Interview with Dr. Terri Ward, Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the College of Saint Rose.
<Interview> As the number of students with severe disabilities being educated in inclusive general education settings increases, the responsibilities of special education teachers has changed. What do you see as the role of the special education teacher and what are the keys to successful inclusion of students with severe disabilities into the general education setting?
<Dr. Ward> Let's take a look at the responsibilities of the special education teachers. I believe they [the responsibilities] have changed over time. I think that, when we look at undergraduate or graduate programs we look at what the duties of those teachers are. They [the teachers] need to know the general education curriculum and have an understanding of the way the curriculum is approached in a general education classroom and the opportunities that exist for kids with severe disabilities to be included in that environment. Then, the next piece is the issue of collaboration. They have got to be able to collaborate with general education teachers. If they know the curriculum and the language that general education teachers speak, they are more likely to include the child. They will be able to break through some of the communication barriers and language barriers over curriculum issues, access, etc. The general education teachers need to be advocates for kids and the special education teachers need to know that we can advocate for all kids within one environment. Part of that is communication; how to seek resolution with someone, how to make sure that we provide appropriate access for kids, looking at those opportunities and sitting down at the table with someone and problem solving through those issues. We have got to know the general education curriculum and instruction, and the issues of collaboration. Then these teachers need to understand particular disabilities; how they affect language patterns, motor patterns, cognitive understanding, and knowledge of assistive technology. Once you take a look at some of these disabilities and how it affects the child in particular then you match it with your general education expertise and your knowledge of specialized instructional strategies, assistive technology, curriculum modifications, and all that kind of things. Then the last piece is case management. They have got to be able to stay on top of the paperwork and be able to take data. Once the kids get included, I go to these classrooms and I provide support and say "how are these students doing on their goals?" or "what types of specialized instruction have you imbedded within the environment?" These teachers do not always know and they are not always taking data. At the end of the year or even after nine weeks can you [the special education teachers] tell me if with your support, this kid is making progress and if not, then we need to change the way that we are doing things. That is all case management; I am not finding that folks are able to do that. That is where I see the primary roles and responsibilities along the way.
<Interview> Have long-term effects of students receiving services in inclusive settings been identified?
<Dr. Ward> There is work being done in the field right now, [I know this] because I have reviewed a couple of articles. I do not know who the folks who are writing those articles are, but yet they have used some standardized instruments to look at kids with significant disabilities and how they are growing over time in inclusive [settings] versus more self-contained environments. Most of the studies that make it to the journals seem to focus on the elementary school levels. A lot of kids maybe included at the elementary level, but we have not followed a number of them over the course of time.
We have created quality indicators for inclusive schooling and seen the best practices indicators of what is a good inclusive school, but when it comes down to the education of kids with severe disabilities and what the hopes and long-term outcomes are for those kids in relation to inclusive schooling, I have not seen those yet. Syracuse University has an old check list about practices in the schools. I believe that at the University of New Hampshire, Institute on Disability, has a best practice indicator for what schools should be doing. When we look at long-term outcomes, I will give the credit to Diane Ryndak. She brought up a question many years ago and I've always remembered it. [The questions is] "What will help this student become more independent and participate more fully in daily life?" Those two things should be the focus of the curriculum within the environment where you want them [the students] to perform. If we as educators say that we want the child to be as independent as possible, why would we educate them in self-contained settings where we control everything? If we want them to be as independent as possible later in life, then we should take a look at our actions and see if what we are doing, K-12, helps to provide students with independence and more meaningful involvement in daily life. Those indicators are not necessarily out there right now. We would have to read the transition literature in order to figure that out and we would have to take a look at the quality indicators for schools and how that translates into quality of life outcomes later on.
We are at this qualitative investigation time period where we are saying that "something is here, something is working, we have been advocating for this, we want this to happen, it makes sense, we've got the kids in the classroom." Now we are starting to say, "alright, we are getting some data here and it is looking good." Out of it, we may come out with indicators but right now it is just "do we have enough kids to even say whether or not they actually have a better quality of life as a result of inclusion?" I think that where we are at the time period that we finally have a mass of kids that we can look at and start to investigate for some trends, out of those trends we may come with those long-term outcomes.
<Interview> I believe that it could be hard to do longitudinal studies with students with low-incidence disabilities from when they are in elementary school to when they finish high school; that could be one of the reasons why not many studies have being done with these students.
<Dr. Ward>We should start looking at kids who present similar backgrounds and scores upon entering school. One who takes a self-contained route and the other who takes a more inclusive route. We could use some quantitative information to say, "They really started out at approximately the same level; they had this kind of family" and we follow them. Or maybe, we have them [students] now, when they are in the twelfth grade, and look back to the data to get information and look if this kid's life may or may not be qualitatively different than this other child's life. If we see 20, 30, 40, 60, 100 of those same cases and it seems as though they are all following that same trend, then we know this is good. Just look at the difference in the IEP [Individualized Education Program] goals and the ways that those are written. It is incredibly time consuming but always in qualitative analysis, when you look at the outcomes and changes over time you won't realize this.
