What is Inclusion?
In a growing number of schools across the United States, it is now possible to walk into elementary, middle and secondary classrooms and observe students with Down syndrome and other cognitive and physical disabilities learning with their nondisabled peers. This practice of welcoming, valuing, empowering and supporting diverse academic and social learning among students of all abilities is called inclusive education.
Inclusive education is more than mainstreaming. Mainstreaming implies that a student from a separate special education class visits the regular classroom for specific, usually non-academic, subjects. Inclusion is an educational process by which all students, including those with disabilities, are educated together for the majority of the school day. With sufficient support, students participate in age-appropriate, general education programs in their neighborhood schools.
Inclusion is a philosophy of education based on the belief in every person’s inherent right to fully participate in society. Inclusion implies acceptance of differences. It makes room for the person who would otherwise be excluded from the educational experiences that are fundamental to every student’s development.
When inclusion is effectively implemented, research has demonstrated academic and social benefits for all students: both those who have special needs as well as typical students. Friendships develop, nondisabled students are more appreciative of differences and students with disabilities are more motivated. True acceptance of diversity ultimately develops within the school environment and is then carried into the home, workplace and community.
While inclusive education is a highly effective educational approach – a fact that has been recognized for decades in federal disability rights and education laws – some students with special needs may benefit from other arrangements. There are many educational strategies and placements available to students with Down syndrome, including self-contained special education classes, resource rooms, mainstreaming, residential schooling and home instruction.
This brochure will familiarize readers with the philosophy and practice of inclusive education. It examines the history of the inclusion movement, the benefits of inclusion and the rationales and factors most frequently associated with successful inclusive education programs.
A Brief History of Inclusion
Until the late 1970s, students with disabilities were routinely placed in segregated educational settings, such as separate specialized schools or institutions. In 1970, schools in the United States served only one in five students with special needs. Since then, researchers, policy makers, parents and educators have debated how to integrate special and general education services into one educational system that serves all students. Educational practices such as mainstreaming, the “regular education initiative” and inclusion have shown that all students of differing abilities benefit from learning together.
Federal law followed parents’ growing demand for education of their children with disabilities in more inclusive settings. Established to grant states federal money to educate children with disabilities, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was instituted in 1975. Later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, this law sought to end segregation and exclusion of this group from general education settings. IDEA mandated that a “free and appropriate public education” be available to all school-age children with special needs, regardless of disability. An amendment in 1986 added children three to five years of age.
In 1985 U.S. Assistant Secretary of Special Education Madeleine Will introduced the Regular Education Initiative, named to convey the notion that students with mild disabilities could participate in the general education program at their neighborhood school. Not long afterward, advocacy efforts expanded the REI concept to include students with moderate and severe disabilities.
By 1990, this concept was further expanded and renamed “inclusive schooling” or “inclusion,” the practice of welcoming all students into general education classrooms in their neighborhood schools with the necessary support, services, and curricular and instructional modifications. By 1993, almost every state was implementing inclusion at some level.
Today, the inclusion discussion has expanded beyond special education and has become part of the total school reform movement. Reports like Winners All, published in 1992 by the National Association of State Boards of Education, demonstrated success in inclusive schools and urged states to adopt a new inclusive belief system, re-train teachers and revise funding formulas to support inclusive educational practices.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the primary federal law protecting the educational rights of students with disabilities. Although the terms “inclusion” and “inclusive education” are not written in the law, the concept of a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment” provides the legal basis for creating education based on the principles of inclusion.
A free and appropriate public education (FAPE) requires that students receive special education and related services that meet their unique needs and prepare them for independent living, employment or post-secondary education once their secondary education is complete. This focus on long-term outcomes is essential to the success of any educational strategy.
The FAPE and least restrictive environment (LRE) mandates must be balanced. IDEA states: “Each state must establish procedures to assure that, to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities … are educated with children who are not disabled and that special education, separate schooling or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily” [20 U.S.C 1412(5)(B)]. This means a student is entitled to be educated in the least restrictive environment in which an appropriate education can be obtained with the use of supplementary aids and services.
