I was just reading an article on the website “Disability Scoop” about inclusion of kids with intellectual disabilities in Connecticut’s public schools. Connecticut ranks second in the country in terms of the percentage of intellectually disabled kids mainstreamed in regular classrooms. So one might view the state’s efforts as exemplary. However, the article indicates that many of these students sit at the back of the classroom or off to one side, often working on different assignments than their “normal” peers. The article also indicated that many teachers are not trained to help include these students in the classrooms, and rarely have any assistance (teachers’ aides and other resources) in helping them with inclusion.
That’s not really inclusion in my estimation. Full inclusion isn’t just a definition of how often a child with special needs spends in a classroom. It’s really a question of the quality of that time. Kids with special needs should be engaged in the same kinds of activities as every other student. That doesn’t mean that they will be doing identical assignments. The school work may need to be modified to meet their specific needs (e.g. a different reading level, a scaled-down project, a modification in how an assignment is carried out etc.), but it is still in the ballpark of what the other kids are doing.
Not long ago, I visited a school in the Boston area that truly meets this criteria of being a full inclusion school. It’s the William W. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. One third of the population of the Henderson school has special needs. The day that I visited, they were putting on the school musical (“Annie”). I saw students with Down syndrome and Williams syndrome and severe autism being fully included in the activities of the program. Similarly, in going into classrooms later in the day, the kids with special needs were often indistinguishable from the neurotypical kids. This is probably because every child was engaged in a task tailored to their individual needs.
This is the secret to full inclusion schools. They treat every student as having special needs. There isn’t a dichotomy between “normal” and “special education” instruction. The educators there simply work to find the specific resources that each individual student needs. This requires a school-wide commitment to creating an atmosphere where every student is treated as special. I don’t believe you can have a “full-inclusion classroom” going on in one part of the building while traditional education goes on elsewhere in the school. Everybody in the school needs to be involved in the principles of full-inclusion, otherwise there will be a sort of entropy working to drag the full-inclusion classroom back to the “norm.” At the Henderson school, they’ve been working toward creating this climate of inclusion for the past ten years. The implies a continuity of staff and an on-going commitment to the principles and practice of full inclusion. It’s not an easy process, to be sure, but the Henderson school, and similar schools around the country, show that this is not a pie-in-the-sky ideal to shoot for, but rather a here-and-now reality that is worth pursuing.