<Interview> Do you think that teachers and administrators believe that the further up in the school system that the student get, the higher grade level they get, they need to be in a more segregated setting because transition services are being pushed at that level and everything is supposed to be focused on vocational skills?
<Dr. Ward> I think that is part of it and the focus is on the accountability testing; these teachers have to get these kids ready for "the test." That is always going to be there, that has always been there. Now they are just going to take money away from you if you don't make it and before, they did not do that. The pressure has always been there for the kids to perform. I think that people live this theory that, in order to be in this classroom, especially general education teachers, they need to meet the curriculum demands. If they are going for the standard high school diploma you have got to meet this demand. They don't understand that the kids that we are talking about here are not going to meet that demand. They are there for different purposes and unless we look at that in teacher preparation programs, unless the administrators have an understanding of that, this gets more and more complex. They [general education teachers] love their content area and they want kids to get excited about their content area. These kids [with severe disabilities] might not. They [general education teachers] need to understand that there are different purposes for kids sharing a similar space. They [general education teachers] don't get that. All that it said in legislation about the transition services in particular is that it has to be a coordinated set of services. For instance, we have a young lady that I have been working with for the last year or two, she is now in her junior year. There was no transition plan [for her]. They had nothing done. We said "okay let's get at least a level one assessment; what are you interested in?" She happens to have Downs Syndrome. Then I looked at her IEP and there was not one academic objective that would help her learn what she needs later in life. I said "what are the classes that we are looking at?" Maybe a work experience class would be a good introduction for her to careers and then, she could read and write about different types of careers, work her functional vocabulary into it and then she could make presentations in class, which works on her speech and language goals, which are future outcomes." They all went, "wow". It was not that they were reluctant, it was just that someone needed to show them a different way to bring it together.
Is it transition planning that makes them more excluded? No, I just don't think that folks [special education teachers] can think outside the box. Once you show them, many are willing to go down that road. There are very few of us who understand how to think outside that box.
<Interview>: Students may need accommodations made to the standard curricular material. Unfortunately, teachers who have to work with standard, off-the-shelf curricular materials, usually have little time to develop accommodation for their classes. What are some ways we can overcome these types of barriers?
<Dr. Ward> What is the decision making and how do teachers modify curriculum for kids? At the elementary level, because it is holistic, developmental, and more active, it does appear to be simpler to do. At middle school and high school level, where the content and vocabulary takes off a little bit more, and it is a lot more lectured driven, it becomes more difficult to modify because the kids [with severe disabilities] often need some sort of picture based cue with vocabulary concepts that they may learn from that class. As an example, a new teacher supports a young man with significant needs at the high school [level]. This year he is taking "Chemistry in the Community." Last week she emailed me and asked me "okay smarty, tell me how I get a picture for protons and neutrons." I said, "You don't. Take the important concept, they are talking about." She said "well they are talking about atoms" and I said "well, that is what you are going to go with." She said "okay here is another one for you; he takes this one class, work experience seminar, where they were talking about the soft skills work, they were talking about how you are a healthy and happy worker and how that is portrayed in the work environment. Can you come up with a picture cue for that one? And, what do you do to get the food pyramid? They are talking about nutrition and how nutrition can affect how you feel, getting proper sleep, and how happy, healthy, and polite workers are." We are talking about a young man that has reading skills that are at the first grade level, and his expressive language is very impaired. His understanding of concepts relies a lot on those visual pictures. She wrote me and said "how do I find an appropriate picture that captures the essence of what he needs to know? Do I just get a picture of someone smiling?" She is right, that doesn't quite capture it. What you find is that the teachers that are adapting this content spend tremendous amounts of time going out there and trying to find pictures on the internet or from Clip Art that would help make this concept more concrete to the kids [with a disability] so that they could be meaningfully involved. I think that is one of the areas that we really need to be thinking more deeply. When teachers are out there trying to adapt the curriculum so the child can be more meaningfully involved, I find that exciting because they are coming up with some really good ideas. At the same time we're taking a lot of time modifying materials when, if they came universally designed to begin with, with vocabulary terms, with good picture cues with them, then we wouldn't be spending so much time trying to do it on such an individual basis. The materials should be designed in such a way that teachers could go to them, click on it and say "this is how it needs to be adapted given this particular type of learner."
