DISABLED KIDS: School Teachers Shoulder Burden of Care
With an estimated 5.8 million children with disabilities in public schools, some education administrators and teachers are at odds with disability advocates over the line between caring and teaching, USA Today reports. "As medical innovations have increased, more kids are surviving, and special needs have increased. Schools are on the front line to meet their needs," Julie Underwood of the National School Boards Association said. Laws, such as the 1977 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- entitling disabled children to free public education -- and Section 504 of the Vocation Rehabilitation Act in 1973 -- prohibiting the discrimination of persons with disorders from ADD to AIDS in federally funded programs -- are changing the duties of a teacher. Teachers find they are responsible for duties ranging from feeding and toilet trips to suctioning tracheotomy tubes and performing urinary catheterizations. "Teachers are feeling great anxiety. They're fearful they will hurt a child by doing something incorrectly or be held personally liable. They feel they are being asked to do things they didn't think would be part of their career selection," Dennis Friel of the National Education Association said.
Despite the concerns cited by the NEA, Education Secretary Richard Riley said that according to a 1998 department survey, those working directly with disabled children, 21% said they felt "well-prepared to address the needs of students with disabilities." Elliot Marx of Chicago's Designs for Change, a not-for-profit group offering counsel to families with disabled children, said "medically fragile kids ... 'are a tiny, tiny fraction.'" He added that most teachers "welcome the training to care for their students" and that "it's been shown that better students and better people result when children learn to accept differences and limitations." But Patty Ralabate, a Connecticut teacher countered, "Parents say it's all in a day's work but it's different when you're dealing with a class of 25 kids. It's scary." She added, "This is a very hot issue. It's wonderful that more disabled kids are in the classroom, but when they need care to maintain their health and, in some cases, their lives, teachers shouldn't be the ones doing it" (Temple, 2/15).