Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and Deaf Students

The issue


Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is the federal requirement that students with disabilities receive their educations, to the maximum extent appropriate, with nondisabled peers [20 United States Code (U.S.C.) Sec. 1412(a)(5)(A); 34 Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) Sec. 300.114]. In layman’s terms, disabled children are to be educated with non-disabled peers whenever possible.

Mobility and vision (as well as cognitive and behavioral) needs are not trivial issues. However, the issue of LRE, as it applies to children who are deaf/hard-of-hearing (DHH), can have serious implications and consequences for some even if not so significant for others.  By definition, DHH children are atypical as compared to “hearing” children.  Acoustic language (i.e., spoken language) as well as school curricula designed to develop spoken language, codification of that spoken language (phonemics), and the ability to use that code productively (i.e., reading print) are designed for typical, acoustically-able children.  Therefore, the general education setting is arguably restrictive in that it is not designed for DHH children.

What we know

Language acquisition and social language use typically begins at home. Academic settings use this social language base on which to build academic language (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, CALP, described by Jim Cummins). It is this social-language underpinning that frequently is underdeveloped or delayed in DHH children.

Children thrive in language rich environments (a needed definition for LRE?) where they can internalize, use, and share language. Language rich settings allow children to develop social language, academic language, reasoning skills, and numeracy as well as identity. LREs should allow children (and adults) to engage in reflective and projective thinking and to share that thinking via common language with those around them. Children lacking language skills, or opportunities to fully engage using language, run the risk of becoming stymied and objectified. Thus, students with unique needs, predictably, struggle in settings which do not match their strengths and needs.

There is a significant shortage of specialized educational personnel for DHH learners – those with the unique skill sets to teach unique learners. “Special Education” degree programs are scarce. Sign language interpreter education programs focusing on educational interpreting are nearly non-existent and typically do not address working with younger DHH children. Furthermore, there is a lack of, and need for, some form of meta-systematic oversight and knowledgeable review of LRE programs serving DHH kids. While inclusion is an admirable goal, it is largely an uncharted social experiment.

What we don’t know

A cousin to federal LRE is FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education).  The lack of agreement on the term ‘appropriate’ is alarming and potentially damaging.

We have little data pertaining to the cost of inclusion. There is an assumption that inclusion is “cheaper” than specialized educational settings. Professionals working with atypical learners need advanced education.  They need advanced training.  They don’t grow on trees, and do come with a price tag.

We also do not know the “cost” of inclusion on the immediate and future lives of DHH children. What does it mean for children to “do well enough” in inclusive settings?  “Well enough” for a typical (hearing) learner likely is different than for an atypical child.  Education should create the desire for lifelong learning. This calls the question of whether “appropriate” education is feasible for many DHH children in general education settings.


There is a supposition that inclusion and LRE tear down barriers and create equality. However, with tearing them down, there must also be reconstruction, and reconstruction for low-incidence populations often does not happen in the mainstream. Resources and education for school administrators, teachers, and parents are needed to be sure that the word “appropriate” is defined and to determine whether education in a particular setting is even feasible.  Forcing a setting to try to be counter to its foundation may be ineffective, and it is the child who suffers in this process.

Curricula often need to be modified for specialized learners.  Language diversity and language attitudes need to be systematically challenged. Roles and responsibilities of adults working with atypical children need to be codified and monitored in order to assure “appropriate” practices.

The U.S. Department of Education has focused upon regulatory oversight and compliance by the states. However, reviewing and updating regulations based upon current research and outcomes from practice should be a priority of the field. For example, the LRE is often misrepresented to be the general education classroom as opposed to be considered a placement similar to other placements on the continuum.
LRE is not about a school room. It’s about a child’s life.

Posted on April 1, 2016 by
Kevin T. Williams
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology
kevin.williams {at} rit.edu

Further reading