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Qualitative Research Methods and Students With Severe Disabilities  

Karen A. Erickson and David A. Koppenhaver

Qualitative research methods, in many forms, have been used to deepen understandings in the field of severe disabilities for decades. Using methods such as individual case studies, grounded theory, phenomenology, content analysis, life history, and ethnography, qualitative research has served to explain bounded systems, generate theory, study the lived experiences of individuals, investigate historical and contemporary texts and contexts, share first-person narratives, and investigate cultural and social systems that involve students with severe disabilities. Indicators of quality in qualitative methods and means of establishing credibility have been explicated and are widely applied in the field. To varying degrees, qualitative methods have allowed researchers to represent the voices of students with severe disabilities and engage them actively in the research process, which is important given that a mantra among persons with severe disabilities and their advocates is nothing about us without us. Regardless of the methods, accurately representing the voices of students with severe disabilities and including them as active participants in research is not always easy to accomplish given the nature of their cognitive and communication profiles. Many students with severe disabilities do not communicate symbolically through speech, sign language, or graphic symbols. Others have limited means of communication and are dependent on familiar communication partners to co-construct meaning with them. Some approaches to qualitative research, such as post-critical ethnography, provide a potential path toward representing the voice of a broader range of students with severe disabilities because these methods lead researchers to interrogate assumptions in the field while examining their own positions, perceptions, and beliefs relative to the subject of the investigation. While these methods offer opportunity with respect to their ability to fairly represent and involve students with severe disabilities, they challenge previously accepted indicators of quality and means of establishing credibility in qualitative research. As qualitative research methods are applied in understanding students with severe disabilities in the future, these challenges will have to be addressed.

Article

Exceptional Learners  

Daniel P. Hallahan, Paige C. Pullen, James M. Kauffman, and Jeanmarie Badar

Exceptional learners is the term used in the United States to refer to students with disabilities (as well as those who are gifted and talented). The majority of students with disabilities have cognitive and/or behavioral disabilities, that is, specific learning disability (SLD), intellectual disability (ID), emotional disturbance, (ED), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The remaining have primarily sensory and/or physical disabilities (e.g., blindness, deafness, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy). Many of the key research and policy issues pertaining to exceptional learners involve their definitions and identification. For example, prior to SLD being formally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education in the 1970s, its prevalence was estimated at approximately 2% to 3% of the school-age population. However, the prevalence of students identified for special education as SLD grew rapidly until by 1999 it reached 5.68% for ages 6 to 17 years. Since then, the numbers identified as SLD has declined slowly but steadily. One probable explanation for the decrease is that response to intervention has largely replaced IQ-achievement as the method of choice for identifying SLD. The term intellectual disability has largely replaced the classification of mental retardation. This change originated in the early 2000s because of the unfortunate growing popularity of using retard as a pejorative. Although ID used to be determined by a low IQ-test score, one must also have low adaptive behavior (such as daily living skills) to be diagnosed as ID. That is the likely reason why the prevalence of students with ID at under 1% is well below the estimated prevalence of 2.27% based solely on IQ scores two standard deviations (i.e., 70) below the norm of 100. There are two behavioral dimensions of ED: externalizing (including conduct disorder) and internalizing (anxiety and withdrawal) behaviors. Research evidence indicates that students with ED are underserved in public schools. Researchers have now confirmed ADHD as a bona fide neurologically based disability. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes three types of ADHD: (a) ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type; (b) ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type; and (c) ADHD, Combined Type. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes two types of ASD: social communication impairment and repetitive/restricted behaviors. The prevalence of ASD diagnosis has increased dramatically. Researchers point to three probable reasons for this increase: a greater awareness of ASD by the public and professionals; a more liberal set of criteria for diagnosing ASD, especially as it pertains to those who are higher functioning; and “diagnostic substitution”—persons being identified as having ASD who previously would have been diagnosed as mentally retarded or intellectually disabled. Instruction for exceptional children, referred to as “special education,” differs from what most (typical or average) children require. Research indicates that effective instruction for students with disabilities is individualized, explicit, systematic, and intensive. It differs with respect to size of group taught and amount of corrective feedback and reinforcement used. Also, from the student’s viewpoint, it is more predictable. In addition, each of these elements is on a continuum.

