“As late as the middle of the 1970s, an estimated 1 million kids with disabilities didn’t even attend school (NEA, 1999).” We’ve come a long way since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted. IDEA was the beginning of what continues to be a fight for inclusion and for the rights of students with disabilities.
In an effort to understand our progress in this fight, I spent a good portion of my day yesterday immersing myself in the numbers. Perhaps, my biggest take away is that we’re actually keeping data on the matter. The lack of data on students with disabilities prior to IDEA is further evidence of the separation and isolation experienced by so many for so long. Thanks to the DAC (Data Accountability Center, 2005-2011), I learned that since 2005, 15% more students (ages 6-21) receive their education in a regular classroom for at least 80% of their day. To my surprise, not a whole lot has changed for students who receive services in separate facilities.
What do these numbers really tell us about the effectiveness of inclusion today? While I’m sure a master statistician would have more to say on the matter, I’m not convinced that the numbers will ever tell the full story. If we’re pushing for an increase in the sheer numbers of students spending time with general education peers, then we’re on the right track. But numbers don’t give us information about the quality of each student’s experience or whether or not their placement is truly the best match for their unique needs.
Effective inclusion is a process in which certain guidelines and questions must be considered.
I – Individualized
Special education is built on an individualized approach to instruction. In the same way, what inclusion means for one student may be different than what it means for another student. The level and method to which a student interacts with the general education community must be purposeful, realistic, and supportive.
- Do the environments support the IEP goals?
- Do the accommodations/modifications support meaningful participation?
N – Necessary
Every student with special needs has the right to be part of the greater educational community. The process of determining the least restrictive environment is absolutely necessary, but there must be a clear rationale for every placement decision. Without an intentional discussion about what this placement will look like or feel like for the student, all we’re left with is a percentage of time… just another number.
- Are the student’s rights on the table?
- Does discussion about placement include thoughtful discussion about implementation?
C – Collaborative
Inclusion invites teams to collaborate on a deeper level. The general education perspective can only enrich the expertise of the IEP team and vice versa. However, collaboration takes time and a conscious effort on the part of each team member.
- Are team members on board with the plan?
- What resources are needed to support each team member in fulfilling their role?
L – Listening
Inclusion must be adapted in response to the strengths, interests, and needs of the student and the community. In education, it’s easy to jump on the inclusion bandwagon. If we emphasize an outcome without responding to the experience of the student, then we’re missing the whole point.
- What is the student telling you about their experience?
- Is it too much, not enough?
U – Understanding
Effective inclusion requires understanding from leadership and administration. There are real issues and challenges that require creativity in the use of resources and the management of logistics. There is a learning curve and change takes time.
- What challenges or logistics need to be addressed to support the student or the team?
- Who needs to be informed and what needs to be shared?
S – Safe
Safety of the student must always be considered. Some students may have difficulty with the number of transitions, the sensory input, and the level of information to be processed within a general education environment. Additionally, general education students may need to be prepared or taught certain skills. If peers don’t understand the disability or if they aren’t given information for what to expect, the student may also be at risk for bullying.
- What information or preparation will support the safety of the student?
- Does the environment support engagement and learning?
I – Ingenious
Inclusion challenges educators to think outside of the box, utilizing resources and technology in new ways. Inclusion challenges us to connect creative solutions to real world issues of accessibility. If an accommodation doesn’t promote access in a general education classroom then how can we expect it to promote access in life?
- Is the team open to possibilities?
- Is there another approach, tool, or resource that will support a positive outcome/experience?
A student’s placement should never be static; rather, it should always be moving toward the next step as the student gains new skills. If there is a lack of progress, it may be time to take a step back and to re-evaluate the placement. If the skills aren’t generalizing, then additional support or teaching may be needed.
- Is the student making progress?
- Are new skills generalizing to each setting?
N – Natural
A student’s experience should be natural, not forced. If the student is resisting the environment or activity, then the team needs to consider whether or not the situation is realistic and meaningful.
- Is the experience a match for the student’s needs, strengths, and interests?
- What is the student drawn to?
- What environments or relationships are familiar or comfortable?
Everyone wants to feel included, to be part of something, to be valued for their unique contribution. If there is anything to be gained by inclusion, then it is a commitment to promoting a sense community and connection that is meaningful for every student. And when the numbers fail to do so, may our shared experiences tell the story.
Data Accountability Center. (2005-2011). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Data. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Retrieved from https://www.ideadata.org/default.asp
NEA. (1999, May). Inclusion Confusion. NEAToday Online, 1. Retrieved from http://lobby.la.psu.edu/063_IDEA/Organizational_Statements/NEA/NEA_Today_Inclusion_Confusion_0599.htm