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Handicapping the Handicapped: Decision Making in Students' Educational Careers


reviewed by Elizabeth M. Reis - 1987

coverTitle: Handicapping the Handicapped: Decision Making in Students' Educational Careers
Author(s): Hugh Mehan, Alma Hertweck, J. Lee Meihls
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804713049, Pages: , Year: 1989
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The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, Public Law 94-142 (P.L. 94-142), brought special education out of the Dark Ages and into the twentieth century. Its basic premise is that every handicapped child in America has the right to receive a free, appropriate public education in the “least restrictive environment.” P.L. 94-142 created enormous pressure, however, on state and local school authorities, who must first properly diagnose students in terms of determining which handicapping condition(s) a child has, and then determine what type of educational setting is most appropriate for that child.


This pressure, as might be expected, has led to certain problems in implementing P.L. 94-142 (although very few people, and certainly not this reviewer, would suggest that the problems overshadow even in some small way the general efficacy of the legislation). It has been noted with concern, as one example, that a disproportionately large number of minority students are placed in special education programs.1 In Handicapping the Handicapped, Hugh Mehan, Alma Hertweck, and J. Lee Meihls study the process of decision making in the context of examining how and why students are placed in classes for the handicapped. The importance of such study is enormous, for, as the authors point out, future social mobility of a student is significantly impacted by how that student is classified in school.


The authors, armed with certain ideas as to how and why students should rationally be classified, chose a West Coast school district serving 26,000-27,000 residents as the focus of their study. Data were collected by “reviewing official school records, observing daily education practice, videotaping key decision-making events, and interviewing a number of school personnel” (p. 41).


While sociologists may be as interested in some of the pure “decision-making” theories commented on in the book, two sections of this carefully constructed work seem to stand out in an educational context. In Chapter 6, the authors trace the experience (or in sociological terms, “career path”) of two students, from the initial referral by the classroom teacher through the diagnostic process. At the end of this process, one of the students examined was labeled “normal” and one “learning disabled.” Recognizing that they are “not the first to raise questions about the problematic nature of testing’ (p. 90), the authors nevertheless go on to make some interesting observations. First, they note the difficulty in obtaining objective results from tests that require mediating by the tester. Excerpts from taped testing sessions are given in which the tester has clearly helped add to or detract from a student’s score by inappropriately aiding or criticizing the response of the student. Moreover, the authors point out that the school psychologists select tests and administer them in order to verify the assessment of the referring teacher: “When they [the psychologists] ‘found’ verification of the referral reasons, they did not continue to administer educational tests in order to find discrepancies in the original formulation of the student; they just stopped testing” (p. 101). Conversely, the child eventually classified as normal was tested with no fewer than nineteen tests, all without results, before the psychologists were forced to conclude that the child did not have a learning disability.


The second section of this book is particularly worthy of note, especially to those interested in issues affecting special education placements. In Chapter 7, there is an analysis of a meeting of the school district’s Eligibility and Placement Committee. These district-level meetings, required under the law before a child can be placed in a special education setting, include as attendees “the school administrator in charge of special education, the school nurse, the district psychologist, the referring teacher, and a special education teacher. The parents of the student referred are also required by law (P.L. 94-142) to participate in committee meetings” (p. 109). [In fact, attendance can be waived by the parents.] Having attended meetings like these, this reviewer knows that the meetings can be fraught with tension, particularly for the parents whose child is being scrutinized and classified. Similarly, all the issues raised in group dynamics are present—issues of relative prestige, interest, forcefulness of presentation, and ethnic and gender bias. Thus, even if these meetings were in all other respects ideal, they would be highly pressured and subject to error. The way the meetings were actually run, however, as described by Mehan, Hertweck, and Meihls, demonstrates that they are disturbingly far from ideal.


The authors present the appropriate model for the “construction of an individualized education plan . . . as a sequential process: (1) the goals and objectives for the child’s education are agreed upon; (2) the services to be provided to the child are spelled out; (3) educational criteria are specified; (4) a written plan is prepared; (5) the plan is signed by the parent” (p. 119). This model as set forth both complies with the intent of P.L. 94-142 and provides a sound basis, rooted in theory, for the formulation of a framework to provide special-needs students with the resources they need to learn. This model also implies that the driving concept in the meeting and placement should be the particular needs of the student involved. In fact, however, the authors found that the driving concept in the actual meetings observed was the existing availability of particular services in the district. Decisions on which services would be provided were made based on which services were already available, rather than on what was educationally indicated. Perhaps most important, parents were informed of their rights to seek alternate treatment if appropriate treatment was unavailable only after the district officials had made the decision that the “appropriate” treatment was available in the school district. In other words, parents were informed of their rights to seek other treatment, but then in the next breath were told that an appropriate treatment was available. In essence, their rights were irrelevant. While reading the following quote from a transcription studied by the authors, imagine yourself an intimidated, confused parent: “Mrs. Ladd, if we, urn, after evaluating Shane find that, urn, we don’t have the proper placement, the classroom available, appropriate placement for Shane, that you can request—or you have rights to private school and you can request that. We’ve made the decision that we do have a class available for Shane to go into” (p. 120). Not only would parents be unlikely to demand consideration of other options; they are likely to be relieved and grateful at the placement of their child in what might well be a completely inappropriate setting, satisfying only the convenience of the school district.


The authors do not suggest a malicious intent on the part of the school officials, in this incident or elsewhere in the book. Overpopulated and under-financed school districts usually try to provide services to the handicapped. The decision making discussed in Handicapping the Handicapped, however, is critically important. In wrestling with the issue of how to define who is “mentally retarded,” Burton Blatt wrote: “Simply stated, someone is mentally retarded when he or she is ‘officially’ identified as such. In that sense, mental retardation is as useful (or useless) a label . . . as rich man, poor man, Democrat, Republican, saint, sinner. [However] . . . it is probably one that leads to more serious consequences than most other labels.“2 The authors of this work have written an interesting and absorbing study. If they also make us more careful in how we label students, and once labeled, how we provide for their needs, they have done much, much more.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 2, 1987, p. 324-327
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 568, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 3:33:32 PM

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