When you start to think about these other classes that have an abstract vocabulary that is where we have difficulty. That doesn't mean that the child should not participate in them. It just takes deeper thinking about modifications. I would like to have some type of a store house for those kinds of units and ideas. Although the kids might be very different, what if we had a website that we could go to where it says "including a kid with a severe disability in this type of class," "here are some things we did and here is how it worked." We could do it through a distance learning access kind of idea. We do not have a store house for those ideas right now.
<Interview> Dr. Ward thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas with us. I would like to wrap up our conversation by looking at the future. In ten years, what do you see happening in inclusive education as a result of improved/increased practice?
<Dr. Ward> College based transition programs for students with severe disabilities. They all should be experiencing college. I don't care who they are, they should all have fun at a college campus. Our plan for year one of the project I'm working now is to have the kids take classes like other programs in the country. We have a speech and language communication certification program on campus; we have a conflict program on campus; we have a literacy program on campus. These folks [college students from the programs mentioned previously] will be taking classes and one of the options of the assignment will be to help modify and support individuals with significant disabilities [who are attending college] as they take their college classes. I will redesign my transition class and my severe disabilities class and the introduction to special education class too. They [students in these programs] will become tutors and they will help these students study. They will learn how to modify curriculum before they graduate. They [students with disabilities] have to take two classes per semester, one will have to be a P.E. [Physical Education] because developing leisure skills and some sort of organized fitness is important, and any other class that they choose. Then they have to figure out their schedule and they will have a job on campus.
I teach a transition class on campus, and I have the graduate students going out and finding any student with a disability out in the local high school. They have to do a transition plan and a vocational assessment on them. They have to interview the parents and they have to go and interview special education chair people to see if they thought that this was a viable option for transition and if their student would be appropriate for our college based transition program. I am already recruiting kids for the program. I have to worry about behavior and can we provide appropriate supports for that.
The second year, I want them to be in a residential program. Now we get into how does your state fund group homes and supervised living and how is it that our dorms are accessible or not accessible. I have already called our disabilities coordinator and I said, "Don't you think that we could do this?" "Oh yes, we have more accessible dorms here then we have students with disabilities." It seems like it is so easy. The only thing that I'm afraid of is "can you think outside the box to support people in different ways?" It is an 18 to 21 year old program, so we know that it will be funded by school. We would locate a school class on campus, but we won't give them a classroom because the objective is that they need to be integrated all around the campus. All of them [students with disabilities] are going to take courses at different times, float in and out of their tutorial sessions at different times, access the facilities at different times, and have a little card to swipe just like an ATM card. They will learn how to do all of these things within the natural environment and then, we will learn how it is that we provide support with a very high level curriculum.
What comes out of this is what we have to track down and record, record it from the very beginning. There are some colleges that have done it. In some colleges, all they [students with disabilities] do is come to the campus and socialize but they don't take any college classes. I think taking classes is the heart of being a college student. We also have "best buddies" on campus which is when an able bodied person meets up with someone is 18 to 65 [years old]. They buddy up with them based on similar interests. Our students go and provide "best buddies" with other people their age out in the community. In the first year [of this project] even if they don't live on campus, we can help them partake in all sorts of different social activities that happen after hours on our college campus. Part of it is going out, clubbing, dancing, and drinking. We have to be prepared for that if we want them to have the whole experience.
When we look at inclusive education for kids with significant disabilities a lot of them cross the stage and get that diploma just as a right of passage but they don't get the diploma because we know that they are actually continued to be provided services 18 through 21. For many of them they come back to that high school next year and although they are out in their vocational job or job coaching for most of the day, isn't it weird that they come back to a place where no one their age is? The goal is to see what else we can do. There have been only a few colleges that I know that have really done this. Community colleges have done this but it is only the socialization day experience and they don't take any classes. We really want to try to convert that. We don't have that as a standard transition option for kids with significant disabilities; we don't have inclusive options beyond high school. Why would anyone in a high school want a kid to be included if they know that there are no inclusive options for them after high school? The whole system needs to change for this to work. In ten years, I think that there will be more independent lives but so many things need to change to get us there. I think that I could really help with the college based transition program. It would be systemic and then I could say to the school district the kids that come in here have to come out of full inclusive settings. Maybe if we push programming backwards, by saying here is the kind of kids that will come into this program, here is what we are looking for. They need to understand that we are really serious about inclusive education and I will help them get there because I want this program to succeed. It is cultivating that backward changing start with later in life and move backwards. That is where I hope we will go. Ten years from now I would hope that I would have graduated a number of students from St. Rose and that we will have a lot more longitudinal data about the outcomes of inclusive education. I think that the jury will have returned a verdict. Right now the jury is still out deliberating. Ten years from now all that information should be back and we should be able to say "this is how we know it works, here are the pieces that have done it, here are the kids that have been most successful and under what conditions, go and do."