Inclusion: A Right or a Privilege?
When we discuss inclusion in the Special Education arena, we are speaking about a commitment to educate students with special needs in their home-zoned schools. It is the same school he/she would have attended with siblings and peers, if the student did not have a disability. The concept of inclusive education is predicated on bringing mandated supports and services to the student in lieu of moving the student to a segregated special education setting. Those of us in the field of educating youngsters with challenges like to think of inclusion as a mindset and system of shared beliefs.
Legally, there is no identification of inclusion in the laws. It is found in documents like Public Law 94-142 (The Education of All Handicapped Children Act, 1975) and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA, Reauthorized 1997, 2004. It is the term Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) that is the legal force that drives inclusive education. Many school districts across the country have all special needs students fully included in their home-zoned schools. Those students are receiving curricular adaptations, related services and other supports in a general education classroom while engaging in age appropriate social interactions and extra-curricular activities. Students in the severe range of disability who have intense management needs are often either in agency based programs like UCP, AHRC or are in segregated settings for students with significant emotional challenges often know as “Redirection Centers” or “day treatment programs”.
In the New York City Department of Education, students with moderate to severe disabilities are educated in District 75, which is a segregated district offering intensive supports and services to students whose impairments preclude them from attending their home zoned schools for a variety of reasons—medical fragility, significant cognitive deficits, extremely volatile behavior or severe sensory deficits. When these children demonstrate progress according to their IEP (Individualized Education Plan) goals and objectives they are often recommended for inclusion in a less restrictive general education setting. The placement of these very challenged youngsters back into the mainstream with their mandated supports and services can then become an issue.
There is a fear in general education schools that the administration and staff do not have the necessary skill set to educate these special needs students. There are space issues as schools are over crowded and each special needs child takes a seat that may have been slotted for a community district student. The related services providers (Speech teachers, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists), which now favor “push in” classroom services are often deemed to be distracting to the class. However, first and foremost in an era of high stakes testing and accountability, many of these students have learning challenges that result in lower scores on standardized tests. Principals are hesitant to commit to including students that may lower their school’s standing in the eyes of parents, the community and central headquarters. How then do we change the mindset and get all administrators to engage in the discussion that full inclusion is a civil right of all students, with or without disabilities?
The ability to successfully implement an inclusive model requires the philosophy, practice, cooperation and receptive mindset of the majority (administrators/teachers/parents in community schools). We know it is the will of the majority that controls the avenues of access to the minority, which in this case is special needs youngsters. Education for a student with disabilities in the same school as his/her siblings and peers is not a privilege; it is a basic human right!
There are myriad bureaucratic challenges that must be dealt with in order to move this agenda forward and protect the civil rights of all students. It must begin with school communities dispelling the notion of “mine” and “yours” when it comes to disabled and otherwise abled children. All children belong in a school community that embraces their diversity, shoulders the burden of their challenges and celebrates their successes regardless of how small they may appear. Until we, as educators, can open our minds to this concept and work collaboratively to build better and more inclusive schools, our students will continue to be left behind.#