Importance and Need for the Continuum of Educational Placements

The issuebus

Forty years ago, many students with disabilities1 were prevented from attending school2, or were not provided services to help them succeed.  In 1975 the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed to make education available to them.  Over the years IDEA policy and practice has evolved to support the placement of most students with disabilities in their local neighborhood school.But is the local neighborhood school the appropriate placement for all students with disabilities?  For all students who are deaf or hard of hearing?

What we know and what we don’t know

The occurrence of an IDEA-eligible deaf student is around one out of a thousand students.  Deaf and hard of hearing students are diverse in hearing ability, use of spoken language and sign language, presence of a (secondary) disability, and other factors.  Because of late identification of deafness and lack of qualified early interventionists, they frequently enter school with language gaps and delays.   Without age- and grade-level language they cannot access the appropriate curriculum level.  Most deaf students do not have a cognitive disability, yet on average they perform below peers on academic measures.Early intervention studies show that students who do best are those who are identified early and receive early intervention from providers with specialized skills teaching deaf and hard of hearing babies and their families. Studies of school age children demonstrate that they do not necessarily learn the same way as hearing children.  So schools cannot simply teach them the same way.  Professionals with specialized and unique skills are required.

A student may need:

  •  Teachers who are skilled in helping students develop and increase spoken language ability
  •  Teachers who are fluent in sign language and skilled in helping students develop and increase sign language ability
  •  Teachers trained in strategies to teach academic and non-academic information to deaf and hard of hearing students
  •  Audiologists who can provide and maintain listening technology
  •  A critical mass of peers with whom the student shares a common language and experience
  •  Professionals who can educate families to support their child’s success.

Many deaf or hard of hearing students use sign language as a primary means of communication.  Schools are required to provide “opportunities for direct communications with peers and professional personnel in the child’s language and communication mode . . . and opportunities for direct instruction in the child’s language and communication mode,” but if there is only one signing student in the school, providing quality opportunities is almost impossible.

Recognizing the variety of student needs and settings necessary to meet those needs, IDEA requires that states maintain a continuum of alternative placements, including regular classes, special classes, and special schools.  The United States Department of Education has stated:  “Any setting that does not meet the communication and related needs of a child who is deaf does not allow for the provision of [a Free Appropriate Public Education] and cannot be considered the [Least Restrictive Environment] for that child.  Just as the IDEA requires placement in the regular education setting when it is appropriate for the unique needs for a child who is deaf, it also requires placement outside of the regular education setting when the child’s needs cannot be met in that setting.”

There is no evidence that placing a student in a local neighborhood school rather than a specialized program or school results in better outcomes.  States and districts generally do not disaggregate data based on disability category, so it is not possible to compare the achievement of students with similar characteristics who are placed in different settings.

These are important considerations for infants and toddlers and their families as well.  IDEA’s Infant and Toddler Program “natural environment” provisions are sometimes interpreted to discourage services in center-based programs. However, these programs offer knowledgeable and experienced professionals and a range of specialized, coordinated services.  States are now attempting to provide early intervention to all deaf and hard of hearing babies by age six months.  In order to meet the needs of all these babies and their families, a range of programmatic opportunities, including those that are center-based, must be available.


The trend toward moving students out of specialized settings and into neighborhood schools, regardless of a school’s demonstrated ability to appropriately serve them, should be halted, and a new approach implemented.  Federal, state, and local policy should take steps to improve services to deaf and hard of hearing students and their families by:
  •  Disaggregating data by disability category so that demographics, characteristics, and outcomes, and personnel and programmatic needs of deaf and hard of hearing students, are readily identifiable
  •  Requiring states and school districts to document their plans for serving deaf and hard of hearing students, outlining how they will optimize resources across school districts and protect the continuum of alternative placements
  •  Monitoring states and school districts on how well they support the academic and related achievement of deaf and hard of hearing students and the needs of their families.

Posted on April 1, 2014 by
Barbara Raimondo, Policy Consultant

  1. Although many do not view being deaf or hard of hearing as having a disability, the law considers it a disability, and this paper will address it as such.
  2. Schools for the deaf were established in the United States starting with the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn. in 1817, pre-dating IDEA by more than 150 years.

Further reading

Borders, C.M., Barnett, D., & Bauer, A.M. (2010). How are they really doing? Observation of inclusionary classroom participation for children with mild-to-moderate deafness. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 15, 348-357. view details

Freire, S. (2009). Creating inclusive learning environments: Difficulties and opportunities within the new political ethos. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 14, 131-135. view details

Lange, C.M., Lane-Outlaw, S., Lange, W.E., & Sherwood, D.L. (2013). American Sign Language/English bilingual model: A longitudinal study of academic growth. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 532-544. view details

Luckner, J.L. & Ayantoye, C. (2013). Itinerant teachers of students who are deaf or hard of hearing: Practices and preparation. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 409-423. view details

Raimondo, B. (2010). Legal advocacy for deaf and hard of hearing children in education. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education, volume 2 (pp. 31-40). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details