Special Education

What Does ‘Full Inclusion’ in Special Education Really Mean?

What Does ‘Full Inclusion’ in Special Education Really Mean?
When it comes to special education, one of the biggest myths about inclusion is as follows: "Inclusion is not about physical proximity. It is about planning for the success of all students." Image from Unsplash
Tim Villegas profile
Tim Villegas November 7, 2019

Full inclusion doesn't mean students with disabilities should spend 100% of the time in a general education classroom. Here's what it does.

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When it comes to inclusive education, one of the biggest myths about inclusion is as follows: “Inclusion is not about physical proximity. It is about planning for the success of all students.”

Let me bust this myth right from the get-go. Full inclusion doesn’t mean students with disabilities (significant or otherwise) should spend 100% of the time in a general education classroom.

If you are offended by this statement, then inclusion advocates, like myself, have done a poor job communicating what inclusion is really about.

Full inclusion is better understood as a mindset and framework for educating students with and without disabilities.

The idea that “we learn better together” is not a new concept. In fact, it is a notion that has been in the refining of academic and peer-reviewed studies for 30 years.

Per SWIFT Schools: “Thirty years of research shows us that when students with varied learning and support needs learn together, they experience better academic and behavioral outcomes, social relationships, high school graduation rates, and post-school success.”

Before you start rolling your eyes, consider that there are multiple examples of authentic and thoughtful inclusive education around the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world. But you’ve seen inclusion fail with your own eyes. Or you think inclusion only works for specific students. Alternately, you believe that time spent in general education is the most substantial measure of whether a school is inclusive.

Friends, you have missed the point.

Inclusion doesn’t exist without a mindset that every student in a classroom, school, or district belongs. Full and authentic inclusion means total membership in a community.

Take a look at some quality indicators of inclusive education and think about whether it is practiced for your children or students.

  • The school communicates a vision that values the contributions of all learners as members of the school community.
    There is adequate, regularly scheduled, ongoing planning time for general and special education teachers and other staff to collaborate.
  • A variety of models for the delivery of special education services, such as collaborative consultation, co-teaching, and flexible grouping, are used to meet the needs of the student population.
  • Students with disabilities have access to and are encouraged to participate in the same extracurricular activities as their peers (e.g., clubs, school play, sports, student government, etc.).
  • Students with disabilities, regardless of the type or severity of the disability, receive most, if not all, of their education and related services in age/grade appropriate classes and have schedules similar to those of students without disabilities.
  • Families are full members of the IEP team and are welcomed into the planning process for their child.

This is only a sampling of the critical elements of a quality inclusive education program. Time spent with typical peers is only one indicator.

Full inclusion is going to look different in every school and every classroom and for every student. What is non-negotiable when it comes to inclusion is the expectation and desire that everyone belongs (and learns) together.

As noted inclusive education advocate Lou Brown states:

“It is unacceptable for students with significant disabilities to spend 0% of their time in general education classrooms. While better, it is also unacceptable for them to spend all of their time therein. Self-contained regular and self-contained special education are both rejected because each extreme disallows important experiences and opportunities. The preference here is that they are based in general education classrooms in which they would be based in they were not disabled. Then, the individually meaningful amounts of time each need to spend elsewhere should be arranged.”

The abysmal fact is that 17 percent of students with any disability spend all or most of their days segregated. Having students removed from their typical peers and general education classroom should be a rare occurrence. In this day and age, the practice is widespread.

We need another system. We need to have a system where special and general education teachers work collaboratively for all students. Better yet,let’s get rid of special education and create one unified educational system. Using the framework of Universal Design for Learning gives us the best chance to create learning environments that are appropriate for everyone.

Let’s not forget the families and individuals with disabilities who prefer separate spaces. We need to honor their wishes. If we are not listening to the people, we are supposedly advocating for what exactly are we doing? You don’t think we can plan for the success of all students and still support small group learning and spaces within an inclusive model? You are not thinking creatively enough.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle. He has been managing editor of the Noodle.com website for over four years.

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