The starting point in any discussion of where a student should be educated is the age-appropriate general education classroom in the school that the student would attend if not disabled (called the “neighborhood school”). However, it is important to remember that this placement is not necessarily appropriate for every student. Full inclusion may not be every individual’s least restrictive environment. For some, LRE may be full inclusion in a general education classroom with supplementary support such as a special education teacher aide, or paraprofessional. For others, LRE may involve a self-contained classroom comprised of all students with disabilities.
Therefore, the least restrictive environment may be different for each student, depending on his or her individual needs. It is important to note that IDEA clearly specifies that the placement of any student must be based upon the individual’s identifiable needs, not based on the student’s diagnosed condition or categorical label.
Individualized Education Program and Procedural Rights
IDEA mandates that an Individualized Education Program (IEP) be developed for each student by an IEP team, which includes the student’s parents. When developing the IEP, the team should consider the entire range of the student’s abilities and goals, including non-academic goals.
Guidelines are available on the required elements of an IEP, the individuals who comprise the IEP team and options if you disagree with the team’s decisions. These guidelines are available from your school, local department of special education, through NICHCY (www.nichcy.org) or from other sources listed on the NDSS Inclusive Education Resource List. You may also contact the State Department of Education and ask for a copy of their special education policies. The Parent Training and Information (PTI) center in your state often has useful information as well. Contact NDSS if you need assistance locating these resources your area or search the NDSS resource database at www.ndss.org.Inclusion Defended – Key Court Decisions
Since the passage of IDEA in 1975, numerous federal court cases have affirmed the right of students with Down syndrome and other disabilities to attend regular classes. The courts continue to clarify the intent of this law. For example, in 1983, the Roncker v. Walter case addressed the issue of “bringing educational services to the child” versus “bringing the child to the services.” This case established another principle of inclusion: portability. If special education services can be successfully delivered in a general education classroom, the law says it is inappropriate to offer such services in a segregated setting. They are also referred to as “pull-in” services.
In 1988, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Timothy W., a student with severe disabilities whose school district contended he was “too disabled” to be entitled to an education. The ruling against the school’s position clarified the school district’s legal responsibility under IDEA to educate all children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, without exception.
The Fifth Circuit in the 1989 Daniel R.R. case established three factors for analyzing LRE decisions:
In weighing the third factor the school district must first look for ways to minimize the negative effects, including positive behavioral interventions and supplementary aids and services.
In 1993, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the right of Rafael Oberti, a child with Down syndrome, to be educated in his neighborhood school with adequate and necessary support services. As in the Daniel R.R. case, the court placed the burden of proof for compliance with IDEA’s requirements squarely upon the school district and the state rather than the family. The Oberti decision established another important rule: that the school cannot justify a more restrictive placement on the basis that the student would make greater educational progress in that setting. As long as the student is getting some educational benefit in inclusion, the argument of greater educational benefit elsewhere will not affect placement. This rule is extremely important because many educators assume that a student with Down syndrome will learn more academics in a segregated setting. This assumption is often untrue and it does not take into consideration the non-academic benefits of inclusion.
Other cases clarified a fourth factor: cost. In order for cost to affect an LRE decision, it has to be so high as to “significantly impact” the education of other students. In 1994, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court decision in Holland v. Sacramento Unified School District that indicated inclusion is the presumed starting point for placement of children with disabilities. The court found that the school district exaggerated the costs of educating Rachel Holland by attributing expenditures to her that would also benefit other students (e.g. training and paraprofessional support).
Advocates of inclusion often cite parallels to other struggles for human and civil rights, all of which have emphasized that legal, moral or philosophical segregation of subgroups of people is a violation of civil rights and the principle of equal citizenship. Many believe Chief Justice Earl Warren clarified this in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision more than four decades ago. The decision indicated that imposing separateness in education can generate a feeling of inferiority so deep that it can permanently interfere with a student’s motivation to learn and grow.
Benefits of Inclusion
Several years ago, the basic premise of special education was that students with disabilities would benefit from a unique body of knowledge and from smaller classes staffed by specially trained teachers using special teaching materials. While the premise remains valid, there is no compelling evidence demonstrating that segregated special education programs have significant benefits for students.
