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Educating Children with Multiple Disablilities
A Transdisciplinary Approach


Fred P. Orelove, Ph.D.
Dick Sobsey, R.N., Ed.D.



About the Authors


Deciding what to teach students with multiple disabilities and how to teach them may seem to be insurmountable tasks. Most children have so many things to learn that team members may find it difficult to determine which goals are most important for a given school year. Other children have limited response repertoires and multiple sensory and motor impairments which challenge the creativity of instructional staff to design teaching strategies.

Fortunately, the rapid maturation of the field of educating learners with severe disabilities since the 1980s has resulted in a variety of models and practical solutions to the challenges described above. Federal and state grants and other incentives fueled an explosion of demonstration initiatives and research studies that gave rise to a host of effective practices. At the same time, the field was undergoing a sea change in philosophy and values the worth and role of individuals with multiple disabilities (cf., Meyer, Peck, & Brown, 1991).

It is safe to say that the single biggest driving force behind these changes has been the promotion of the philosophy and practice of inclusive education (i.e., serving children with disabilities in general education classes with their same-age peers). The effect has been obvious, dramatic, and wide reaching. Hundreds of children who formerly were placed in noninclusive classrooms or schools often had few expectations placed on them have been active members of general education classes and have shown academic and social gains (cf., Downing, 1996; Haring & Romer, 1995).

Although the authors of this chapter recognize that many educators and some parents have not embraced inclusion, the multitude of success stories and research data suggest that inclusion has had, and will continue to have a profound influence on our thinking and practices. Thus, this chapter is based on an assumption that readers either serve children with multiple disabilities, or are interested in serving them in general education classrooms. The ideas and information should be useful, however, in other service delivery models.

This chapter is based on several other assumptions, as well:

  1. Every child can learn. While this statement may appear trivial, it is not. Some educators have developed individualized education programs (IEPs) for certain children as if those children had little or nothing to gain from education. Each child, in spite of possible significant motor, sensory, cognitive, and health care needs, should be assumed to be capable of learning (Orelove, 1991).
  2. A transdisciplinary team is necessary. This, of course, is a theme running through the entire book (see Chapter 1). The team becomes especially critical in the design and implementation of the student's educational program, particularly when one considers the range of challenges in the learner with multiple disabilities. Implicit in the transdisciplinary approach is the belief that program planning is collaborative.
  3. Families are vital. Families have an obvious keen interest in the welfare of their family member with a disability, and they should be given every opportunity to be actively involved in decisions about what and how to teach the child. Moreover, families typically know the child better than anyone else and are a rich source of ideas that should be tapped. This is especially important given the large percentage of children who have not been taught a reliable means of communicating. Parents typically develop a finely tuned ability to "read" their child's needs and feelings.

There is no one correct way to perform educational program planning, and many excellent models are available that describe such processes in detail (e.g., Ferguson, Meyer, & Willis, 1990; Giangreco, Cloninger, & Iverson 1993; Rainforth, York, and Macdonald, 1992; Snell, 1993). Although every model differs in its sequence, level of detail, and so forth, they all share common components:

The process proposed in this chapter incorporates these elements. It emphasizes, in particular, "up-front" planning to ensure that the child's IEP is not only clear and effective, but that it results from careful and thoughtful planning. Figure 10.1 presents a flowchart of the process. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to describing each step; Figure 10.2 provides a brief summary of the steps involved. Although curriculum and instruction in reality are interrelated, for convenience this chapter is organized into two sections, treating each area separately.

Finally, although this chapter provides examples wherever possible, it does not attempt to deal with the full range of content issues specific to learners with multiple disabilities. Readers are invited to consult the three preceding chapters for more detailed information on communication skills (Chapter 7) mealtime skills (Chapter 8), and self-care skills (Chapter 9). In addition, Chapter 4 should be viewed as an adjunct to this chapter.

ISBN 1-55766-246-0
Paperback / illus.
512 pages / 6 x 9
1996 / $38.00
Stock# 2460

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