Expert Alert

Changes needed to help students with cognitive disabilities fully engage in education with their peers

Sheryl Lazarus

Currently, there are 57 million people in the United States living with disabilities. Almost three decades ago, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In so doing, the ADA has broken down many barriers blocking the full participation of individuals with disabilities in their communities and economies across the United States.

While the U.S. has an exemplary system of integration, empowerment and protection from discrimination, individuals with intellectual disabilities have recommended further improvements to U.S. law. This briefing will explore best practices developed federally and locally to empower and integrate individuals with intellectual disabilities, and discuss legal changes that will enable individuals with intellectual disabilities to reach their full potential.

Sheryl Lazarus is a senior research associate at the University of Minnesota’s TIES Center and National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) in the Institute of Community Integration. She testified before the Helsinki Commission’s “A Truly Inclusive Society: Encouraging the Ability in Disability” hearing this week.

Lazarus believes sustainable changes to the U.S. educational system can be created so students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs.

Sheryl Lazarus, Ph.D.
“While expectations for students with disabilities in the United States have historically been low, several laws have encouraged a more inclusive educational system. Beginning in 1975, Public Law 94-142 set a precedent for inclusive education with its least restrictive environment clause. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act focused on the rights of individuals with disabilities in all spheres of public life – including education, access to employment, transportation and accommodations.

“The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997, often referred to as IDEA, says students with disabilities have the right to learn the general curriculum based on the same standards as peers without disabilities. The most recent reauthorization of IDEA, as well as the 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), reaffirmed the right of students with disabilities to have access to the grade-level curriculum provided to all students. These laws state instruction must be designed to promote progress in the general education curriculum. IDEA also mandates students with disabilities be provided with a free and appropriate public education, which includes both special education and related services, and that students are to be educated in the least restrictive environment. This creates a legal presumption that the general education setting is the default unless the child cannot be educated satisfactorily there even after all the necessary support is provided.

“These, and other laws, provide the underpinnings of inclusive education in the U.S., but the real heroes are the individuals with disabilities, their families and advocates. They have exercised their rights, and sometimes had to push, shove and hold the educational system to what the law required.

“Research has shown us the path to successfully educating all students, including those with the most significant cognitive disabilities. The U.S. has taken some steps in that direction, but we need to have the commitment to make sustainable inclusion happen for all students. To improve outcomes for kids, the behavior of adults needs to change. There needs to be a shared responsibility across educators for the success of all students with all students being held to high expectations. Together, we can create a future that supports the learning of all students in inclusive settings, which will lead to a future with communities where all individuals are valued members.”

Sheryl Lazarus is the director of the TIES Center at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Community Integration (ICI) in the College of Education and Human Development. She is also the associate director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO), which is also at ICI. Her work at TIES focuses on the full inclusion of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in our education system. She has broad expertise in policy issues related to the inclusion of students with disabilities and English learners (ELs) in assessments. Her research and technical assistance priorities include: comprehensive assessment systems, student participation, accommodations, balancing test security and accessibility, alternate assessments, technology, and teacher effectiveness.

Contact information:
Tony Baisley
[email protected]
612-625-4789 (office)


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