Is Inclusive Education For People With Severe Intellectual Disabilities Good Policy?

WBUR Cognoscenti, July 11, 2013

It is often assumed that the greatest desire for people with disabilities is to be included with their non-disabled peers in the mainstream classrooms of higher education. But I wonder if this is always the best strategy for these young adults.

Community colleges here in Massachusetts have open enrollment and extremely varied student populations, but how well does the state university system do at reaching those with serious intellectual disabilities? Is it enough to welcome them, seat them side-by-side with their non-disabled peers? Is the curriculum adapted adequately? Are there also trained aides in the classrooms, as there are during the elementary and secondary years?

As a consultant to a community college consortium for students with intellectual disabilities, I worry about this professionally. But I live it personally. My oldest son, Nat, is severely autistic. I have been thinking about inclusion for 23 years, his whole life.

Nat was rarely included with his typical peers during his school days. And though I fought for his inclusion in many activities, I was glad for the separate, targeted special education he received, in self-contained small classrooms with autism specialists. Because now he is a successful adult — though still severely disabled. By successful, I don’t mean he has a college degree and a salaried position. I mean, he works at a supermarket rather than languishing five days a week in a day rehabilitation program as so many of his disabled peers do.

For many of the students who, like Nat, are on the “low-functioning” end of the intellectually disabled and the autism spectrum, inclusion in classrooms with typically developing students and no real supports or adaptations is not necessarily the ideal at all. It is good when done right, with trained staff, adapted curriculum and concrete, measurable goals. Otherwise, it may just be a pretty theory.

Many severely autistic and intellectually disabled young adults require a different curriculum altogether. They may even have different goals.

Nat, for example, is a young man with a limited capacity to speak or otherwise communicate. His learning style and his goals are utterly different from the average four-year college student. Someone of Nat’s skill level needs to be as independent as possible — he needs to learn a job, to supplement his small income from Social Security (and thereby require less public assistance).

As much as I would love it, Nat does not need to do what the majority of typical young adults do in this country. He does not need to learn poetry, politics, or history. He is different. And that’s okay. And don’t dare tell me I have low expectations. I have very high expectations of Nat’s semi-independence, so programs with real life job skills are the goal — certifications for actual jobs in the hotel, food, automotive industries, to name a few. That’s the kind of post-secondary education Nat needs — and these are most often (appropriately) found at community, not four-year, colleges. That’s the kind of program our state should also be funding for people with the most profound intellectual disabilities.

When the question of inclusion comes up, I often think of the “Story of Ferdinand,” a childhood classic by Munro Leaf. Many of us remember the quirky bull Ferdinand, who did not like to run and butt his head like all the other bulls, but rather, enjoyed sitting under an old cork tree and smelling the flowers. The part I always loved best was how Ferdinand’s mother “who loved him very much, even though she was a cow,” let him be who he was, knowing he was different.

Nat has brought out the mother cow in me. He has rarely done things the way other, typical children do. Why didn’t my little boy play the right way with toys? You push trucks, you don’t chew them! And why did he just want to sit in his stroller and suck his thumb while all the other children ran in the playground?

This state needs to be inclusive in its higher education policy and funding, meaning that our leaders must include every population in the conversation. For some at the most challenged end of intellectual ability, inclusion may be about seeing them for their own particular needs and abilities, and providing space, funding, and programs they can really benefit from. We can’t all be in the center of the bullring, and some of us don’t even need to be.