Inclusion in the Schools

You are well aware of the discrimination that has taken place in our nation’s history. Unfortunately, people with disabilities are no exception. Many years ago, people with severe disabilities were deemed “un-teachable” and considered “unworthy” of an education. They were placed in institutions where they had little or no contact with other people without disabilities. Individuals with significant disabilities did not have opportunities for an education, to interact with members of the community, and to contribute in meaningful ways to our society. Several experts have described the entire history of special education in the United States as a story of movement from exclusion to increasing inclusion.

Students with significant disabilities were finally allowed to attend public schools (in the late 1970s), but were placed in classes in another building or in a separate classroom, once again with little or no contact with other students without disabilities. Meanwhile, adults with significant disabilities were largely kept away from society, either at home or in institutions.

When compulsory school attendance laws were passed in the early 1900s, many students with disabilities were automatically “exempted” because it was believed that their special needs would interfere with their education and the education of others. Students with disabilities were not welcome in general education classrooms and those who were “allowed” to attend school were isolated to special classrooms. Some people actually believed that the mere presence of children with disabilities was a threat to “typical children.” Most teachers felt that they were not trained in educating students with disabilities, and thus they did not interact with children with disabilities. They believed that only “special” teachers who had “special training” were needed to teach these “special” students in separate “special classrooms.” Because of this belief, those students with disabilities who did attend public schools were not a recognized or accepted part of their school communities.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, special classrooms and schools remained the most common environment for students with disabilities, and unfortunately individuals with more severe disabilities were often still placed in institutions. Then in 1954, in a case called Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that children could not be segregated because of their race. This ruling, though it did not specifically address students with disabilities, caused parents of children with disabilities to think about the segregation of their own children in schools, or the fact that their children were not allowed to attend public school at all. Parents began to form advocacy groups to improve the opportunities for their children. Many court cases were fought to assure that students with disabilities could receive a free public education just like any other child.

In the 1970s, a series of laws were passed to address the needs of people with disabilities.  One of these laws called the “Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975” (now called the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act”, or IDEA) states that no child with a disability can be denied a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment – that is, children with disabilities cannot be served in separate programs away from other students unless their needs cannot be met in a regular school setting.  By the late 1970s and the early 1980s, many students who had milder disabilities were attending regular education classes for at least part of their school day.  This practice was often referred to as “mainstreaming.” 

The mainstreaming of students with milder disabilities led people to question why students with more severe disabilities remained segregated, even though they were in the public school building.  Educators began to explore ways in which all students could spend at least some time with their peers without disabilities in general education classrooms.  This is often referred as the movement to “integrate” students with severe disabilities into regular classes and into other parts of the school day. The movement is based on the important idea -  that interacting with different kinds of people is good for all of us as citizens,  and that integration is not only beneficial to the students with disabilities who get to experience new people, opportunities, and friendships  - but also to students without disabilities who learn about interacting with people with disabilities.

 By the late 1980s many schools were becoming uncomfortable with the way students with disabilities were still seen primarily as “special education students” and not just “students at our school.” In addition, years of experience were showing that collaboration between general education and special education teachers within the regular education classroom could effectively address the needs of students with disabilities, provide for a richer learning experience for all students, and prevent artificial barriers between students. This movement to provide specialized services to students within the general education classroom, while minimizing any separation of students based on different learning needs, is typically referred to as “inclusion” or “inclusive education”. Many believe this movement to be the most consistent with the intent of our nation’s special education law or IDEA.

Now that you know a little about the history of special education, look at the following sites and read how inclusion has been defined by others. Review the articles in the above sites and choose 5 benefits of inclusion in the schools that you feel are the most important.  Explain your choices.

Now that you have begun to think about this idea of inclusion, look at your own school. Where does it stand on this road from segregation to inclusion?