by Peggy Barragry


Centre for the Study of Developmental Disabilities, UCD, 15 December 2000

‘Disability is a natural part of the human process and does not diminish the dignity of the person.’

Ten to fifteen per cent of students in the USA have a disability. Parents have high expectations, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) resources and ensures educational placement in integrated education, with full support services, for students with disabilities. Dr Kathleen Mehfoud, quoted above, is one of eight attorneys on special education in the state of Virginia. She gave a legislative response to meeting the educational needs of students with disabilities at a one-day conference at UCD on 15 December 2000- Dr Mehfoud assured her audience that regular students become more tolerant, special students emulate peers, and both benefit in the integrated setting.

In Virginia it takes 65 administrative days to evaluate a child and 30 days to implement decisions made. There is ongoing consultation with parents and the Individual Education Programme (IEP) is reviewed annually. The biggest problem encountered in the US is the shortage of teachers. An extensive training programme is now in place to correct this.

Still, numerous disputes do arise, leading to litigation. Dr Mehfoud outlined the many Due Process avenues open to families in the US, as well as the duration, cost and emotional stress involved. However, she said, it was found that litigation procedures fell to 99% when the Mediation Process was introduced.

Ms Claiborne Winborne spoke on mediation. A trained special educator, she now works as a professional mediator with H&W Mediators, a private company contracted by the Virginia Department of Education to oversee dispute resolution of special education cases. She assured her audience that mediators are more successful when they are trained special educators. A quality service must be provided to meet the needs of the student with disabilities. Services cannot be denied because of lack of resources, and ways must be found to counter difficulties.

During the 1960s, money was allocated for transportation to move children from their own areas to appropriate services. Now that money is allocated to keep all children in their own area. Less than one per cent of children with disabilities in the USA are educated outside their own areas.

Ms Winborne said that administrators do not always hear or listen well enough to parents or recognise children’s needs. The mediation process can avoid litigation. It is simple, efficient, confidential, cost-effective and easily understood.

A video on ‘Special Education Mediation in Virginia’ was shown. It gave a clear picture of the mediation process in action. The dispute portrayed referred to a student with disabilities whose family wanted him to go to a camp with his school peer group. The teacher, who worked well with him, would be required to accompany him. She was most willing to do so, but the school principal had disagreed. At the meeting, the teacher was afraid to speak her mind in the principal’s presence, the mother was distraught, the mother’s friend was challenging and direct, the principal looked smug, and the composed mediator sat between them all–completely in control.

She encouraged discussion from each person, and when a ray of hope eventually emerged, from the principal, the mediator immediately called for a moment’s quiet in order for all to reflect on his offer. When the offer was repeated again, the matter was quickly resolved to the satisfaction of everyone. The teacher willingly offered to accompany the child, with the principal’s support (for which he was thanked profusely!), and the mother wept with relief. The mediation had been resolved within a few hours.

Later discussion during the conference clearly indicated that the implementation of the rights of children with disabilities in Ireland is not yet being delivered. It was agreed that an interdepartmental group from the departments of Education and Science and Health and Children needs to be formed, which will adopt a holistic approach to the education and health of children with disabilities in our schools.

The Irish Disability Act is now being drawn up and it should form the bedrock of rights which will ensure the necessary resourcing to support quality education and health for our children. But if it does not deliver those rights … what then? Parental pressure brought about changes in the US–why not in Ireland?

  • Free appropriate public education
  • Appropriate evaluation
  • Individualised education program
  • Least restrictive environment
  • Parent and student participation in decision-making
  • Procedural safeguards