Issues affecting the education, social welfare of the disabled people in the United States came to the fore during the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Indeed, the formulation and recognition of civil rights regulations for students with disabilities marked the first step towards the incorporation of children with disabilities to the broader spectrum of the education system in the United States.
However, it is the introduction of the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EHA) that provided the really transformed the disabled children’s rights of access to education because it provided the most vivid regulatory framework for the education of the disabled (Atto Bufallo Website, 2009).
According to the Atto Bufallo Website (2009), the EHA was introduced with the objectives of: (1) guaranteeing non-discriminatory free and appropriate public education for disabled children aged between 5 and 21 years old; (2) ensuring that public agencies provide special education and accompanying services absolutely for free; (3) matching and adjusting special education programs and curricula to the levels of the individual needs of disabled children; (4) development of individualized special education programs and accompanying services for each and every disabled child; (5) minimization of restrictive environment for students with disabilities; and (6) the involvement of parents in any decisions related to the enrolment, evaluation and classification of their disabled children in schools.
The EHA has since undergone multiple amendments in 1986, 1990 and 1997. The 1986 amendment expanded the demographic applicability of the act to incorporate pre-school and toddler programs. The 1990 amendments saw the renaming of EHA to Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990 (IDEA) and subsequent broadening of the law to include issues related to brain disabilities and technological support devices for children with disabilities (Atto Bufallo Website, 2009).
The third amendment of 1997 further broadened the rights of children with disabilities by introducing regulations which: define school general program accessibility to disabled children; govern the applicability and management of assistive technology devices for disabled children; and spell out the guidelines for providing orientation services and assisted movement for blind and visually impaired students (Atto Bufallo Website, 2009). The signing into law of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 by the US President also accorded significant recognition to children with disabilities. Therefore, this paper designed to review and evaluate the role played by the special education laws in transforming classrooms since the introduction of EHA in 1975. Theoretical Background
The motivating factors behind the formulation, amendments and subsequent application of special education laws can be identified in arguments presented by numerous education theories and theorists. Some of the education theories that are related to this topic include the theory of multiplicity of intelligence, the elevator theory of special education, the schemata theory and the constructivist theory. Proposed and developed by Howard Gardner, “the theory of multiplicity of intelligence identified linguistic, mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, musical and intrapersonal as the seven main categories of intelligence” (Gardner & Hatch, 1989).
The categorization of intelligence was motivated by the recognition of the increasing diversity in the human society as a whole (Gardner & Hatch, 1989). As such, the theory proposes that the needs of different individuals cannot be met through rigid single-minded structures but rather through the acknowledgement of the diversified nature of our capabilities. According to the Spannj Website (2009) the increasing societal variations and diversities is also manifested in schools, with more and more students with disabilities being placed in general education programs in schools. Therefore, a change of strategies become imminent as educators are required to adjust to the new classroom adjustments where students with varying capabilities are subjected to similar challenges of acquiring knowledge.
To this end, Gardner (1991) suggests the adoption of multiple and flexible instructional strategies schools to ensure that the varying needs of students, including students with disabilities are taken into account. On the other hand, the elevator theory of special education equates diagnosis for special needs for children according to the elevator movements in an evaluating facility that could be a health center or clinic (Gardner & Hatch, 1989). However, as Freedman (1995) noted, the diagnosis process should not be based on a closed approach system but rather on an open and flexible system approach where parents should explore different alternatives.
The schema learning theory spells out the reasons why the acquisition of prerequisite knowledge facilitates the ability of learners to absorb new information. To this end, educators and instructors should not apply standard strategies in education programs but rather seek to adjust to the diverse nature of individual needs of learners. The Constructivist theory has been proposed as a theoretical model to guide student instruction (Honebein, 1995). In constructivist theory, students are introduced to information in a contextual format, which enables them to form a direct engagement with the information and understand how it can be used in practice (Honebein, 1995).
