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February 2011



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"Let the Children Play" Mural

Christie’s proposed segregated programs not the answer


Gov. Chris Christie’s recent proposal to create a state-funded autism school in every county has turned a lot of heads. Coming from a Republican governor in a time of fiscal austerity, many disability advocates have seen it as a welcome statement that some things are still worth spending money on.

Yet despite appreciation of Christie’s support for autism and disability issues, many advocates have serious questions about the wisdom of constructing new segregated programs when both federal law and an overwhelming body of research say that autistic students are best served in inclusive settings.

Over the course of the last 35 years, the undeniable direction of education policy for students with disabilities has been toward inclusion.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees students with disabilities, including autism, a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment,” meaning that unless it is not possible to do so, students with disabilities should be served in the same classrooms as their general education peers.

Furthermore, even when local public schools have not yet developed the capacity to serve students with disabilities, strong legal precedent exists requiring them to do so rather than opt for segregation.

Roncker v. Walter clearly states that “it is not enough for a district to simply claim that a segregated program is superior: In a case where the segregated facility is considered superior, the court should determine whether the services which make the placement superior could be feasibly provided in a non-segregated setting (i.e. regular class). If they can, the placement in the segregated school would be inappropriate under the act (IDEA).”

Research has repeatedly found that inclusion of autistic students in the general educational setting leads to significant gains in academic achievement and standardized test scores, adaptive behavior, communication, social relationships and interaction, and post-high school outcomes for those students.

In comparison, autistic students who are educated primarily in segregated or life-skills settings score lower on assessments, make less progress in reading and math, have fewer social interactions and positive peer relationships, communicate less, and have lower adult outcomes and more issues with generalizing skills and adaptive behaviors.

At a personal level, though, this issue is about more than just law and test scores. As an autistic adult who went through New Jersey’s special education system as a child, I experience firsthand the low expectations that are all too common in segregated settings for students with disabilities.

For several years of my childhood, instead of walking to the neighborhood public school a few minutes away from my home, a van took me an hour and a half away to a school for students with disabilities. There, academics took a back seat to social skills classes. A culture of low expectations dominated the educational environment.

Rather than try and give us the same opportunities as our non-disabled peers, our teachers assumed that as students with disabilities, our futures were limited to that which was given to us. Eventually, I successfully argued my way back to receiving both academic instruction and needed support services in a general education classroom. But I left behind me many other students who could have benefited from the opportunities inclusion brings.

My experience is not unique. In fact, students with disabilities in New Jersey are twice as likely to find themselves in a segregated school than students in other states. For autistic students, New Jersey uses segregated placements at almost three times the national average.

In light of this, construction of new segregated schools would take New Jersey in exactly the wrong direction. Instead, the governor should consider applying the energy, drive and innovative spirit he has given to other areas of public policy to supporting inclusion for New Jersey’s autistic students.

The funds that would have been spent on constructing and maintaining an autism school in every county could be spent on driving systems change in neighborhood schools across New Jersey.

For example, New Jersey could take a bold step forward by setting up a “Race to the Top” type program, where districts compete to better support students with disabilities in the general education classroom. At a time where most districts are cutting special education funding, Christie could offer funds to offset cuts — but only in exchange for real accountability and reform.

While Christie should be applauded for making students on the autism spectrum a priority even during a cost-cutting period, I urge him to revise and reintroduce his proposal. While the intent behind creating an autism-specific school, or “center for excellence,” in every community was no doubt noble, the idea is badly misguided. New Jersey must join the nation in moving toward inclusion rather than segregation for its autistic citizens.

Ari Ne’eman is president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and was recently appointed to the National Council on Disability as the first openly autistic presidential appointee in American history. Previously, he served as vice chairman of the New Jersey Adults with Autism Task Force. He lives in East Brunswick.

Source: http://www.app.com/article/20110128/NJOPINION03/101280312/Don-t-isolate-students-autism?odyssey=mod

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