Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Characterizing Early Childhood Disabilities in a Nationally Representative Sample Using Functional Profiles

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Characterizing Early Childhood Disabilities in a Nationally Representative Sample Using Functional Profiles

Article excerpt

Over 745,000 children ages 3 through 5 receive special education and related services through Part B Section 619 of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; IDEA Data, 2011). Preschool children gain access to these services through an eligibility determination process, which includes evaluation and classification in at least one of 14 disability categories as specified in the federal law and consistent with state policies and criteria (Danaher, 2007). In addition to eligibility determination, a child's assigned disability category is often used to communicate information about educational needs and to associate a child with a set of services, service placements (e.g., classroom for children with autism spectrum disorder), or expected outcomes (Florian et al., 2006; Reschly, 1996).

The use and usefulness of disability categories for these and other purposes has been controversial since the passage of Public Law 94-142 in 1975. For example, in 1975, Nicolas Hobbs authored The Future of Children: Categories, Labels, and Their Consequences for a federally funded project focused on the classification of exceptional children. In this seminal report, Hobbs raised concerns associated with using a categorical approach to describe children with disabilities and offered an alternative to the traditional disability classification system. He suggested that

   the information needed for good program
   planning is to construct a profile of assets and
   liabilities of the child in a particular setting at a
   particular time.... The profile should be the
   basis for specification of [educational planning],
   (p. 25)

At the time, Hobbs was heartened that "computer technology provides the means of organizing information.... In a perfected system, data from all states could be aggregated to provide the federal government with information to plan legislation" (Hobbs, 1975, p. 25). Nearly 40 years later, Hobbs's recommendations are still relevant. The present study examined the use of functional ability profiles to describe a nationally representative sample of preschool children with disabilities as an alternative to or, at least an addition to, global disability categories.

From Disability Category to a Focus on Functional Ability

The use of disability categories is entrenched in special education services (Burke & Ruedel, 2008), yet federal law and regulations provide only general criteria for using the 14 specified disability categories (Muller & Markowitz, 2004). Analysis of state systems has highlighted variations across states in the adoption of disability categories, terms, definitions, and the eligibility criteria for each category for preschool-age (Danaher, 2007) and school-age children (Muller & Markowitz, 2004). Florian and colleagues (2006) noted when data are aggregated across states, there can be as much variation in the characteristics and educational needs of children within IDEA disability categories as there is between categories. Variation occurs within a disability category when states use the same term to identify children with a range of characteristics (Chambers et al., 2004). For example, suppose that in State A, the IDEA eligibility determination system identifies all young children ages 3 through 6 with developmental delay. In this state, a child with significant multiple impairments and a child with speech articulation difficulties would both be eligible under "developmental delay" despite differences in these children's functional characteristics. Moreover, variation occurs when children with the same functional ability characteristics are identified by different disability categories across states because of differences in state eligibility systems (Chambers et ah, 2004; Dunst & Trivette, 2004). In addition to state-to-state variation, IDEA disability categories provide limited information about disability severity, limitations in functioning, or potential secondary or additional disabilities (Burke & Ruedel, 2008). …

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