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Inclusion Policies in 21 Countries Documented

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Bethesda, Md.

American educators and policymakers grappling with the inclusion of disabled students in regular classrooms were reminded last week that they are not alone in the struggle for solutions.

About 120 researchers, policymakers, advocates, and administrators came here from 17 countries to talk about inclusion at a three-day conference sponsored by the U.S. Education Department and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Timed to coincide with the meeting, the O.E.C.D., an international policy group made up of industrial countries, released a report on inclusion practices and policies in 21 of its 25 member nations. Most of the data in the 222-page report were collected from 1990 to 1993.

The report notes differences between the nations that make comparisons of inclusion policies difficult: Who makes policy decisions, which children are defined as disabled and how they are labeled, how services are paid for, and who is required to attend school and for how long varies considerably from country to country.

Even how nations define inclusion fluctuates, from a notion of moving more disabled child~ren from special schools into regular schools, to moving more such children who are already in regular schools into regular classrooms.

But the questions being confronted are strikingly similar.

"We're struggling with the same issues everyone else is thinking about," said Judith E. Heumann, the Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

'Not Easy for Anyone'

But just how far differs. In Australia, Denmark, Greece, Iceland, Norway, and Spain, less than 1 percent of students attend special schools. In Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, the figure tops 3 percent.

The role of special schools is evolving in many countries that are moving to shut them down. In Iceland and Norway, the report says, teachers and specialists from those schools are being dispersed to support teachers in the regular schools.

"There's a lot of shifting ground that says schools must adapt to the needs of the child rather than the other way around," said Peter L. Evans, the report's director and a researcher in the O.E.C.D.'s Paris-based Center for Educational Research and Innovation. "But it's clear inclusion is not an easy process for anyone."

It was also clear last week that countries had contrasting views about the best way to set the stage for inclusion.

One British participant summed up the debate: "Do you do it by legislative fiat, or do you do it by creating conditions that allow people to buy into inclusion?"

Many common issues outlined in the report surfaced at last week's meeting: Most countries are sorting through how to finance special education, revamp training of regular teachers, combat resistance to inclusion from some teachers and parents, and bridge the gap between special- and general-education reforms.

And other countries, to some degree, are experiencing the backlash against inclusion being reported in many areas of the United States.

"Reports from Finland, Iceland, and Norway refer to the continuing existence of skepticism," the report says, "with some administrators, teachers, and parents expressing the belief that integrating children with special needs can impede the progress of the majority."

In most countries, concerns about the expense of maintaining a separate special-education system have made inclusion more popular, Mr. Evans said. But he emphasized that more research is needed on the costs of educating disabled students in the regular classroom with the required supports.

Different Approaches

Sweden, meanwhile, has been held up as a leader in the in~clusion movement. Kenneth Eklindh, a senior official in that country's special-education agency, said that while there was initial resistance, today the focus has shifted from merely including disabled children in regular classrooms to insuring their full participation. The only children in special schools now are the profoundly deaf. State consultants help schools set budgets and modify curricula for students with disabilities.

Falling at the other end of the spectrum is the Netherlands, which has an extensive system of special schools tailored to specific disabilities. The country's legislature is considering changing the way it finances schools to encourage more inclusion, said Cor J.W. Meijer, who coordinates special-needs research for an independent institute there.

"People feel strongly that the solution must be found at the local and regional level; it cannot be mandated," he said.

In 1985, Spain instituted a plan by which elementary schools could become volunteer inclusion sites and receive more funding, more specialists, and more training. Last year the plan was expanded to include secondary schools. The goal is for each neighborhood district to have at least one inclusion school at each level, said Alvaro Marchesi Ullastres, who coor~~~dinates elementary and secondary education for the central government.

"It's not easy to make it possible for all schools to handle all students well," he said. "Especially with limited resources."

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