A number of studies over the years have reported the various benefits of inclusive education. In 1996, the National Down Syndrome Society published a research report on the inclusion of children with Down syndrome in general education classes1. After analyzing and comparing extensive parent and teacher questionnaires, this study found that with proper support and adequate communication between parents, teachers and professionals, inclusion is a favorable educational placement for children with Down syndrome. The study also found that the learning characteristics of students with special needs were more similar to their nondisabled peers than they were different. Moreover, teachers reported positive experiences with students with Down syndrome. They described their students as eager to learn, especially when encouraged, and reported personal satisfaction in terms of their professional achievements.
Literature documenting successful inclusion practices is significant and growing. An analysis by Baker, Wang and Walberg in 1994 concluded that “special-needs students educated in regular classes do better academically and socially than comparable students in non-inclusive settings2.” Research by Hollowood et al., (1995) found inclusion was not detrimental to students without disabilities3. In fact, a national study of inclusive education conducted in 1995 by the National Center on Educational Restructuring and Inclusion (NCERI) reported academic, behavioral and social benefits for students with and without disabilities4. The study also concluded that students within each of IDEA’s 13 categories of disability, at all levels of severity, have been effectively integrated into general education classrooms. NCERI also reported positive outcomes and high levels of professional fulfillment for teachers. A number of other studies confirming the educational and social benefits of inclusion for students with and without disabilities can be found in the reference list at the end of this publication5,6,7.
In May 2000, the Indiana Inclusion Study8 investigated the academic benefits of inclusive education for students without disabilities. This study concluded that students without disabilities who were educated in inclusive settings made significantly greater progress in math than their peers. Although their progress in reading was not significantly greater than their peers, there was a “consistent pattern” in their scores that favored educating students without disabilities in inclusive settings.
This and other research has highlighted improved academic skills, social skills, communication skills and peer relationships as four of the most important benefits of inclusion. Nondisabled students can serve as positive speech and behavior role models for those with disabilities and students with disabilities offer their nondisabled peers acceptance, tolerance, patience and friendship. As allies and friends, peers can offer support both in and out of the classroom. These findings show that everyone involved in inclusive schooling can benefit from the experience.
The introduction to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act acknowledges that education in inclusive settings works when the mandates of the law are followed. It states:
Over 20 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by:
Inclusive education has also been shown to have a positive impact on employment outcomes. A 1988 study by Affleck et al., spanning fifteen years, found that students with disabilities educated in inclusive settings had an employment rate of 73 percent while those in segregated programs had an employment rate of 53 percent9. Ferguson and Asch (1989) found that the more time students with disabilities spent in regular classes, the more they achieved as adults in employment and continuing education10. More recently, in its 1997 annual report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Education noted: “across a number of analyses of post-school results, the message was the same: those who spent more time in regular education experienced better results after high school11.” As nearly all employment settings are themselves inclusive, involving people with and without disabilities, it is easy to imagine why inclusive education has a positive impact on employment outcomes.
Many children with disabilities continue to be educated in separate classrooms or schools for all or most of the day, even when their parents believe an inclusive setting would be more appropriate.
Why does this happen? Researchers have identified a variety of perceptual, cultural and emotional barriers that cause people to resist the idea of students with and without disabilities sharing the same classroom. In some cases the barrier is simply a matter of prejudice. But there are also many more complex views, including the belief that only those students with disabilities who are closer to “normal” can or should be included and the belief that the needs of students with disabilities are unique and beyond the reach of general educators.
Others may be concerned about the need for special expertise to support the student’s academic and social learning or the potential for students with disabilities to disrupt the classroom. Concerns may also include the costs associated with special services and the idea that functional life skills cannot be addressed in general classroom settings.
Successful inclusion programs allay these concerns. In fact, models of inclusive education can be models for the education of all students, as they overcome barriers and offer a variety of approaches which reach a broader range of students and improve learning. These successful inclusion programs demonstrate how certain changes in the structure of school systems, classroom operations and the roles of teachers, students, parents and community members can enable equal access to general education curricula and related services for all students.
The Future of Inclusion
Tremendous progress has been made since the passage of the first special education law in 1975 to guarantee students with disabilities full educational rights and opportunities. These advances would not have been possible without the parents of children with disabilities and, increasingly, the individuals with disabilities themselves, who have always been the most visionary, vocal and effective advocates of the inclusion movement.
