What Should Inclusion Mean in 2014?
My recent trip to the Chicago for the annual TASH Conference gave me the opportunity to talk to others about inclusive practices in schools across our country and beyond. The experience underscored a reality that I was aware of, but had not thought of recently: Inclusion varies significantly from country to country, state to state, and school to school. Despite wide variance in practices, the struggle toward meaningful inclusion and equal opportunity for students with disabilities continues everywhere.
In some countries students with disabilities are still completely segregated, or even abandoned in orphanages. Across the U.S., there are still many places where categorical placement decisions are made, and students with disabilities have very limited opportunities to be educated with their non-disabled peers. 'Special School Districts', which take ownership of students with disabilities away from regular school administrators, still exist in some parts of the country. In other locations, the quest for meaningful inclusion takes on a different form: students with disabilities go to school with their non-disabled peers but a lack of professional expertise and proper supports prevents them from having meaningful access to the general curriculum and the social interactions that they need to learn and progress.
Ask three people what inclusion means, and you are likely to get three different answers. One might say that it means all students with disabilities are in the general education classroom all the time. Another may express that it means students with severe disabilities (the so-called 'inclusion kids') are educated in their own community schools. The third may believe that inclusion simply means that students with special needs are educated with their non-disabled peers 'as much as possible'.
You may have heard the phrase, "Special education is not a place". I submit to you that neither is inclusion 'a place'. Inclusion is much more complex; a goal, always in progress and ever changing along with each student, of full engagement, acceptance and opportunity. Inclusion should mean that all students can meaningfully participate and contribute to a group of their peers by learning alongside others and sharing 'who they are' for the betterment of all. Inclusion should mean that every student 'belongs', and that adjustments are made for the student because he or she has an important place in the group. In short, inclusion is first and foremost a multi-faceted aspect of school culture.
Because school culture is difficult to change, and hard to 'pin down', many are hesitant to directly address it. Yet, it has a profound impact on the quality of education received by all students. Without a school culture of caring, acceptance and appreciation of individual differences inclusion is likely to remain an obligation. If inclusion is mandated, is it really inclusion at all? Would any of us feel truly included in a group where our participation was tolerated by the leader or other group members because of some requirement?
Whether there is a district that automatically sends students with behavioral disorders to a special school, a country where students with disabilities are served primarily in orphanages or institutions, or a public school where a content area teacher begrudgingly makes accommodations for a student with a learning disability, the underlying issue is the same: a culture characterized by a lack of understanding and compassion for students with learning differences.
Physical location of education can be forced through mandates or due process. Authentic inclusion must be nurtured and sustained. As leaders, formal or informal and with or without authority, we must work to promote positive school cultures that support true inclusion. This will not be quick or easy. With empathy and compassion we must collaborate, we must educate, we must listen and we must train. We must also be willing to accept the idea that inclusion is context-based and dependent upon the needs and aspirations of each individual student. We must be brave enough to say that we can do better - that a student working in a small room with an adult for the majority of the day, despite the fact that this takes place in a 'regular' school, is not inclusion.
Inclusion should mean that each student with a disability has an important place in a group, is accepted by others in the educational community, and has meaningful access to the same opportunities as their non-disabled age-mates.
Do you agree with this statement? What do you think inclusion should mean in 2014? I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas on this topic. Together, we can build as stronger construct of inclusion!