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Shifting the Focus from Placements to Teaching Strategies and Life Outcomes

Two conferences in 1975 and 1976 signaled a major shift in the approach to people with more severe and profound disabilities. In 1975, The Arc US, through a grant from the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped, conducted a conference called "Educating the 24-Hour Retarded Child". In 1976, the Council for Exceptional Children published Hey Don't Forget About Me, the report of a conference about "education's investment" in people with severe, profound and multiple [disabilities].

Both conference reports presented some key concepts that would begin to help create a vision of a life of involvement and integration for children many thought required segregation. The focus turned to teaching functional and age appropriate skills.

Dr. Norris Haring spoke of functional curriculum – "time must not be consumed teaching responses, skills and facts that are not essential to increasing the independence of the child with severe disabilities." Haring also acknowledged that the new behaviorism or the technology of behavior change has truly revolutionized the art of special education.

At the same time, he raised a challenging question – "How can behavioral technologists apply their technology to an area which, as far as curriculum is concerned, is an uncharted wilderness?" That wilderness was teaching people with severe disabilities in such skills areas as self feeding, toileting, dressing or walking.

Women with their children
Photo courtesy William Bronston, M.D.

Haring saw the need to develop curricula to teach people with severe disabilities basic skills, but also to help meet other important needs:

  • to listen to parents.
  • for skills and resources to insure the involvement of parents, administrators and the community in education.
  • to train a new brand of teachers for these children.
  • to understand what "ultimate role we have in mind for these children" and thus what kinds of skills they really will require.
  • for the earliest intervention possible and for continuation of that intervention.
  • for a drastic tooling up of the service delivery system to provide the intervention.
  • for more research on all topics related to people with severe developmental disabilities.
  • for support and commitment at all levels of government.

Dr. Lou Brown noted that "it is vital that public schools prepare students with severe disabilities to function as independently as possible socially, vocationally and personally in the least restrictive post-school environment." And that we cannot justify "preparing students to function in large residential institutions or for fostering or maintaining the development of environments that unduly shelter or restrict the individual."