It is the parents and self-advocates who have rejected institutional placement, started the first schools for students with moderate and severe disabilities and mounted national advocacy campaigns to secure the federal laws that brought us mainstreaming and later inclusion.
It is understandable that families have led the movement because inclusion is not just about philosophy, educational practices or legal statutes. Inclusion is about children and their families -- their dreams and their futures.
Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).A “free and appropriate public education” is guaranteed to children with disabilities under IDEA. The law states that all children with special needs, ages three to 21 years of age, must receive special education and related services in accordance with state-mandated standards at public expense.
Inclusive Education/Inclusion.Inclusion is an educational process by which all students, including those with disabilities, are educated together for the majority of the school day.
Individualized Education Program (IEP).An “individualized educational program” is a document that must be created for each student with a qualifying disability attending public school, as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The IEP specifies the special education and related services that a child with a disability will receive. Produced and periodically reviewed and revised in a meeting with an IEP team, the IEP is intended to provide both long-term and short-term goals and establish the educational placement and necessary supplementary aids. The required contributors and components of the document are specified by IDEA.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).IDEA gives children with special needs the right to receive special education and related services in school. The regulation requires that a free and appropriate education be provided to children with disabilities and that they are entitled to learn in the least restrictive environment.
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).IDEA requires that a child with special needs be educated in a setting that provides for maximum interaction with nondisabled peers. IDEA states specifically that education for students with disabilities should take place in the “least restrictive environment.”
Mainstreaming.Mainstreaming is an educational practice where a student from a separate special education class visits the regular classroom for specific, usually non-academic, subjects.
Portability.Portability refers to the ability to successfully deliver special education services in a general education classroom. Under IDEA, it is inappropriate to provide portable services in a segregated setting unless it is the parent’s preference.
Related Services.Related services are transportation and developmental, corrective and other support services that a child with disabilities requires in order to benefit from an education. Examples of related services are speech pathology and audiology, psychological and counseling services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, interpreters for the hearing impaired and medical services for diagnostic and evaluation purposes.
1. Wolpert, G. (1996). The Educational Challenges Inclusion Study. New York, NY: National Down Syndrome Society.
2. Baker, E.T., Wang, M.C., and Walberg, H. J. (1994). The effects of inclusion on learning. Educational Leadership, 52 (4), 33-35.
3. Hollowood, T. M., Salisbury, C. L., Rainforth, B., and Palombaro, M. M. (1995). Use of instructional time in classrooms serving students with and without severe disabilities. Exceptional Children, 61, 242-253.
4. Lipsky, D. K., & Gartner, A. (1995). The evaluation of inclusive education programs. NCERI Bulletin, 2 (2).
5. Kelly, D. (199). Introduction. In T. Neary, A. Halvorsen, R. Kronberg, and D. Kelly (Eds.), Curricular adaptations for inclusive classrooms (I-iv) San Francisco: California Research Institute for the Integration of Students with Severe Disabilities, San Francisco State University.
6. Staub, D., & Peck, C. A. (1994). What are the outcomes for nondisabled students?
Educational Leadership, 52 (4), 36-40.
7. Kaskinen-Chapman, A. (1992). Saline Area Schools and inclusive community concepts. In R. Villa, J. Thousand, W. Stainback and S. Stainback (Eds.), Restructuring for caring and effective education (pp. 169-185). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Co.
8. Waldron, N. & Cole, C. (2000). The Indiana Inclusion Study Year One Final Report. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Institute on Disability & Community.
9. Affleck, J., Madge., S., Adams, A., & Lowenbraun, S. (1988). Integrated classroom versus resource model: Academic viability and effectiveness. Exceptional Children, 54, 339-348.
10. Ferguson, P., & Ash, A. (1989). Lessons from life: Personal and parental perspectives on school, childhood and disability. In D. Bilken, A. Ford, & D. Ferguson (Eds.), Disability and society, (pp. 108-140). Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education.
11. U.S. Department of Education (1997). Nineteenth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Washington, DC.
12. Villa, R., Thousand, J., Meyers, H., & Nevin, A. (1996). Teacher and administrator perceptions of heterogeneous education. Exceptional Children, 63(1), 29-45.