Abstract

We conducted an online statewide survey of teachers of students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities to determine the extent to which their students were included in school extracurricular and community recreation activities. For the 252 teacher respondents who indicated that their primary caseload consisted of students with significant intellectual disabilities, we report the numbers of students participating in school and community activities and the primary type of support students required to participate in each activity. Finally, we identify implications for practitioners who want to increase the participation of students with significant disabilities in school and community activities.

The importance of including students with moderate and severe disabilities in inclusive extracurricular and community recreational activities has long been recognized (Browder & Cooper, 2001; Rynders & Schleien, 1993). Recreation and extracurricular involvement is an important means of improving quality of life, ensuring the development of a network of friends, and increasing the likelihood of community integration and postschool success (Modell & Valdez, 2002). In short, recreational and leisure activities are an element essential to a full and satisfying life (Schalock & Alonzo, 2002).

Yet students with intellectual disabilities need both extensive opportunities for participation, as well as explicit instruction, in developing the critical skills to participate (see Collins, Hall, & Branson, 1997; Modell & Valdez, 2002). Unfortunately, without both planned opportunities and instruction, students with intellectual disabilities often engage in solitary activities (watching TV, or engaging in no recognizable recreational activities at all), and this pattern unfortunately carries over into adulthood (Strand & Kreiner, 2005). For example, Sands and Kozleski (1994) found that adults with disabilities rarely participate in community groups or recreational activities (e.g., athletic clubs). In extensive interviews with recent graduates and their families, Kleinert et al. (2002) found minimal opportunities for young adults with intellectual disabilities in community recreation activities. Sheppard-Jones, Prout, and Kleinert (2005) found that adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, when compared to a sample of adults in the general population, reported significantly higher levels of personal loneliness, lack of friendships, and fewer opportunities to be with the friends they did have.

Unfortunately, this pattern often starts during the school years. Wagner, Cadwallader, Garza, and Cameto (2004), in their analysis of National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 data, have noted that students with mental retardation are among the least involved in school extracurricular activities; for example, only 33% of students with mental retardation had participated in any school extracurricular activities within the preceding year of that study. Wagner et al. did note a slightly higher participation rate (41%) for community activities over that past year. Recognizing the need for both participation and instruction in this essential life domain, Congress, in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, again stressed that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) must include:

A statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practical, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child, and a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided for the child a) to advance appropriately toward attaining the annual goals b) to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum in accordance with subclause (I) and to participate in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities. [Sec 614 (d)(1)(A)(i)] (italics added).

Barriers to Participation

Yet, significant barriers remain to ensuring that students with significant disabilities have the extracurricular and recreation opportunities of their same-age peers. Students with significant disabilities often have limited opportunities for choice-making in valued activities (Wehmeyer & Palmer, 2003), exhibit communicative and social skill deficits (Kleinert et al., 2002), and participate in separate educational experiences. For the state and year in which we conducted our survey, Child Count data indicated that only 7.3% of all students with moderate or severe mental retardation were served primarily in regular education classes, with 61.5% of these students still served in separate educational classes (Kentucky Department of Education, 2004), and 2.5% of these students were still served in separate schools or facilities. Although the U.S. Department of Education does not keep separate placement data for students with moderate and severe mental retardation (but, rather, reports all levels of mental retardation, including students with mild intellectual disabilities under a single category), national data for regular class participation for all students with mental retardation during 2004– 2005 was only 13.8%. On a national scale, U.S. Department of Education 2004–2005 placement data also indicate that 6.0% of all students with mental retardation continue to be served in separate educational schools or facilities. Clearly, separate class and school placement decreases opportunities for inclusive extracurricular activities.

Given the importance of inclusive recreation/ leisure and extracurricular opportunities for students with significant intellectual disabilities, the limited research on the extent to which these students do participate in these activities, the apparent barriers to this participation, and the essential need for teachers to have effective strategies for promoting participation, we conducted a survey of teachers of students with moderate and severe disabilities in one southern state.

