In education, as with many professions, there are terms of art—words or phrases specific to the field that have special meaning in that context. “Least restrictive environment” (LRE) and “inclusion” are two such terms.
Inclusion is not a legal term; it is a philosophy that refers to placing children with disabilities in their home schools, in the general education setting with supports and services that allow them to access the curriculum.
Inclusion is an idea predicated on the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Because of that ruling—and others that followed—the movement to provide expanded access to children with disabilities grew over the years and was fully realized in the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Act (IDEA 2004), which holds that disability is “a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate and contribute to society.” With that legislation, Congress made clear that the dichotomy of general education versus special education was too rigid a construct.
Least Restrictive Environment
Least restrictive environment is the legal term that embodies the philosophy of inclusion.
It is a guiding principle of IDEA and reflects the presumption that the student’s education will take place in a typical setting and with non-disabled peers; and that exclusion from the general education curriculum is the exception and not the rule.
LRE provides for a continuum of supports and services to address the varying needs of individuals with disabilities, and allows for a case-by-case determination of how best to implement it.
IDEA provides for a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment for children with disabilities, yet does not delineate how school districts are to determine LRE. That decision is based on the unique educational needs of the student and the possible range of supports and services that are required to facilitate his progress.
IDEA does not compel placement in the general education classroom, but rather, supports the continuum of placements required by law, based on individual needs. For example, students with disabilities may be placed in resource rooms, self-contained special education classes, separate special education day schools, residential treatment facilities, a hospital, a detention facility, or on homebound tutoring. The general education classroom is the least restrictive placement, and home is the most restrictive, according to the law, because of a lack of access to non-disabled peers.
Students with disabilities are educated in the general education class if that setting is appropriate to the students’ educational and social needs. The decision comes only after goals and objectives have been designed to ensure progress in the general education curriculum. Availability of space, administrative convenience, or financial implications play no role in placing students. However, additional criteria for determining LRE include consideration of other students’ needs in the class where the student is placed.
There are no absolutes in LRE decisions; they are settled on a case-by-case basis depending on individual needs. Knowing and understanding the principles behind the legislation will help you better advocate for an appropriate placement for your child.
The author is the parent of a child with special needs and a non-attorney advocate who graduated from the Special Education Advocacy Training Program, a joint program of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, the University of Southern California, and the Department of Education.