Susan's Blog

Friday, December 28, 2012

Is Inclusion in Education Really the Goal?

I met a person the other day who was absolutely certain that Inclusion of people with significant intellectual disabilities in typical college classrooms was the best way to go. “No one should be ‘special,'” he said. “Separate is never equal.”

“Inclusion” is one of those words that you just can’t argue with. Except that in some instances, I can. The very fact that you are not allowed to doubt its universal benefit is what makes me squeamish.  Sometimes it even feels to me like inclusion is kind of lordly, where the Includer can feel magnanimous because they have invited others in.

Inclusion, however, has been the watchword of the faith of the disability movement, and rightfully so. Because of inclusion, we have helpful laws, accommodations, and understanding. We have bridged certain chasms and brought whole groups of the population out from hiding. Inclusion has brought difference into the pack and made it less so.

But no, that last thing is not quite true. First of all, we do have differences from one another. People with disabilities have disabilities, and nothing but cures take them away.  Some disabilities you don’t see; others you do. Why should the goal be not to see disability? Only when seeing it is getting in the way of fair treatment and respect.

I think inclusion can only go so far. Inclusion is part of the solution, but not all of it. Inclusion is the first step, to right a wrong (exclusion). Inclusion should go without saying; institutions should never be able to turn people away based on color, race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation…

But when inclusion is the end goal, I think it may be a weak gesture, especially when it comes to including people with deep autism and intellectual disabilities (ID). For me, the clearest example of this is in education. And here is where many disability activists will disagree with me. But I think that it is not enough to have people with significant disabilities in typical school classrooms, if the classroom is not set up for them to learn, or if the teacher is not trained in autism or ID approaches and strategies.

Disability activists will argue that there must be only one standard, that the same expectations should apply to all. That if we have separate offerings, targeted programs, certain requirements removed, we may be guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

I understand where they are coming from: that long era in history where people with disabilities were relegated to attics, basement classrooms, institutions. Where society started every sentence about the disabled with “They can’t” and everyone stared and felt sorry for them. We never ever want to return to those days. We need our laws, our ADA, our IDEA, our inclusive standard.

But we have to move to the next step and consider the individual. Each person has his own particular needs and challenges, and it should be okay that some don’t follow the inclusive track. Nat did not. Nat went to a private autism school, with very small classes and staff ratio of 1:2, something like that. In a regular classroom in the public school, Nat did not learn because there was not enough focus on him. He needed his lessons and tasks presented in a very systematic, routine way without a lot of distraction and changes. The inclusive classroom could not provide him with that, nor did the teachers have the training in the techniques that worked best with Nat. I am thankful that my town sent Nat to the May Center for most of his school years, because of the tiny classes and the emphasis on direct teaching, repetition, structure. And by the way, no energy or resources needed to be devoted to anti-bullying.

Nat’s typical peers missed out on him, and he, them. Nat was sheltered, not exposed to so many “normal” things. Even his sports were Special. He did have a prom, though. Anyway, we could not sacrifice the curriculum and techniques Nat needed to learn, just so that he could sit with typically developing peers. Sure, they would have gotten a lot out of him. He is very good at inspiring people and teaching us about a whole other way of living. And I also think he may have enjoyed hanging around on the edges of boisterous groups of teenagers. That’s why we found him his social groups.  They are a noisy happy group of young adults who also have disabilities.

I fear the soft bigotry of uniform expectations. I think it is counter-productive to ask a guy who functions like Nat to learn in a regular college classroom. On the other hand, programs in the Community College Consortium for Autism and Intellectual Disabilities (where I work as Director of Autism Adult Services and Outreach) begin with inclusion, by building programs aimed at men and women with significant disabilities. There the goal is more pragmatic, effective learning, on-the-job training as well as soft skill-building. Nat, for example, needs different processing time, he needs a certain level of instruction: simple, straightforward, and relevant to his life because he has difficulty generalizing.

