When children with disabilities are educated alongside their nondisabled peers, there are substantial benefits for the cognitive and social development of all children.
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Tim Villegas
Special Educator, Founder and Head Curator at Think Inclusive

March 10, 2021

One of the most comprehensive summaries of the research, published in 2016, reviewed evidence from more than 280 studies conducted in 25 countries. Here's what it showed.

Chances are, if you already believe that inclusive education doesn't work, a stack of research studies saying otherwise isn't going to change your mind. That is because one of the most significant barriers to inclusion is your mindset.

For special education teachers who promote inclusive practices, it is difficult to go to work every day when your colleagues either actively or passively work against your efforts. Though, if you are an educator who knows in your heart that inclusion benefits all students, you are in good company (with 40 years of research to back it up).

One of the most comprehensive summaries of the research, published in 2016, reviewed evidence from more than 280 studies conducted in 25 countries. Do you know what it showed? Educational settings where children with disabilities are educated alongside their nondisabled peers can have substantial benefits for the cognitive and social development of all children. When teachers and schools include a student with a disability, it requires them to develop a better understanding of the strengths and needs of every student.

Let's break down some of the critical findings of the report.

There is an international movement toward inclusive education, not only in the United States.

In the United States, students with disabilities have had the right to attend public school since 1975, with the passage of PL 94-142 (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

In 1994, The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Conference on Special Needs Education issued a report called the Salamanca Statement on the education of students with disabilities. The statement affirms that inclusive regular schools "are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society, and achieving education for all."

In addition to the Salamanca Statement, Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), issued in 2006, "ensures an inclusive education system at all levels...Persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system based on disability." Also, children with disabilities are not to be excluded from public primary or secondary education based on disability.

While there has been growing support for inclusive education around the world, there is more work to be done. According to estimates in India, nearly half of students with intellectual disabilities do not go to school. In Europe (i.e., Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta, Norway, and Portugal), schools educate more than 80 percent of students with disabilities in inclusive settings. At the same time, France, Germany, and Belgium teach almost all students with disabilities in separate environments.

The benefits of inclusive education are clear for disabled and nondisabled students.

One of the biggest concerns about inclusive education that comes from parents and teachers is that the adaptations that students with disabilities require in inclusive classrooms will impede the learning of nondisabled students.

The researchers found that the quality of instruction plays a more significant role in the achievement of nondisabled students than whether or not students with disabilities were included in their classroom. Sometimes the inclusion of multiple students with challenging behavior in a classroom impeded the learning of nondisabled students, though unlikely to occur if following the principle of natural proportions.

The research points to special education teachers who have "positive attitudes towards inclusion" are more likely to adapt their instruction to benefit all of their students. Teachers are also more likely to collaborate with their colleagues to support inclusion. Having a mindset toward inclusive practices creates the conditions for all students to make academic, social, and emotional growth.

Overall, there is strong evidence that students with disabilities (including intellectual disabilities) who are included for the majority of their day in general education classrooms academically outperform segregated students. Students with intellectual and multiple disabilities who were included were nearly twice as likely to participate in post-secondary education than their peers who were not included.

Academic gains were not the only benefits for students with disabilities. Inclusive education can support their social and emotional development. Disabled students who spent the majority of their day with their nondisabled peers were more likely to attend a school or community group, less likely to receive disciplinary referrals, and demonstrated more independence and self-esteem.

Inclusive education must become a national priority.

With all of the evidence that inclusive education benefits disabled and nondisabled students, why are we not further along with our progress? Inclusion must become an educational priority for the United States or any other country for outdated and ableist systems to change. And change will only happen when the visibility of people with intellectual and multiple disabilities increase, parents and educators share their inclusion success stories, and policymakers update national education laws and regulations.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com