, a vice president of LDA and pediatric nurse practitioner, traveled to the event from Oswego, Ill. She has a 35-year-old daughter with severe learning disabilities.
"Parents go through a grieving process when they learn their child has a learning disability," she said. "Then they begin to accept the child they have and that's when their learning begins. That's the day they take the bull by the horns and they learn everything they need to help their child be the best they can be."
Sharyn Denhan of Harrisburg is an executive board member of LDA and parent of a son with a learning disability. Her son was taught in regular public school classrooms, but benefited from support services. Now 29, he has a degree in civil engineering from Drexel University.
"My son is basically a success story and I'm very proud of his accomplishment," Ms. Denhan said.
"The problem with learning disabilities is it's this huge broad spectrum. It's not one size fits all. It's a very hard issue to deal with and very unique to the child."
Tim Grant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1591.