To what extent are students with intellectual disabilities included in regular education classrooms in the United States? Although inclusion is an accepted best practice in special education, little progress has been made in including students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. Using historical and the most recent available federal data, I explored the percentage of students with intellectual disabilities who are fully included in regular education classrooms, both nationally and in individual states. States are rank ordered by the percentage of students who are included. Nationally, in 2002–2003, less than 11% of students with intellectual disabilities were fully included in regular education classrooms. Research, policy, and advocacy issues are addressed.
Federal special education law, established in 1975 in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, and then continued through a series of reauthorizations up through 2004 in what is now called the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA), has long held that students with disabilities, including those with intellectual disabilities, have a right to receive a free and appropriate public education in a least restrictive environment; but to what extent are students with intellectual disabilities educated in regular education classrooms and schools? Has the number of students with intellectual disabilities included in regular education classrooms changed over time? What states successfully provide the supports schools need in order to make sure that students are included in general education? In this paper I provide a progress report on the extent to which educational systems include students with intellectual disabilities in regular education classrooms.
Although I am principally a qualitative researcher (Smith, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 2001a, 2001b, 2005, in press), my concern here is less about the research approach I use than with its outcome: policy analysis and systems change. I come to this work, in the words of my colleague Diane Ferguson (1995), as a “rabid inclusionist.” This is a value that has become, for me, an ethical imperative—a matter of moral concern in which, as a person with a disability and the parent of a student on an IEP, I have a personal stake. Here, I tell a story in numbers about the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities that is disturbing, at the least, and of great importance to our field as well as to the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
Data About Including Students With Intellectual Disabilities in Regular Education Classrooms
Progress in including students with intellectual disabilities in regular education classrooms can only be described as slow. Using data from the Department of Education, McLeskey, Henry, and Hodges (1999) found that in the period between 1988 and 1995, school districts had been relatively successful in moving students with intellectual disabilities out of separate schools, but had less success in including them in regular education classrooms with their peers. Karagiannis, Stainback, and Stainback (1996) found that in the 12 years between 1977 and 1990, the number of students with disabilities in regular education or resource classrooms increased by only 1.2%. In an analysis of the inclusion of students labeled as having intellectual disabilities, Williamson, McLesky, Hoppey, and Rentz (2006) found that nationally, their numbers seem to have plateaued in the school year 1997–1998.
Over a decade ago, in 1992, The Arc, a national organization focused on issues related to people with intellectual disabilities and their families, published a Report Card to the Nation on Inclusion in Education of Children With Mental Retardation (Davis, 1992). In 1995, they updated it with a Report Card on Inclusion in Education of Children With Mental Retardation (The Arc, 1995). In these report cards, the Arc rank ordered the states by the percentage of students (ages 6 to 21) with intellectual disabilities educated in regular education classrooms and graded states on their inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities, based on federal education data. The highest grade attained in 1995 was a B, which was obtained by only one state. No state received a grade of C; 16 states received grades of D; and the rest, almost two thirds, received an F.
I wanted to determine how current levels of inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities compared with these earlier data. The most recent official data available at the time of writing, collected by the U.S. Department of Education, was from the 2002–2003 school year (Office of Special Education, 2004). Although more recent data are available (see, for example, the website at http://www.ideadata.org), this information is not the data formally presented to Congress and is subject to change as individual states modify or correct statistics that they have submitted. Unfortunately, the data that the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) uses does not correlate with any good definition of inclusion I found in the literature; it is primarily derivative (more about that later).
I looked at data that were as close as I could come to my understanding of full inclusion in schools (i.e., situations in which students with disabilities spend all or most of their time in regular education classrooms). The OSERS collects information about the percentage of time that students with various disability labels spend outside of regular education classrooms, in increments: those who are outside regular education classrooms less than 21% of the time; between 21% and 60% of the time, and greater than 60% of the time. Information is also collected about the number of students who do not receive their education in schools, but instead receive services in public separate facilities, private separate facilities, public residential facilities, private residential facilities, and in either home or hospital environments.
