All Together Now

By Debra Viadero — January 01, 1993 9 min read

When Toni Mills of Shawsville, Va., started school three years ago, she rode a bus more than an hour each day to a special education class in a nearby town. The classroom was a quiet setting where some children, like Toni, were mentally retarded, and others could not walk or talk. By the time she got home, after another long bus ride in the evening, it was almost time for bed.

“I remember I told her teacher, ‘Well, she can’t add,’ and her teacher said, ‘She’ll probably never be able to add,’” Toni’s mother, Teresa Mills, says. “But she wasn’t doing anything.”

Today, at age 9, Toni attends the same elementary school as her non-disabled neighbors and cousins. Her classroom is a bustling place with brightly colored walls and pictures and noisy 3rd graders. There are children who are willing to coax her down from the monkey bars when she balks or to help her with a classroom assignment. She is reading at a 1st grade level, despite psychological tests suggesting that she should not be doing so well. If Toni still cannot add, her mother notes, she at least “knows her numbers.”

“She’s learning so much more than I ever anticipated,” Mills says. What has made the difference for Toni, her mother and educators at Shawsville Elementary School say, has been the opportunity to go to school with “regular kids.” Toni is attending Shawsville because school officials in this rural Virginia county three years ago launched an ambitious effort to open up regular classrooms across the district to all students with disabilities. Now, nine of the district’s 10 elementary schools are fully integrated, and efforts are under way to do the same in the middle and high schools.

The campaign has put this tiny hamlet at the center of a national movement toward “full inclusion” of disabled students in regular classrooms. Fueled by court decisions, parental demands, new research, and the success of other educators, more schools are putting disabled children into regular classrooms.

Some experts in the field have expressed concern that the movement could dilute special education services and jeopardize legal protections. But others hail it as a major step forward for disabled children. “Clearly, there’s a message here to students,” says Douglas Biklen, a Syracuse University special education professor and vocal full-inclusion advocate. “It says, `I’m valued. I belong here. I have a right to be here.’

Federal special education law states that, to the “maximum extent appropriate,” children with disabilities should be educated with non-disabled peers. But common practice, evolving from an era when people with disabilities were routinely shut away in institutions, has been to teach many such children in separate classrooms or to pull them out of their regular classrooms for special help in nearby resource rooms. Students are typically “mainstreamed” for only a few subjects a day, such as art or physical education.

By contrast, the full-inclusion movement puts the emphasis on the regular classroom. Students in fully integrated schools are not pulled out for special help elsewhere. The assistance they need comes to them in the regular classroom. In the field of special education, the momentum the movement is now gaining marks a sea change in opinions on the issue.

Just six years ago, for example, Madeleine Will, then the U.S. Education Department’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, proposed an initiative urging schools to teach all mildly disabled students in regular classrooms. The proposal created a bitter controversy. Some special educators said their students needed more intensive help, and parents and advocates worried their children would lose hard-won rights to special education services.

While some of those feelings still exist, the issue assumed a lower profile after Will left office. Her successor, Robert Davila, presented a more moderate stance on the issue. He says regular-classroom placement should be an option for all students along with other kinds of placements, such as resource rooms and special classes and schools.

The department, however, has continued to pump funds into research and demonstration projects for full inclusion across the country, awarding a total of $63million in grants over the past three years. States and school districts, moreover, have begun experimenting on their own with the idea.

Parents have become forceful advocates for full inclusion, and their demands have led to a spate of successful lawsuits. The best known of those cases involved Rachel Hollan, a moderately mentally retarded girl whose parents sued the Sacramento, Calif., school system to get their daughter a place in a regular classroom. They initiated the lawsuit after observing that Rachel seemed to blossom in a summer day camp with non-disabled children but did poorly in a special education class. The school district is appealing the ruling.

Parents who are pressing school systems for inclusion say their efforts are born of common sense. “If a child has a speech difficulty, how can putting him in a class with six other kids with speech difficulties help him?” asks Margaret Dignoti, executive director of the Connecticut affiliate of the ARC, a national advocacy group for the mentally retarded.

Full inclusion also became a potential civil rights issue with the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which bans all forms of discrimination against the disabled. Although none of the recent inclusion cases has cited the law, advocates say it has raised the national consciousness about the rights of disabled people. “It makes it hard to defend keeping a kid apart from non-disabled kids when he’s going to be integrated as an adult,” says Frank Laski, a lawyer who often handles special education cases for the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia.

