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'Least-Restrictive Environment' Must Be Considered at Workplace, Too

Too often, when students with disabilities are moving from school to the workplace—a phase typically called transition—some of the basic tenets of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are ignored, said Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin.

That includes being placed in the least restrictive environment—in other words, with nondisabled peers to the extent possible.

"We have long been concerned that children with disabilities in general were not getting what they needed in transition," he said. For too long, "transition" meant a pipeline to work in a segregated environment, often at so-called sheltered workshops, which typically pay less than minimum wage, he said, "without any real conversation about whether this was appropriate. What about a job coach? What about assistive technology? [These are] all the things they consider for the classroom environment?

While the problem is a stubborn one, in part because work options in some communities are limited in general and in part because of a lack of teacher training about transition, Spitzer-Resnick said there's hope.

A letter from the U.S. Department of Education to his organization last month about this issue emphasizes that the tenets of IDEA do apply to transition.

Melody Musgrove, director of the Office for Special Education Programs, said that if a school district decides that gaining work experience is the logical next step for a particular student, the least-restrictive-environment tenets of the IDEA apply. They don't preclude a segregated work setting—some students with disabilities are taught in segregated settings, away from students without disabilities, Musgrove wrote. But deciding on that placement should be discussed beforehand.

In other words, schools must consider whether these students could thrive in a more inclusive setting with the right supports.

Spitzer-Resnick said these conversations must happen more often, because often for students with disabilities, especially severe disabilities, the job they get after high school is the job they have for the rest of their lives.

Otherwise, while a lot has been done to improve the education of students with disabilities, serve them more inclusively at school, and demand more of them academically, that effort may be going to waste.

"It is clearly the IDEA's goal that children get an education so they can lead a productive adult life," he said. "If we are doing a good job in the earlier years... and we end like this, what a waste of resources."

The letter said that in statistics about students reported to the federal government about the integration of students with disabilities, states must count students placed in segregated work settings in those numbers, too, something Spitzer-Resnick said he doesn't think is happening often enough now.

"This letter a step in the right direction...to solve this problem," he said.

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