Method

In order to obtain a rich data source that teachers could complete in a minimal amount of time (approximately 10 minutes), we designed an online survey (Appendix A) using commonly accepted principles of online survey development (see Dillman, Tortora, & Bowker, 1998). For teachers of students with moderate and severe disabilities, we were interested not only in the extent to which students with intellectual disabilities were currently participating in school extracurricular and community activities, but the primary supports students required for successful participation. To ease administration of the survey, we used drop-down menus for teachers to indicate the primary support provided to their students for each activity. Teachers could select from 1 of 10 possible support options: special education teacher, general education teacher, parent, teaching assistant, peers, assistive technology, other school staff, sibling, other support, or independent student participation. We also designed open response text boxes for teachers to identify strategies used to include their students in extracurricular and recreation activities as well as an opportunity to make additional comments.

After receiving institutional review board approval, in the spring of 2005, we disseminated the survey via an on-line link, with a request for teacher participation, to the state's local special education director list-serve and to the state's regional special education cooperatives. Specifically, we asked local directors of special education and special education cooperatives to provide the survey link to their teachers of students with moderate and severe disabilities (in that state, teachers whose caseload was identified specifically as functional mental disabilities). We also posted the survey link on the state's alternate assessment web site because the great majority of students in that state's alternate assessment were students with significant intellectual disabilities. During the 3 weeks in which the on-line survey was posted, we sent four reminders to the special education director and special education cooperative list serves to forward on to their functional mental disabilities teachers.

All survey responses were entered into an on-line data base. Descriptive statistics were calculated for both school and community activities.

Results

Although, as with any electronic survey, it is not possible to know how many teachers actually did receive the electronic link, we received a total of 317 completed teacher surveys. Of these responses, 252 of the responding teachers indicated that their primary caseload consisted of students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities (79.5% of all respondents). State data for the 2004–2005 Kentucky Department of Education (2005) school year indicate that there were approximately 465 teachers whose primary caseload consisted of students with moderate and severe disabilities (i.e., functional mental disabilities class units), indicating an approximate response rate of 54.2% of all such teachers in the state. Other responding teachers indicated a primary caseload of students with mild mental disabilities (n = 27, or 8.5% of all respondents), learning and behavior disorders (n = 12, 3.8%), or other disability categories (including developmental disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities, n = 26, 8.2%). For this study, because our primary interest was in the participation rates and types of supports for students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities, we excluded other teacher responses from this analysis.

Of the 252 teachers reporting that their primary caseload consisted of students with moderate and severe disabilities, 36.8% indicated they served an elementary caseload, 22.0% served middle school students, and 31.4% served high school students. Almost 10% of the teachers had students across broader age spans, including 3.8% of the respondents who taught elementary and middle school students; 4.7%, middle and high school students; and 1.3% (3 respondents) who indicated that they served students across all age spans.

Teacher experience ranged from 1 to 31 years (M = 11.2, SD = 8.4). In response to the question “How many students with moderate and severe disabilities are you currently serving,” the mean teacher response was 7.63 (range = 1 to 16, SD = 2.76). The great majority of responding teachers of students with moderate and severe disabilities classified their settings as rural (82.5%) versus urban (17.5%); approximately 43.4% of the state's population is classified as living in rural settings (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2005), indicating a substantially higher response rate to our survey from rural than urban teachers.

Primary Activities in Which Students With Moderate and Severe Disabilities Participate

Table 1 indicates the most frequently reported school-related activities in which students participated. The largest single category reported was “social activities related to school with peers” (reported by 65.1% of the teachers who responded to that question), followed by school clubs, choir, school sports, and 4-H activities (4-H, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, serves youth from kindergarten through high school, and includes activities based in agriculture with a focus on leadership, citizenship, and life skills).

Table 1

Participation in School Extracurricular and Recreation–Leisure Activities

Participation in School Extracurricular and Recreation–Leisure Activities
Participation in School Extracurricular and Recreation–Leisure Activities

As noted in Table 1, the types of supports provided were very activity-specific, with parents being the most frequently indicated support for school-related social activities and school sports teams; special education teachers the most frequently noted support for school clubs; general education teachers the most frequently noted support for choir and drama; general education teachers and paraeducators (teaching assistants) for 4-H; paraeducators for school band participation; and peers for participation in school organizations.

