Inclusion is a special education term that parents hear a lot, and one that they need to understand. As we look back over the 41 years of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), we have come to realize that the word inclusion has had many meanings and interpretations over the decades. These interpretations have shifted the intent of inclusion from one that favored an appropriate education for students with disabilities to one that for all intents and purposes seeks to deny them the education that is their right. This is what we call the yin and yang of inclusion.
First, a brief history. The federal special education law, originally called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, was passed in 1975. Prior to that monumental event, the general assumption was that children with disabilities could not learn. Expectations were low for these children. Public schools had the right to exclude them, so millions of children languished at home or in institutions.
As Special Education Attorney Robert Crabtree wrote in the foreword to our book:
The movement in the early 1970s to expand and deepen the legal rights of children with disabilities had its roots in the eloquent language of the U.S. Supreme Court written on behalf of another disenfranchised school population, children of color. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the Court declared: “…in these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity …is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
It was in the 1970s that parents, advocates, and lawmakers began to work together to include children with disabilities in the public schools. Attorney Crabtree, with his law partner Lawrence Kotin, wrote the Massachusetts special education laws, Chapter 766, which later became the model for IDEA.
With the passage of the federal special education law in 1975, inclusion had begun for children with disabilities. Over the decades, it became a standard practice to include all children in the general education classroom, no matter how severe their needs were. Many children with special needs could be in a full inclusion setting all day or most of the day with little or no specialized instruction. Schools began to see the cost benefit of keeping these children in a general education classroom for most of the day compared to expensive individualized services.
With time, schools began to insist that “inclusion” always meant the general education classroom, leading University of Texas professor of special education, Jessica R. Toste, to write recently that: [I]nclusion is often falsely translated to mean the “place” where teaching and learning occurs.* This was the attitude we experienced when our son was in the public schools.
If inclusion is not executed carefully, however, many teachers without training in special education can find themselves teaching both mainstream children and children with disabilities at the same time. Without the proper training or without the right kind of support, the results are often dismal. In her article, Professor Toste cites a high dropout rate, criminal activity, behavior problems, underemployment and even unemployment for students with learning disabilities who do not receive an appropriate education.
The problem is that IDEA does not adequately define the term “inclusion,” it just says that students must be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” This lack of rigorous definition allows schools to interpret inclusion in a manner that is most favorable to their budgets, regardless of what effect it might have on the students in their charge. They can save money by insisting on including students with disabilities in the general education classroom as a substitute for providing individualized education with highly qualified teachers to meet the unique needs of each child in special education as required by IDEA.
The circular irony of the history of inclusion can be summed up as:
- In the early years of IDEA, the law forced schools to include students with disabilities in the general education classroom.
- Now, many schools use the law to force students with disabilities to remain in the general education classroom even when it does not allow them to receive an appropriate education.
Special education is supposed to consider appropriate services and placement for each child at no cost to the parents. Schools are expected to define the “least restrictive environment” for each child according to individual needs and not assume that full inclusion is always the answer. They are required to offer their students a “continuum of alternative placements,” not just assume that the general education classroom is always the least restrictive environment. Parents need to know, and more importantly expect, that full inclusion in the general education classroom is not the only option. In the law, “inclusion” does not always mean “place.”
Parents, be vigilant and ask questions to determine if your child will receive the proper specialized instruction by a qualified professional. That is what the law says your child should have. That is the fair and true meaning of inclusion.
Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves
* Toste, Jessica R., “The Illusion of Inclusion: How We Are Failing Students with Learning Disabilities,” The Huffington Post, 11/13/2015. Accessed on December 12, 2015 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jessica-r-toste/the-illusion-of-inclusion_1_b_8530372.html