Inclusion is among the most controversial topics in modern education. It is akin to deinstitutionalization of the 1970s and mainstreaming of the 1980s---and shares its origins with both of these. Inclusion is required more and more by state departments of education and has been upheld in court decisions as the most appropriate service delivery model for children with disabilities.
Generally, when the term "inclusion" is used, what is meant is "full inclusion." Full inclusion is when students with disabilities are educated in the regular education classroom full-time. These students are part of the general education class and participate in all aspects of classroom culture. They participate in academics; special classes, such as art, library, and physical education; lunch; playground activities and assemblies. In other words, in an inclusion model, students with special needs are treated similar to any other student in the school. Inclusion is not the same as "mainstreaming." Mainstreaming was the partial inclusion of children with disabilities into general education classes, with their primary placement being a special education class. The main difference being that with inclusion, the student's primary placement is the general education class, though they may be pulled out for related services, such as speech therapy or occupational therapy.
Origins and Rationale
The origin of inclusion, and indeed all education of students with disabilities, has its roots in the civil rights movement. The argument put forth in Brown v Board of Education (1954) was essentially that separate schools for children of color did not lead to equal education. This was later applied to education of children with disabilities, leading eventually to the EHA (Education of all Handicapped Children Act) or Public Law (PL) 94-142 in 1975. This act provided for free and appropriate public education for all children with disabilities. The law was later reauthorized under the acronym IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). The belief was and is that to receive equal access to public education, children with disabilities must be educated in the same schools as children without disabilities. Likewise, the rationale for inclusion is similar. For their education to be equal, students with special needs need to be in the same classrooms as their typically developing peers.
There are many barriers to full inclusion. One of the most significant is the attitudes of administrators, parents, teachers and students. Many parents fear allowing children with disabilities into the classroom with their child. Teachers and administrators fear their time will be monopolized by the students with special needs and keep them from providing appropriate education to other students. Typically, developing children sometimes fear the unknown of children who are unlike themselves. These fears can be alleviated through education of parents and students and support for classroom teachers from special education staff. Teachers must have the support they need to educate all children in their classes. This support may be needed in the form of extra planning time, educational assistants, specific training in teaching methods or learning styles or even environmental aids, such as appropriate desks and other physical materials for students.
Funding formulas structured to punish school systems that implement inclusion are a major barrier. If there are more funds for students who are excluded or served entirely in special education settings, then school systems are unlikely to push for these students to spend more time in regular education settings. Another major obstacle for inclusion is negative experiences parents of children with disabilities have had with teachers and administrators. Sometimes, parents feel their child needs a "break" from the general education program to ease these frustrations. Finally, lack of training in teaching children with special needs is often cited as a problem by general educators. These teachers often feel unprepared to educate children with special needs, especially with recent emphasis on test scores and accountability. It is up to administrators and special education staff to help ease the fears and frustrations of teachers and parents, but only legislators can help with outdated funding formulas.
Benefits for Students with Disabilities
Among the most crucial of benefits to inclusion is that of an appropriate education for the student with disabilities. She can access the same education that her typically developing peers can and, therefore, expect to be more successful in future educational experiences. Also, the child with special needs can make friends that she could not make if she were not allowed to mingle with students without disabilities. Furthermore, she will experience opportunities for problem solving by being in a more authentic educational setting, that will help her when dealing with the world outside the classroom, particularly when entering the work force.
Benefits for Students without Disabilities
Many articles have been written on the benefits of inclusion for the child with special needs, but little has been said about the benefits for typically developing students. The most important benefit for these students is an authentic learning environment. These children will someday be part of society; they will work and be part of a community. In their communities, they will eventually encounter individuals with disabilities. To foster understanding instead of fear, it is crucial that children be exposed to persons of all races, genders, religions and abilities. The learning environment should be a microcosm of society, with all types of individuals being represented.
All students can benefit from a variety of learning styles and teaching methods being utilized in the classroom. Additional supports and paraprofessionals can free a teacher for more hands-on teaching time, which can benefit all students. Environmental supports such as wheelchair ramps, adapted bathrooms and various classroom arrangements can benefit students with disabilities and their typically developing peers, as well as community members who need to access the school for PTA meetings or other events. Inclusion can also bring together general education and special education teachers to work cooperatively, possibly coming up with strategies that can benefit all students and maximize the effectiveness of classroom instruction for everyone involved.