Education Opinion

‘Inclusion Challenges The Status Quo’

By Frank Laski — February 22, 1995 5 min read
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This is one of seven commentaries on the topic of inclusion from “To the Best of Their Abilities”.

To comprehend the intensity and persistence of the inclusion controversy of the 1990’s and to ultimately get beyond it, we must appreciate the depth of the tradition of exclusion in our public schools, exclusion that was considered legitimate until the middle of this century.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education unanimously declared: “In the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” That most important civil-rights decision signaled the end of legal segregation not only on the basis of race, but on the basis of disability.

The implications of Brown for children with disabilities were made explicit in the federal civil-rights and education laws enacted in the early 1970’s and recently reaffirmed, strengthened, and extended in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Inclusion and the full integration of all individuals with disabilities in all aspects of our lives--during the school years and beyond--has been both the first value and final objective of our national policy. Congress, the courts, and the executive leadership of both parties over 20 years have been clear and constant as to the societal value of including persons with disabilities in the social and economic mainstream.

Nevertheless, many within the education establishment--both special educators and regular educators--pretend that educating large numbers of children with disabilities in separate settings is consistent with preparing both disabled and non-disabled children for integrated productive adult lives. Instead of honoring the preference for educating children with disabilities together with non-disabled children whenever possible, much of special-education practice has been devoted to maintaining separatism. They have reduced the duty to fully include children to their own nickel-and-dime version of “least-restrictive environment” and part-time “inclusion,” supported by the notion of a continuum to regulate opportunities for mainstreaming.

Maynard Reynolds contributed greatly to the conceptual framework for mainstreaming by proposing a continuum of options in special education. He recognized early the limitations of the special-education-based mainstreaming model that those opposed to inclusion seek to resuscitate. In 1981, Reynolds and Margaret Wang called for a “reconstruction of the mainstream,” saying:

“There appears to be no way in which the responsibility for any student’s education can be shared successfully between a ‘pull out’ program and a regular-education program unless the total learning environment is flexible enough to be adapted consistently to that student’s particular needs....Clearly, serious efforts to improve the education of exceptional students will require far-reaching transformations in regular classrooms as well as in special education.”

Full inclusion of children with disabilities--along with other children routinely pulled out and excluded from regular classes--is the transformation that educators sought 15 years ago. Over the past 15 years, as experience with inclusionary programs has grown, we have accumulated a large and growing body of research that verifies positive outcomes associated with programs where students with disabilities are educated with non-disabled peers. That research, in turn, has raised expectations from families of students with disabilities who again are fundamentally challenging separate structures for special education.

My initial encounters with inclusive education came with my colleagues at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. We were advocating on behalf of, and sometimes representing, individual children who were for various reasons excluded from their local neighborhood schools. The result of this exclusion was inevitably schooling in segregated handicapped-only classes, most often after a long school bus ride to a distant place. Nearly always, the quality of the education was second-rate, bereft of decent opportunities for parent-school collaboration, and lacking any semblance of state-of-the-art teaching. In fact, the problem from the parents’ perspective was not the degree of inclusion, but the lack of benefit (and, in some cases, the clear harm) from special education in handicapped-only settings.

In the one-by-one representation, parents never demanded inclusion just for the sake of placing their child in a regular classroom or merely increasing socialization opportunities. Rather, they demanded effective teaching, beneficial learning, and the opportunity for their children to enjoy the positive learning effects of a regular classroom education.

Over the past few years, the responses of school officials to one-by-one demands for inclusion have varied. In some cases, accommodations were made, supports put into place, and the benefits of inclusion realized and sometimes celebrated. In other cases, demands for inclusion were acknowledged, embraced, and then compromised in ways that eventually defeated the teachers, child, and family. And in yet other cases, the resistance to inclusion was so unrelenting that it created a hostile climate, driving families out and contaminating the school.

Given the value of inclusion, many parents’ strong preferences for educating disabled and non-disabled children together, and a 15-year record of practice and experience in inclusive education, the resistance to including an individual child is puzzling. Yet, we cannot continue to include children on a case-by-case basis. Inclusion for one student requires but rarely achieves more effective education for all students. Including one child in a regular classroom, and dealing with that child’s educational needs, precludes maintaining the administrative, financial, and professional structures of public education. That is the power of full inclusion.

I propose that we end the debate about the benefit of inclusion for any particular group of children. The debate should center around the challenge that inclusion presents to the status quo for the education of all children.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1995 edition of Education Week as ‘Inclusion Challenges The Status Quo’


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