Table 1 also indicates the most frequently reported community-related activities in which students participated. The most frequently noted activities in which at least one student participated were church social activities (65.5% of the teachers indicated they had at least one student participating), peer social activities not related to school, church youth groups, community sports teams, and church clubs. Parents were noted as the most frequent support for virtually every activity in the community portion of the survey, though peers were noted as the second most frequent support for church youth groups, church social activities, church clubs, and peer social activities unrelated to school. More teachers indicated that students served as their own support (independent participation) in community activities (as opposed to school-related activities), with “student independence” selected as the second most noted support in parks and recreation sports teams, church sports teams, and parks and recreation social activities. For only one community activity did school staff figure as an important element of support; for parks and recreation social activities, special education teachers tied as the second most frequently noted type of support.

Differences in Participation and Support Across Age Levels

In order to determine any differences in participation and supports across age levels, we analyzed the responses for those teachers who had indicated that they served students in a single age category: elementary (36.8%), middle (22.0%), and high (31.4%) school. We conducted a one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) to determine whether statistically significant differences existed between the three group means. This test controls for the increased probability of type I error (finding a difference between groups when there is none) that would be present in conducting multiple t tests. The results are reported as F values with the significance level set at .05.

As might be expected, high school age students participated more frequently in peer social activities outside of school than did either middle or elementary age students, F(2, 192) = 5.17, p < .006. Participation in school clubs increased significantly with age, F(2, 192) = 15.53, p < .000, with high school students five times more likely to participate in school clubs than were elementary age students and significantly more likely to participate in choir than were elementary age students, F(2, 187) = 4.65, p < .011. The highest rate of band participation was for middle school students, with the difference in participation in this activity between elementary and middle school students statistically significant, F(2, 175) = 3.50, p < .032. High school students participated more frequently in parks and recreation social activities than did either elementary or middle school students, with a significant difference between high school and elementary school students, F(2, 180) = 4.31, p < .015. Interestingly, 4-H participation was highest in elementary school, F(2, 178) = 4.80, p < .009, dropping off significantly in middle and high school.

Discussion

This statewide survey of teachers did show that students with significant intellectual disabilities are included across a wide range of both school and community extracurricular and community activities. The majority of teachers who responded to this survey indicated that they had at least one student participating in school-related social activities with peers (65.1% of all teachers responding to this question), followed closely by participation in school clubs (42.9%). The frequency of teachers reporting student participation in school clubs was especially encouraging; this result was bolstered by narrative comments from teachers who had either sponsored existing clubs or created new clubs for both students with and those without disabilities.

However, an important caveat is that these percentages only note the frequency of teachers reporting at least one student participating in each activity, not the actual percentage of students who were participating. For example, for the school activity most frequently noted by teachers (social activities related to school with peers), the mean number of students for all teachers who had at least one student participating was only 3.0 students; for school clubs, 4.4; and for sports teams, only 1.5. This is important in that teachers reported serving a mean of 7.63 students with moderate and severe disabilities in their respective caseloads. Although these findings are encouraging at the teacher level, they are less so when viewed at the individual student level.

The way in which we asked this question probably resulted in the higher participation percentages that we report in school extracurricular activities for students with intellectual disabilities than Wagner et al. (2004) found in their National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 analysis. Wagner et al.'s data are based upon individual students' participation; our reported percentages reflect all of those teachers who had a minimum of one student participating in each of the above activities.

For community activities, we found high percentages of teachers who responded that they had at least one student participating in church-related activities, including church social activities, and church youth groups, as well as in peer social activities not related to school. However, the mean number of students participating (for those teachers reporting at least one student who participated) was 2.1 students for church social activities, 1.9 for church youth groups, and 3.1 students for peer social activities not related to school. This would suggest that from an individual student perspective, participation rates were again considerably lower than the teacher percentages alone would suggest.

This survey also highlighted several other important results, including the finding that the primary support provided to students with significant disabilities that enabled them to participate in school and community extracurricular and recreational activities was personal assistance supplied either by parents, the special education teacher, general education teacher, paraprofessional, or peers. Supports such as assistive technology (not mentioned by any respondent as a primary support) and siblings (noted primarily for community activities but at response rates of less than 5% for all activities) were mentioned far less frequently.

