Least Restrictive vs. Most Enabling Environments™

The issue


The education of students with hearing loss, including the delivery of related services, has been changing over the past several years. Contributing factors to this evolution include but are not limited to, advances in amplification technology, improved early identification procedures, and instructional methods.

In addition, these changes also have contributed, at least in part, to the growing heterogeneity of deaf and hard-of-hearing students. While the educational needs of students with hearing loss have always been varied, enhanced opportunities for academic success are increasing. The notion that “one size does not fit all” has been widely accepted in the field for many years. Indeed, the Federal Special Education Law (IDEA) is predicated upon identifying and serving the needs of each child. The cornerstone of the individualized education program (IEP) is the delivery of service and placement based upon assessed needs.

The emphasis on the placement of students with an IEP, however, has been driven by the criterion of the least restrictive environment (LRE). The result of this emphasis has been a growing trend to narrow placement options for students with hearing loss. The primary contributor to this trend has been the misplaced premise that the LRE is found only in mainstream school settings. This trend thus has led many evaluation teams to conform to what they have misinterpreted as a federal law requiring a mainstream placement. This misinterpretation has contributed to restricting access of deaf and hard-of-hearing students to the full continuum of placement options. In fact, IDEA does not require this exclusionary approach which is, in all probability, rooted in the misunderstanding of the LRE.

What we know

In order for an appropriate placement to be achieved, the educational setting must have the capacity to respond to the individual needs of each student. Therefore, in order for a deaf or hard-of-hearing student to have that opportunity, a comprehensive evaluation must be conducted by appropriately trained personnel knowledgeable about hearing loss.

Once the evaluation is completed, all placement options on the continuum must be considered. By proceeding in this fashion, assessment teams will ensure the capacity of the placement to provide all of the needed elements identified by the evaluation. The process will, in effect, result in the placement being the least restrictive environment – and most enabling – for that student. The emphasis on providing placements in the mainstream has been and continues to benefit many students with an IEP. All placement decisions, however, should be based upon diagnostic information leading to the consideration of all placement options with the understanding that the LRE may be achieved at any point on the continuum.

The LRE therefore is not a particular place or setting, but a diagnostic determination made on a student-by-student basis. The LRE is achieved when the placement delivers the correct combination of instructional methodology, insures communication access, and is delivered by appropriately credentialed personnel.

What we don’t know

The zeal to place students with hearing loss in the mainstream setting may have unintended negative consequences. The general education setting is designed for hearing students. The communication needs and the capacity to respond to the cognitive processing needs of deaf and hard-of-students may not be adequately addressed by that setting.

Lack of a capacity to respond to identified needs may result in the intellectual and academic needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing student being unmet, potentially making the mainstream setting the most restrictive – not the least restrictive – placement. Given the perceived a priori notion that the LRE is achieved primarily in one setting, even with extensive modifications being made to the setting, needed services may be lacking. The primary cause of this result is that the initial placement determination did not consider the full continuum of alternative school settings.


While the emphasis on the LRE has provided benefits for certain students, caution must be applied to the unintended result of restricting access to all placement options. Instead, any placement determination should be based on assessment data, and whatever the placement decision is, it must be reviewed on a regular basis. The placement decision is the beginning of the special education process, not the conclusion.

A standard of practice that incorporates these elements will result in achieving the optimal, most enabling placement for each student. Moreover, by following these standards, the placement decision will result in achieving the least restrictive environment for that student, thus fostering academic, social-emotional, and eventual employment success.

Posted on July 1, 2014 by
Louis Abbate
President Emeritus, Willie Ross School for the Deaf
Abbatelouis {at} gmail.com

Further reading

Aldersley, S. (2002). Least restrictive environment and the courts. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 7, 189-199.  view details