I used information that showed the percentage of students with intellectual disabilities whose education was in regular education classrooms for more than 79% of the time (translated from the way OSERS described it, in terms of those who are outside those classrooms for less than 21% of the time), by state, as the closest measure of the full inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities available from this federally collected data (Office of Special Education, 2004).
I then rank ordered the states (including Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico), from those with the highest percentage to those with the lowest percentage of students with intellectual disabilities included in regular education classrooms, based on the most recent, formally published 2002–2003 school year data. Finally, I compared these percentages by state to the same kind of data from the previous 5-year increment (1997–1998 school year) as well as a 10-year increment (1992–1993 school year) to determine how the numbers had changed over time (Office of Special Education, 1998, 2000) (see Table 1 for a representation of these data). Using these data allowed me to look at a decade of information about inclusion, in 5-year increments, that included the most recent formally published data and to explore changes and trends in the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities in regular education classrooms.
What Do the Numbers Say About Inclusion in the United States?
Nationally, for the 50 states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico, between the 1992–1993 and 2002–2003 school years, the percentage of students with intellectual disabilities who received their education in regular education classrooms for more than 79% of the time grew by a very small 3.84%, from 7.11% to 10.95%. Although this represents an increase, the number is trivial given the policy goals outlined by the Arc. In fact, the change is trivial no matter how you parse it; for example, because it represents a change of less than 5%, it may for some represent a change that does not even rise to the level of statistical significance. Although that is not a conservative definition of statistical significance, to describe the change over 10 years as being progressive or liberal would be a gross mischaracterization. I would call it tiny.
These numbers indicate that almost 90% of students with intellectual disabilities still spend substantive time outside of classrooms in which all students, regardless of disability label, might be included. Almost all students with intellectual disabilities, in other words, are not fully included. Also disappointing, over the course of the decade between 1993 and 2003, a full 15 states, almost a third, lost ground in the percentage of students with intellectual disabilities who were fully included. The numbers of fully included students with intellectual disabilities went down over those 10 years for those states.
The state with the most students with intellectual disabilities fully included in regular education classrooms has been the same over time: Vermont. Somewhat startlingly, because it has a powerful reputation as a state committed to inclusion, it was one of the almost one third of states that lost ground in the number of included students. The number of students with intellectual disabilities fully included in Vermont in the decade between 1992–1993 and 2002–2003 dropped by an alarming 14.34%, leaving the state with the highest percentage of students with intellectual disabilities fully included at only 60.34% in 2002–2003.
Looking at the data from the 5-year increment previous to 2002–2003, it is apparent that the numbers go from bad to worse. Between school years 1997–1998 and 2002–2003, only 16 states, one third, went up in the percentage of students labeled as having intellectual disabilities who were fully included in regular education classrooms. A full 34 states, slightly more than two thirds, went down, many of them precipitously; 14 states (again, close to a third of all states) dropped by at least 10%, several by much more. Vermont, which had risen from 74.70% in 1992–1993 to 86.11% in 1997– 1998 of students with intellectual disabilities who were fully included, lost almost 26% of such students from regular education classrooms over the last 5 years of the decade that was examined. The state with the historically highest number of students with intellectual disabilities who were fully included lost ground to an incredible and disheartening degree. More important, I would argue, those numbers are humanly significant: They represent a re-segregation of students with intellectual disabilities.
Nationally, during the most recent 5 years of official data, between 1997–1998 and 2002–2003, the number of students with intellectual disabilities fully included in regular education went down 5.01% overall, from 15.96% to 10.95%, again, a statistically significant number no matter how significance is defined. If this represents a trend, and I worry that it does, then sometime during the late 1990s, the United States reached a peak in the number of students with intellectual disabilities who were fully included (at a number still substantially less than advocates, families, and people with disabilities want and need) and then started a slide toward increased segregation. This appears to be not just a plateauing, as Williamson et al. (2006) indicated, based on their analysis of slightly less recent data than were looked at here, but a downward turn. This slide is not just at the national level but is replicated at the micro-level in two thirds of individual states.
What Do These Numbers Mean?