Davila of the Education Department and other special educators have expressed concerns that some districts might see full inclusion as a way to save money. But the key to making inclusive programs work, advocates say, is adequate planning and support. Experts point out that properly managed inclusive programs should cost the same or slightly more than traditional programs. “If you think about trying to provide the same frequency, intensity, and duration of services dispersed among all classes equally, as opposed to special classes, centers, and schools, it’s got to cost more,” says James Kauffman, a professor of special education at the University of Virginia. He acknowledges that some money might be saved on transportation.

Kauffman, who is critical of the full-inclusion movement, says he differs with advocates who would mandate that every disabled child be in a regular classroom. “I think the thing the extreme advocates tend to lose sight of is individual differences,” he says. For example, many people who are deaf, he says, contend they are more isolated in regular classrooms because they cannot communicate with peers or teachers who do not know sign language. And some emotionally disturbed students, he adds, may exhibit behaviors that are too trying for classroom teachers.

In Shawsville, the impetus to bring students like Toni back home to their neighborhood schools came from within the district itself. Prompted by parents and the need to plan for the future of special education, the district formed a committee to study the issue.

The task force recommended a five-year plan to phase in fully integrated schools districtwide. Special education administrators spent the first year integrating preschool programs and providing workshops on full inclusion for all teachers and administrators. “Then, we sat back and waited for volunteers,” says Johnna Elliot, a special education consultant who works with district schools moving toward integration. Dale Margheim, the principal of Shawsville Elementary, was among the first to volunteer. Today, more than 30 of the school’s 300 students are children who would otherwise have been in separate schools or classes.

Some have significant impairments. Jason Dudley, for example, who is legally blind and can utter only a few words, is in a regular 1st grade class with 16 other students. And, in the 3rd grade classroom next door to Toni’s, Billy Moss is able to remain in a regular class only with the help of a full-time aide. Labeled developmentally disabled, he has trouble concentrating, sitting still, and forming social relationships with others.

The school obtained waivers from state regulations to allow special education teachers to work with wider ranges of disabled pupils and with non-disabled pupils who were having trouble in class. These teachers and special education aides were dispersed among classrooms according to the needs of the disabled students in those rooms. The teachers either team teach, rotate teaching assignments, or work individually with children or small groups of students. They are coached by Elliott, who observes and then suggests strategies for helping disabled pupils succeed.

At first, Shawsville’s parents gave the plan a mixed reception. Billy’s mother, Rosa Bowles, says she was enthusiastic because she remembers how it felt to be singled out as “different” when she herself was a special education student. Other parents, however, only reluctantly went along, voicing concern their children would be teased by classmates.

But that never happened. Elliott visited each classroom to talk about the special needs of the disabled classmates and the importance of forming a “circle of friends” to help the less-able children. Now, parents and educators alike say, non-disabled children are enthusiastic about helping their disabled classmates. Rebecca Brown, whose severely disabled granddaughter, Kathryn, attended the school for two years, recalls: “There’d be children waiting to hang up her coat for her, and they’d hang around and unpack her lunch for her.”

Parents of non-disabled students, on the other hand, say they worried at first that the new arrangement would put too much of a burden on teachers. Their concerns were allayed, however, when the new arrangement reduced the ratio of children to educators in the classroom. In Toni’s class, for example, a special education teacher was added, as well as a full-time aide who spends much of her day working with Toni.

When the rest of the class takes a 15-word spelling test, Toni will practice printing five of those words. When the class writes in journals, Toni makes sentences with the help of Kerri Tahane, the aide, using words written on index cards. “If it looks different from what everyone else is getting, she won’t do it,” Tahane says.

Educators at Shawsville have found, in fact, that the motivation disabled students get from working alongside their nondisabled peers has been a powerful learning tool. “Before, we spent a lot of time developing motivation,” Elliott says. “We don’t have to do that anymore.”

The new arrangement, teachers at the elementary school agree, has benefited all students, not just the disabled. Says Shelley Aistrup, Jason Dudley’s 1st grade teacher, “I think this is where these kids belong.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as All Together Now