Practical Implications of the Special Education Law So far, the inquiry into pedagogical theories clearly suggests that all persons, regardless of their physical, mental or psychological capabilities have unique strategies that they apply to the acquisition and processing of material (Gardner & Hatch, 1989; Jewell, 2009). Honebein (1995) suggested that constructivist learning influences the student in seven key ways: provides learners with experience in the process of knowledge construction; enables learners to view and appreciate the multiplicity of perspectives without suffering cultural or personal conflicts; embeds relevance and reality in learning processes; propagates stakes and defines ownership in the learning process; embeds learning processes in social transformations and development of intellectual capacities; encourages the adoption of multi-faceted representations; and lends credibility to the knowledge acquisition and construction processes.
Moreover, as the schemata theoretical model confirms, the use of interactive teaching techniques such as illustrations, discussions, demonstrations, role assignments, songs, and play with the objective of eliminating any likelihood of learners experiencing cultural or personal conflicts in the process of assimilating schemata that is biased against their long held values suppositions or beliefs (Driscoll 2005). It is for this reason that classroom interactive learning models emphasize the significance taking into account both the varied and specific needs of learners in the designing of lesson plans and materials so as to generate functional knowledge and ascertain the likelihood that learners will use the new information in their studies and in practical ways (Driscoll 2005).
The special education laws are important because they demonstrate that a student’s comprehension of skills and concepts can be achieved through the incorporation of more interactive instructional strategies in learning processes rather than through discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disabilities (Jewell, 2009). Instructional strategy is a fundamental component of curriculum development and planning within education because instructional strategy refers to the approach taken by the educator to impart or communicate information to students (Driscoll 2005). Some types of instructional strategies appear to be well-suited to the curriculum and methods that are used within public schools, especially teacher-directed or project-based learning (Driscoll 2005).
In general education programs, teacher-directed learning refers to the teacher-to-student relationship that is established within the classroom in which the teacher states information via lectures or lesson plans and the student acquires this information in the same form as it was initially imparted by the teacher. While different learning is widely used within public education and is the dominant instructional strategy used within public schools, the reasons for its use are found in its feasibility instead of its effectiveness (Driscoll 2005). The ADDIE and Dick and Carey models should be adopted to form the basis for structuring instructional design with the full knowledge of the implications of the design process. ADDIE is an acronym that stands for a sequential design process that begins with analysis, and then followed by design, development and implementation before ending with the evaluation phase (Driscoll 2005).
Whereas the Dick and Carey model systemizes the process of instruction design by taking to account the significance of each and every component of successful learning process. Therefore, it is imperative to demonstrate that learning is an all inclusive process with the potential to improve the overall educational experience of the student and that its applications are not limited to the physical and mental abilities or disabilities (Jewell, 2009). This is well demonstrated in the relevance of Gardner’s theories of intelligence multiplicity in instructional design processes; and the significance of the behaviorist, cognitivist, and constructivist principle in designing instructional materials for learning and assessment purposes (Honebein, 2009).
Barell, (2006) noted that different people have different approaches towards information gathering and information acquisition and those students who do not respond well to teacher-directed instructional strategy have traditionally suffered in terms of academic performance in schools. The acquisition and comprehension of information can be enhanced through isolating an appropriate instructional strategy into the student’s preferred learning strategy. Recently, public schools have been required by state and federal law to demonstrate that students are capable of meeting specific academic performance benchmarks, such as achieving minimum standards on tests (Barell, 2006).
By extension, the ability of students to meet these benchmarks is applied to the school to review and assess the institution’s ability to deliver education to its students. Many school administrators have found that the students were unable to meet these benchmarks and have sought to improve student performance through investing in alternative instructional strategies. Conclusions There is no doubt that the special education laws have led to very fundamental changes in classrooms today. Physical and mental disabilities are no longer considered to be the determinants for academic capabilities and excellence. The adoption of appropriate learning strategies to address the diverse needs of different categories of learners is what stands out as the appropriate approach to education.
Therefore, the increased incorporation of student with disabilities to the general education programs in schools should be viewed as a positive and affirmative challenge geared towards equal and indiscriminate access to education opportunities to all, including students with disabilities. As such, there exist different practice settings in which students can develop a comprehensive understanding of the materials that were introduced to them via group and individual tailored instructional strategies. The application of special education laws has changes the classroom setting by demonstrating that students respond positively to inclusive learning and that individualized approach is especially applicable for students who demonstrate difficulty in learning and grasping new information.