Imagine your child in the same classroom with his peers, side by side, learning with them and from them-and thriving. Now imagine not having to fight for the support and services that guarantee him an equal education and a spot in that general education classroom.
Paula Kluth, a former teacher-turned-inclusion education consultant, researcher and author of eight books on special needs, says it's past time to abandon segregating special education students into separate classrooms based on a child's label and to move toward policies that educate all students together.
"I have seen so many benefits for kids in inclusive classrooms; I am always going to look for opportunities in that setting," she says.
Q: What is inclusion?
A: "Inclusion is not a space and it is not a place that we go, but inclusion is work that we do. ... Inclusion should never be a kid-by-kid kind of commitment. Inclusion should be a system-wide commitment where we think about differentiating instruction, providing appropriate extracurricular activities, being welcoming to families.
"To me, inclusive education is really not about disability. To me, inclusive education is about supporting and honoring differences and celebrating the uniqueness that each kid brings to our schools. So in a true inclusive school, kids who would typically be marginalized would feel more accepted; kids who have family differences, cultural differences, will feel that those are honored; kids who feel oppressed, we're going to respond to and make them feel safe. There will be equity in the way we treat boys and girls."
Q: In your research, we see you've come across schools meeting the requirements under law for students with disabilities, but nothing more.
A: "I'm surprised there isn't more energy right now. We're three decades beyond PL94-142, which gave students not only free and appropriate public education but outlines to the maximum extent appropriate with peers, that kids are entitled to a range of supports and services and that the spirit of this law is really to give kids opportunities in inclusive environments. ... But we still find in 2010 a lot of kids who never get access to these classrooms, who are separated and educated based on their label (such as autism or Down syndrome). This is problematic because I've never met two kids with autism with the same set of needs; I've never met two kids with Down syndrome with the same set of needs."
Often, kids with disabilities are not seen as candidates for inclusive classrooms because their needs are so different from their peers, Kluth says. Yet, the idea of educating them in a separate environment in order to access special services and to meet their needs is a myth.
"No matter where you are educated you need individualized support and services."
Q: What are some of the benefits of an inclusive classroom as opposed to, say, a special autism classroom?
A: Communication and social skills are major benefits.
"If we are trying to teach a child to hit a switch to say good morning, it is very helpful to have 25 opportunities to do that."
Social skills, such as learning the rules of a game, turn-taking, friend-making skills and maintaining conversations, all need practice. But she's also found a lot of academic benefits for kids with disabilities.
"One of the reasons I feel so passionate about inclusive education is I have worked a lot with kids with significant disabilities in my career. This is a population of kids that we do not know what they know, we do not know what they understand, we do not know what they are taking away from any given lesson or any given experience. ... We intend for kids to learn functional skills in this environment, we intend for them to learn communication skills, to possibly learn some early literacy skills, but what we find is they learn academic content we never targeted.
"This is why I push for inclusive environments whenever possible. ... Every single decade of research has shown us that we are aiming too low for kids. Every single decade of research has shown us that people with disabilities can do more than we previously thought. What's very fascinating to me in 2010 is we are on the brink of another complete revolution. We are going to find out so much more of what kids can do now, that we have better technology to assess them. I think even more so than in the past, we will find we have been expecting too little."
Tamara is the editor of Chicago Parent and mom of three.
See more of Tamara's stories here.