In its 1992 report, the Arc called for the full inclusion of 50% of students with intellectual disabilities by 1995 and the full inclusion of all students with intellectual disabilities by the year 2000. By any measure, efforts to reach that goal have not been just a dismal failure, they have been a failure of the grossest magnitude. Just barely over one tenth of students with intellectual disabilities were fully included by the year 2002. In fact, looked at in the best light possible, seeing the decade as a whole, the states, local school districts, and the federal government have moved at a pathetically slow pace toward that goal of full inclusion. Looking at the more recent 5 years, and in a more pessimistic view, the pace has not just slowed—it has stopped and potentially reversed direction.
Further, the state with the highest percentage of fully included students with intellectual disabilities (Vermont) is now doing a poorer job, substantially poorer, at including those students than it was in the early 1990s: The top is no longer anywhere near where it was at its peak. The movement towards full inclusion for students with intellectual disabilities has, at best, slowed to a crawl. If the state that has been the most successful at including students with intellectual disabilities can be considered a kind of canary in a coal mine and if the most recent 5 years of official data reported to Congress can be considered any sort of trend, then there are signs that the future of inclusion in the United States is very bleak indeed.
I am not going to perform the statistical analysis that the Arc did in the mid-90s to develop an inclusion score for individual states; however, in looking at the raw percentage numbers of students with intellectual disabilities included in regular classrooms in 2002–2003 by state, no state could get the highest grade the Arc gave in 1995, a B (given to only one state, again, Vermont). In fact, using the kind of scoring rubric that I use for my students, there would be no Cs in my grade book, or Bs, nor certainly any As. The highest grade I could possibly give would be a D−, and only one state could get even that (instead of the 16 states receiving a grade of D from the Arc in 1995). It is a D− by only the smallest few tenths of a percent; all the rest would get an F in my grade book. One D−, barely hanging on by its fingernails, and 49 Fs.
Is inclusion just an issue for students with intellectual disabilities? Of course it is not. Less than half of students aged 6 to 21 receiving special education services spent most of their time (80% or more) in regular education classrooms in 2000 and almost 20% spent more than 60% of their school time in segregated classes outside of regular education classrooms. A full 4.2% of students with all kinds of disabilities in the 6 to 21 age range received their education in completely segregated settings outside of regular education buildings (residential facilities and other separate facilities or in homebound or hospital environments). Students with deaf–blindness, multiple disabilities, and emotional impairments were the most likely to receive educational services in those completely segregated settings. Even when receiving their education in regular education buildings, just like students with intellectual disabilities, students with autism, multiple disabilities, deaf–blindness, and emotional impairments were likely to spend most of their time in segregated classes outside of regular education classrooms (Office of Special Education, 2003).
The Data Trap
One issue about the information that is available to us concerning the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities, about the inclusion of students with any disability, is that the information is derivative. The numbers I have presented here are not based on a definition of inclusion, per se; they are based on the data that OSERS collects (not to belabor the obvious), which is information about the time students with disabilities spend in particular environments. In a way, the data have created the definition, rather than working the other way around. Because OSERS collects data about environments, that is the way we can understand inclusion.
This is, in part, a reflection of the way that education for students with disabilities has been described and understood for the past 30 and more years, in the language of the IDEIA. There, education is framed as a place, an environment, one that is portrayed as more or less restrictive. The IDEIA does not describe inclusion, so OSERS does not collect information about it. One of the traps that the original designers of P.L. 94-142 fell into, a trap that has been maintained for several decades, is the portrayal of special education (and, for that matter, education more broadly) as a place rather than seeing it as a process or set of practices (Kluth, Villa, & Thousand, 2002). For OSER, and the data, special education is where things occur, not what is done there.
To collect information about the inclusion of students with intellectual (or any other) disabilities, OSERS needs to adopt a definition of inclusion. This is no small task, given that there is no clear consensus about what, in fact, inclusion is. Frankly, definitions are all over the place, representing diverse perspectives and ideologies (e.g., see Clair, Church, & Batshaw, 2002; Falvey & Givner, 2005; Gee, 2004; Lewis & Doorlag, 2006; Turnbull, Turnbull, Erwin, & Soodak, 2006); and there are some for whom full inclusion is not seen as a useful goal, principle, or value—again, representing a particular ideology, although these authors would deny that their position is ideological (Kauffman, 2004; Kauffman, Landrom, Mock, Sayeski, & Sayeski, 2005; Kauffman, McGee, & Brigham, 2004; Mock & Kauffman, 2002).