Article

Life Stories, Criminal Justice, and Caring Research  

Chrissie Rogers

In the context of offenders who have learning difficulties, autism, and/or social, emotional, and mental health problems, their families, and professionals who work with them, caring and ethical research processes can be explored via fieldnotes. Conducting life story interviews and recording fieldnotes within qualitative criminological, education, and sociological research have long since been used to document and analyze communities and institutions and the private and public spheres. They richly tell us about specific research contexts, or everyday lives and relationships, that interview transcripts alone perhaps overlook. It is in the process of recording and reflecting upon research relationships that we can see and understand care-full research. But caring and ethical research works in an interdependent and relational way. Therefore, the participant and the researcher are at times vulnerable, and recognition of this is critical in considering meaningful and healthy research practices. However, the acknowledgment of the fact that particular types of research can be messy, chaotic, and emotional is necessary in understanding caring research.

Article

Inclusive and Special Education Services in Rural Settings  

Jayanthi Narayan and Nibedita Patnaik

Education is a fundamental right of all children, including those with special educational needs. Efforts to achieve education for all has resulted in the focused attention of governments around the world, thereby improving the quality of education in schools and leading to dignified social status for students previously marginalized and/or denied admission to schools. This worldwide movement following various international conventions and mandates has resulted in local efforts to reach rural remote areas, with education provided by the government in most countries. Though there has been significant progress in reaching children, it has not been uniform. There are still many barriers for children in rural and tribal areas or in remote parts of the country that prevent them from receiving equitable education. The essence of inclusive education is to build the capacity to reach out to all children, thereby promoting equity. In the 1990s, special needs education was a focus, and integrating it into the overall educational system led to reforms in mainstream schools which resulted in inclusive education that addressed the diverse learning needs of children. How successful have we been in these efforts particularly in the remote and rural areas? There are various models and practices for special and inclusive education in rural and remote areas, but reaching children with special educational needs in such areas is still a challenge. Though there are schools in these areas, not all are sufficiently equipped to address the education of children with special needs. Furthermore, teachers working in rural areas in many countries are not adequately trained to teach those with special needs, nor are there the technological support systems that we find available in urban areas. Yet, interestingly, in some rural/tribal communities, the teachers are naturally at ease with children with diverse needs. The schools in such areas tend to have heterogeneous classes with one teacher providing instruction to combined groups at different grade levels. Evidence shows that rural teachers are less resistant to including children with special needs compared to urban teachers. Because of their homogeneous lifestyle, community supports in rural areas offer another supportive factor toward smooth inclusion. Though primary education is ensured in most rural and remote areas, children have to travel long distances to semi-urban/urban areas for secondary and higher education; such travel is further complicated when the child has a disability. In many rural areas, children with special needs tend to learn the traditional job skills naturally associated with that area, though such skills are not always blended into the school curriculum. Preparing teachers to provide education in rural areas with the latest technological developments and a focus on vocation is bound to make that education more meaningful and naturally inclusive.

Article

Evidence-Based Practices in Special Schooling  

David Mitchell

Increasingly, around the world, educators are being expected to draw upon research-based evidence in planning, implementing, and evaluating their activities. Evidence-based strategies comprise clearly specified teaching methods and school-level factors that have been shown in controlled research to be effective in bringing about desired outcomes in a specified population of learners and under what conditions, in this case those with special educational needs/disabilities taught in special schooling, whether it be in separate schools or classrooms or in inclusive classrooms. Educators could, and should, be drawing upon the best available evidence as they plan, implement, and evaluate their teaching of such learners. Since around 2010 there has been a growing commitment to evidence-based education. This has been reflected in: 1. legislation: for example, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act in the United States, which encourages the use of specific programs and practices that have been rigorously evaluated and defines strong, moderate, and promising levels of evidence for programs and practices; 2. the creation of centers specializing in gathering and disseminating evidence-based education policies and practices, brokering connections between policy-makers, practitioners, and researchers; and 3. a growing body of research into effective strategies, both in general and with respect to learners with special educational needs. Even so, in most countries there is a significant gap between what researchers have found and the educational policies and practices implemented by professionals. Moreover, some scholars criticize the emphasis on evidence-based education, particularly what they perceive to be the prominence given to quantitative or positivist research in general and to randomized controlled trials in particular. In putting evidence-based strategies into action, a five-step model could be employed. This involves identifying local needs, selecting relevant interventions, planning for implementation, implementing, and examining and reflecting on the interventions.