Sure, I sometimes feel sad that he is not on that college-career track because I wanted that life for him. But he and I had to accept certain limitations. We had to make certain choices to ensure his success. We chose a path where Nat could be trained to work and to live as independently as possible, because we thought that would benefit him the most. More than sitting next to but never going out with typical teenagers in high school, and more than taking a drawing or photography class at a local college.  We did our best for him. Others may choose inclusion, and they have the right to do so, but they must be aware of the possible pitfalls.

For me, I would rather see people get what they need and have that be respected, even if it is separate or Special. I would rather that people’s differences could remain as different as they are, as different as they need to be, and have that be just fine, just the way it is. Inclusion makes a fine beginning, but it is not the end.







I totally agree…there is no perfect program anywhere. Give them the best learning environment possible for their individual needs, wherever that may be. That is the most caring thing a parent can do.

— added by Candy on Friday, December 28, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Thanks, Candy! And Happy New Year!

— added by Susan Senator on Friday, December 28, 2012 at 9:26 pm

So well-said. I have often thought about blogging about this. I am currently studying for a doctorate in education–primarily because of my autistic son–and I have written a lot about inclusion and the Least Restrictive Environment. My primary goal is for Ryan to learn and he does that best one-to-one.

— added by Janet Edghill on Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 3:39 am

I am struggling with this right now, thinking that D needs more time being included in a regular classroom.Planning on addressing it after the holiday and it is keeping me up at night. A friend advised me to at least try and see how it goes. It’s not so much about the academics as much as being around typical kids and seeing what might rub off on him. I feel like he has come very far but, with autism you never know how far they can go and what would be too much. I really need to figure out what is “appropriate” for him and stop going along with what the school usually does or says. He has really moved ahead though and for that I am very grateful, but I don’t want to get complacent.On the other hand, his classroom is a safe haven and he is very compliant and one of the higher functioning kids (its k-2) so scary to stir the pot.

— added by eileen on Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 7:51 am

I totally agree with you. Inclusion is college problems is a great idea in theory, but in reality, many young adults with disabilities need more support and specific programs to get the most out of postsecondary education. After much searching, our daughter is attending a college program exclusively designed for young adults with mild intellectual disabilities and students on the autism spectrum. The students at Shepherds College in Union Grove Wisconsin get huge amounts of support while pursuing educational, vocational, independent living and classes and recreation designed to enhance their social experiences. Even with all of their individually designed supports, I have seen how these students struggle and know that our daughter and many others would never be able to cope in one of the new college inclusion programs. At Shepherds, failures lead to whatever adaptations they need to succeed. It is such a relief that there is now a choice for young adults who have such a hard time finding a way to live live as independently as possible.

— added by Tina Goldstone on Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 8:10 am

Wow Tina sounds like a great program!!!

— added by eileen on Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 8:37 am

Susan, I agree with you…we chose to have our son with severe autism in a special education classroom with a well trained teacher who understood autism. So many have criticized our choice for our son, but for Joey it has been the best learning environment for him. He needs extra patience, low light and quiet sometimes, more one-on-one help, and a different approach to learning in general. It is not something he could have gotten in a regular education classroom…I know because I am a teacher.

— added by Sonja Bingen on Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 8:59 am

3yrs ago I would have been on the “inclusion at all costs” mantra now I have no use for it.

We’ve been in self-contained now for 3yrs, we take private swimming lessons and we’ve learned that just b/c you can do the “at all costs” it only helps the non-disabled feel better about themselves.

Fri before Xmas, Russ was the big bad wolf in the play is class put on for the kindergarten classes. Sounds like a form of inclusion to me… how about you?? Last spring Russ played the piano – which he took NORMAL lessons for – in their talent show… inclusion or being ignored???

Russ takes private swimming lessons completely alone in the pool on Wed afternoons. We’ve done the groups, we’ve done the privates on a Sat afternoon with a full pool. Russ didn’t learn to swim. In 12 wks I have a fish. Front crawl is iffy but breat stroke, back, and whip kicks are all coming quickly.