It is encouraging to note that general educators were the most frequently noted support for such activities as 4-H, choir, and drama. This may indicate an increasing comfort level of general educators in working with students with intellectual disabilities. Yet, this survey also highlighted the essential role of parents as the primary support for both some school activities (i.e., school-related social activities with peers and school sports teams), as well the primary support for virtually every community activity. Given that the 59.6% of respondents served elementary and middle school age children, this is not completely surprising; yet the capability of parents to provide this support is clearly crucial.

As might be expected, we found significant differences in extracurricular and community involvement in specific activities as a function of student age. In general, these differences favored older students, with significantly higher rates of participation for high school students in such areas as choir, school clubs, and peer social activities outside of school and in parks and recreation social activities. This finding has important implications for practitioners; teachers need to ensure that students with significant intellectual disabilities have opportunities for broadening both their school and community support circles as they approach the transition years to adult life. We found it interesting that elementary age students did have a significantly higher rate of participation in 4-H activities than did either middle or high school students. Because so many of our respondents were from rural areas, this finding might reflect the presence of more organized 4-H activities at the elementary level, with students expected to pursue more individualized areas of interest in their communities as they move into middle and high school.

Finally, though we did not do a statistical analysis on the relative frequency of participation in school extracurricular activities versus community activities, we noted, in general, higher percentages of teachers reporting they had at least one student participating in community activities than in school extracurricular activities. For example, the majority of teachers reported that they had at least one student participating in only one extracurricular activity in school (social activities related to school peers), but reported they had at least one student participating in three community activities— church youth group, church social activities, and peer social activities unrelated to school. This is consistent with Wagner et al.'s (2004) finding of slightly higher community participation rates.

Limitations

There are several limitations to this study. First, as with any on-line survey, it is difficult to precisely determine response rate. Of the 317 teacher responses to this survey, 252 were from teachers whose primary caseload consisted of students with moderate and severe cognitive disabilities. This represents approximately 54% of all teachers with students who had moderate and severe disabilities (functional mental disabilities caseloads) in the state. However, it is also quite possible that under this state's class or caseload labeling regulations, that a teacher whose class or caseload unit was categorized as “multiple disabilities” could have answered yes to this question. Although we specifically targeted functional mental disabilities teachers in our initial dissemination and all survey reminder prompts to local school districts, very probably some teachers of multiple disability units also responded to this question with a yes, and our actual response rate would, therefore, have been subsequently lower.

Second, we asked teachers to select the primary support that their students used to participate in each activity. However, this was a global measure at best because teachers could indicate only one support for each activity, and students may have needed several supports to be successful. This measure may also have been problematic when teachers had 2 or more students in that activity, and each student required a different support. We chose to use this more global support indicator for ease of survey administration. Although collecting individual student data would have been preferable, it would have greatly increased both the length and complexity of the survey and, we suspect, would have considerably reduced our overall response rate.

Third, we do not know whether the teachers who responded to our survey are representative of all teachers in the state with students who have moderate and severe disabilities. It is possible that responses from the teachers who did not reply would have varied significantly from the teachers who did complete our survey. Given that only 17.5% of our respondents indicated they taught in urban settings, it would appear urban teachers were underrepresented in our sample.

Fourth, teachers' knowledge about their students' community participation may not have been as accurate as their familiarity about the extent of their students' involvement in school extracurricular activities. This is especially likely because teachers reported that they were a frequent source of support for their students for only one community activity—parks and recreation social activities— whereas teachers reported that they were frequent supports for many of the school activities. However, even with this limitation, teachers still reported higher frequencies for community than for school-related activities for their students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities. Again, this highlights the critical need for practitioners to focus especially on school extracurricular inclusion as an unmet need in the lives of many of their students.

Directions for Future Research

Given the critical need for participation in school extracurricular and community recreation activities if students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities are to have valued roles in their communities, sustained and rewarding friendships, and successful postschool transitions, we would first suggest that future investigators attempt to address these dimensions from the perspectives of families and students themselves. In that paraprofessionals and general educators also provided substantial levels of support to students in our survey, perspectives from these professionals on how they can best provide assistance are needed as well.

