In the past, special education meant being educated somewhere else. Often, this education was administered in a separate classroom, where students with learning challenges were isolated from their age-appropriate peers. Then, gradually, state and federal mandates were implemented to protect the rights of students with disabilities, most notably the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That federal regulation enforces the placement of students with disabilities in the “least restrictive environment.” This means that students with disabilities should be educated alongside their nondisabled peers whenever possible.
Today, there are those who strongly support inclusion programs—where students with disabilities are placed in traditional classrooms with their nondisabled peers—and those who advocate for the elimination of such programs. You can find parents, students, and teachers on both sides of this debate. For example, while some parents of students with disabilities push for inclusion, others feel their children’s needs are better met in a more protected setting, where more one-on-one instruction can be made available.
I have taught both special education resource room classes and general education classes, some with students with disabilities mixed in and some with only nondisabled students. Those experiences have given me a unique perspective on the benefits of all educational options. I try to fight for the inclusion of all students in activities and classes where they contribute and benefit.
This year, Connor came to my general education social studies class. He spends part of his day in a resource room program, and the remainder of his day in inclusion classes.
At first glance, Connor doesn’t stand out in my classroom of noisy, enthusiastic 7th graders. You might notice his perpetual smile, but you wouldn’t realize Connor has a cognitive impairment. Like his peers, Connor sits, listens, and engages with the social studies coursework.
As class continues, you might pick up on some differences between Connor and his peers. Watching a video, Connor gets excited, and then disturbed, when a lion captures a gazelle. A fellow student steps in to comfort him. The student lets Connor rest his head on his shoulder, pats his back, and tells him it will be OK. It does not come as a surprise that this student is one of the two people Connor mentions when I ask who his hero is.
Connor is an important and active member of our classroom community. When I ask students to go to the board and locate places on the map, Connor volunteers eagerly—and another classmate always jumps up to help him guide the meter stick to the correct location. During our daily share of Good News, Connor always raises his hand, eager to tell his story for the day. As Connor shares, his classmates sometimes struggle to understand parts of his story, but they all smile and support him throughout. When groups are formed, the other students always welcome Connor and find ways for him to contribute in his own way, whether it’s drawing a picture or joining the conversation. In and out of the classroom, Connor continues to grow and be a part of our young adult community.
For example, Connor also plays on the football and basketball teams, where his teammates fully accept him. On the football field, where the youth are camouflaged by heavy pads and helmets, picking Connor out of the crowd can be tough. He runs, he tackles, he passes. Connor’s coach says, “He helps show the other kids the joy of helping other teammates, as other kids are always showing him where to go or how to do things. Like all kids, [Connor] has things to work on and might not learn the same, but he is a joy to be around and have on my team.”
His mom said that through Connor’s participation in the inclusion program, “Connor has gained a large group of friends that see him as an equal and accept him for who he is. Connor would not have made the tremendous progress he has without the support of his peers and the community. … Likewise, the children who have welcomed him have gained the ability to maintain friendships with children of different needs and learn from him as well.”
Of course, there have been some challenges. One of his classmates acknowledged, “Sometimes, Connor talks in class when we are supposed to do something, and he gets depressed when you ask him to be quiet.” But this same student qualified these statements by explaining, “It is just because he doesn’t understand and wants to make everyone happy.” This student’s ability to recognize and accept Connor’s differences demonstrates a level of empathy and emotional maturity beyond his years, which I believe all my students have learned from having Connor as a member of our class.
As a daily witness to the positive interactions between Connor and his peers, I can attest to the learning and personal growth that Connor’s mom describes. Both Connor and his peers have benefited from his inclusion in our class. When schools step outside the self-contained model and work to include students like Connor, not only do students with disabilities learn and grow, but their peers learn acceptance and appreciation for learning differences.
Too often, students with disabilities are isolated in programs that seldom provide an opportunity to interact with their peers. They spend their school days occupied with learning activities that are geared toward their academic abilities, but ignore their need and desire to be included with their peers. Connor’s mom shared with me that he “needs to be exposed to as much opportunity with his typically developing peers as possible. By doing so, he is picking up on their social cues, conversations, and behavior. We never would have imagined that he has sleepovers with friends almost every weekend, and that he has a cheering section for him at his basketball games.”
All students, with or without disabilities, deserve the opportunity to be included and valued for their unique contributions to the larger student community. As educators, part of our role is to teach our students to seek strengths in their classmates, regardless of their differences. We can model this by showing appreciation for each member of our classroom’s unique strengths and by striving to support those strengths, rather than focusing on students’ disabilities.
When Connor comes to class, we all benefit: Connor benefits from the opportunity to socially interact with his peers and learn grade-level content; his peers benefit by learning to be accepting and supportive of those who are different; and I, his teacher, benefit from the joy of having one more smiling face, another student who is eager to learn, share, and be a contributing member of our classroom community. Connor’s hero summed it up best when he told me, “I’ve never thought of Connor as ‘special.’ He’s just a great friend, and I honestly enjoy hanging out with him.”