Just b/c you could… doesn’t mean you should. Is your goal to teach or is your goal to make you feel good about yourself. My goal is to teach and if it means learning alone or in a separate class… then so be it.

Someone above wrote the “social, being around typical kids” spiel. It doesn’t work. Socialization for those that are socially blind does not work by immersing them into a group of people and letting them absorb social skills. I’ve one on either end of the spectrum and both have had to be taught, 1:1, token systems etc social skills. Greg’s are built into his IEP and the school is pushing as fast as they can (have to be careful b/c sometimes it doesn’t go well or goes too fast) since he “passes for normal” and is off to highschool next year. Russ’ best places to learn are in small settings, few people, structured activities, swimming lessons etc. That “social” crap that is spewed all the time… is simply crap IMO. If you are moving for the academic expectations and think your child can handle it… Go for it. Otherwise, comfortable, learning, happy, safe… I’d leave him where he is.

— added by farmwifetwo on Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 9:47 am

Totally agreee. Sometimes inclusion is just wrong and forced. It has to depend on the kid and the situation.

— added by Marty on Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Finally , it is heartening to see someone speak what is right rather than blindly adhere to a principle that may not be relevant to most children/ young adults with autism and other dds.
If a sapling needs special soil and additional protection to grow to its pottential thats what a good gardner should provide. He does not plant it in the wide open land along with other plants , water it and say that it should enjoy the benefits of inclusive growth. Inclusive it may be but I am not sure growth can happen.
Thanks Susan, for the term bigotry of uniform expectations. Explains the point of view pretty well.

— added by Sridhar Aravamudhan on Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 11:08 pm

I think the differences between ages levels and topics being studied must be recognized and taken into account. In most cases, for children with ID, kindergarten should be inclusive, but for older teens and young adults with ID, advanced physics, NO — of course, not too many of us could manage an advanced physics class! All of us have to come to terms with our strengths and weaknesses. I had a friend once who was a professional ballerina who sighed upon hearing a pop singer, saying how she regretted not being able to sing like that. How I regretted not being able to move as gracefully as my friend did.

It’s easy to measure inclusion, just glance into the classroom and see who is sitting there. The really important things — being accepted, respected, socially engaged, valued in the larger community — those sadly, are not measurable.

— added by Ohio Mom on Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 5:46 pm

My 13 yearold son was educated in a segregated setting but was not getting the supports he needed there. Henry decided last year he wanted to go to school in our neighborhood. It has been challenging, but he will start in January. I think the biggest issue is that if inclusion is being practiced where “the classroom is not set up for them to learn, or if the teacher is not trained in autism or ID approaches and strategies” it is not really inclusion.We don’t see inclusion as ignoring anyone’s difference, but accepting and supporting differences. Differentiated instruction and Universal Design end up helping not only students with disability labels but many other neurotypical students who may learn a bit differently. A very simple but real life example of the benefits- Henry also happens to be hearing impaired, so we use closed captioning for all tv programs. Many of our friends and family have benefitted from helps with reading, helps with more visual learners.
There’s over thirty years of research supporting the benefits of inclusion to both students with the significant disabilities and their typically developing peers. Of course this research has been conducted in schools where students have proper supports, instruction is differentiated and all learners participate. Since our district typically segregates students with autism we are working very hard to ensure that everyone is trained and he has the supports he needs. Hopefully, with organizations like the National Center on Inclusive Education, Maryland Center on Inclusive Education and more schools will have access to the resources they need to create inclusive schools that support all learners.
Everything should be on an individual basis and each student or family (depending on the age of the student) should decide what atmosphere is most suited to them, but inclusion with the proper supports not “mainstreaming” should always be an option.

— added by Lauri on Monday, December 31, 2012 at 1:07 am


My name is Kerri Cossette an occupational therapy graduate student. I am developing my thesis on parents of typically developing students perceptions of inclusion. I would love to hear your opinion. Please take my 5 minute survey which is completely anonymous. Any help is greatly appreciated.

— added by Kerri Cossette on Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 11:03 am