Second, we were surprised at the high levels of participation reported for church- and faith-based activities as a primary means of community recreation and social involvement for students in our survey. Further, although we found significant differences in participation in several school and community activities as a function of student age, for church-related activities (e.g., church sports teams, youth groups, social activities, and clubs), there were no statistically significant variations in participation as a function of age. This would indicate that church- and faith-based activities provide an important outlet for social and community recreation for students with significant disabilities of all ages. Further, peers were strongly noted as supports in faith-based activities (rated as the second most frequent supports for church youth groups, clubs, and social activities). Given the central role of faith-based organizations in the lives of communities, these findings have important implications for teachers and families who want to increase the social and recreational participation of their students.

Further research is warranted in studying the most promising supports to include students with significant intellectual disabilities in faith-based recreational and social activities and in ensuring that faith-based organizations are fully aware of the role they can play in the lives of students with intellectual disabilities. Indeed, the importance of instrumental supports for participation in faith-based organizations has been recognized as an essential element of the methodology within the very definition of mental retardation (Luckasson et al., 2002); this survey gives further credence to the importance of those supports.

Additional research is warranted to determine whether our findings are generalizable to other states or localities, as the findings of this study are limited to one southern, rural state. This study adds to the literature in that we focused specifically on the participation of students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities, for whom exclusion in school and community activities has historically been the norm (Hagner, 2000). National data sets (e.g., National Longitudinal Transition Study 2) based on IDEA categories, provide a broader picture, but do not yield specific information for students with more moderate and severe intellectual disabilities.

Clearly, some teachers have been successful in assuring that their students have been included in extra-curricular activities with typical peers. Further research is needed to identify and learn from those teachers and schools that have effectively included students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities in school clubs, sports, and other activities.

Finally, this survey highlights the need for teachers to continue to provide direct, explicit instruction to their students in the skills required for school extracurricular and community activities. Especially for the school-related extracurricular participation rates reported in this survey (for which teachers would have had the most direct knowledge), we need to continue to ensure that students' IEPs continue to identify both critical instructional objectives and supports required for extracurricular participation. We also need to provide research-based strategies (see Carter & Hughes, 2005; Collins et al., 1997) for teachers that focus on how to do this, in both inclusive school and after-school environments with typical peers. Such strategies should address the critical skills for successful participation as well as the development of rich support networks of peers and friends that give these activities their meaning for all students.

Table 1

Continued

Continued
Continued

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Appendix A

Online Survey Instrument

This survey is for teachers of students with moderate and severe disabilities. These students may be identified as having functional mental disabilities, autism, or as “certificate” students.

  1. In which type of district are you currently teaching? [Response choices allowed only one choice among the following: Urban, Rural]

  2. What level of students are you currently teaching? [Response choices allowed only one choice among the following: Elementary, Middle, High]

  3. For how many years have you been teaching? [Response choice was open ended]

  4. What is the primary category for your caseload of students? [Response choices allowed only one choice among the following: Moderate and Severe Disabilities (Functional Mental Disabilities, Mild Mental Disabilities, Learning and Behavior Disorders, Other)] How many students with moderate and severe disabilities are you currently serving? [Response choice was open ended]

For each of the following activities, how many of the students indicated above are actively involved and what is the primary type of ongoing supports needed for this involvement? (actively involved is defined as attending at least 50% of the scheduled events) [Type of support was presented as a drop down menu with the following choices: independent, special education teacher, general education teacher, paraeducator, other school staff, peers, parent, sibling, assistive technology, other; number of students was open ended]. See Table 1 for a listing of activities.

Please identify strategies that you have used to actively involve your students in extra-curricular activities: [Response choice was open ended].

If you have other comments regarding extra-curricular activities, please share them here: [Response choice was open ended].

Author notes

Authors:

Harold L. Kleinert, EdD (hklein@uky.edu), Executive Director, and Kathy Sheppard-Jones, EdD, Director of Adult Services, Human Development Institute, 126 Mineral Ind. Bldg.; Sally Miracle, MS, Low Incidence Consultant, Central Kentucky Special Education Cooperative, 43 Dickey Hall, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506-0051