In spite of this, there is a diverse body of research about inclusion, about what it means and what it does, that has been explored over a long period of time. As early as 1951, researchers explored ways to include students with disabilities in regular education classrooms (Haring, 2002). The history of inclusive education has a long and powerful story, with substantial success, not just for students with so-called mild disabilities, but for students with intellectual and significant disabilities as well (Stainback & Smith, 2005; Tomlinson, 2004; Villa & Thousand, 2002a).
Researchers have found many reasons for asserting that inclusion is a best practice in education, including legal, moral, procedural, and philosophical (Baglieri & Knopf, 2004; Dixon, 2005; Villa & Thousand, 2002a, 2005a). A wide variety of evidence-based educational strategies are available to enable students with disabilities to be included in regular education classrooms (Downing & Eichinger, 2003; Giangreco, 1997; Lawrence-Brown, 2004; Lohrman & Bambara, 2006; McCormick, Noonan, Ogata, & Heck, 2001; Schmidt, Rozendal, & Greenman, 2002; Udvari-Solner, Thousand, Villa, Quiocho, & Kelly, 2005; Villa, Thousand, & Chapple, 1996; Villa & Thousand, 2003; Villa, Thousand, Nevin, & Liston, 2005). Inclusive practices bring clear, unequivocal academic and social benefits for students with and without disabilities across a variety of age ranges (Agran, Blanchard, Wehmeyer, & Hughes, 2002; Burstein, Sears, Wilcoxen, Cabello, & Spagna, 2004; Cole, 2006; Cole, Waldron, & Majd, 2004; Doré, Dion, Wagner, & Brunet, 2002; Downing & Eichinger, 2003; Downing, Spencer, & Cavallaro, 2004; Dymond & Orelove, 2001; Fisher & Meyer, 2002; Freeman & Alkin, 2000; Hunt & Goetz, 1997; Hunt, Hirose-Hatae, Doering, Karasoff, & Goetz, 2000; Peck, Staub, Gallucci, & Schwartz, 2004; Rea, Mclaughlin, & Walther-Thomas, 2002).
If OSERS were to ask me what definition of inclusion they should use in order to develop the kind of data they need to collect, I would recommend the one proposed by Giangreco (2006), based on his in-depth research over decades, one he has revised and added to over time. It is quoted it here, in its entirety:
All students are welcomed in general education. The general education class in the school the student would attend if not disabled is the first placement option considered. Appropriate supports, regardless of disability type or severity, are available.
Students are educated in classes where the number of those with and without disabilities is proportional to the local population (e.g., 10% to 12% have identified disabilities).
Students are educated with peers in the same age groupings available to those without disability labels.
Students with varying characteristics and abilities (e.g., those with and without disability labels) participate in shared educational experiences while pursuing individually appropriate learning outcomes with necessary supports and accommodations.
Shared educational experiences take place in settings predominantly frequented by people without disabilities (e.g., general education classes, community work sites, community recreational facilities).
Educational experiences are designed to enhance individually determined valued life outcomes for students and therefore seek and individualized balance between the academic-functional and social-personal aspects of schooling.
Inclusive education exists when each of the previously listed characteristics occurs on an ongoing, daily basis. (p. 4)
Giangreco's definition is a powerful one because he speaks about all students, not just those with disabilities; describes special education as a process, not a place; speaks to the rights of students; describes students, both with and without disabilities, as being a shared responsibility for all schools and educators; and, finally, describes schools as a place of community and a place within which to create community.
What Prevents Inclusion From Happening?
Numerous barriers to including students with disabilities in general education classrooms still exist (Buell, Hallam, Gamel-McCormick, & Scheer, 1999; Carter & Hughes, 2006; Laflamme, McComas, & Pivik, 2002; Villa & Thousand, 2003, 2005b). It is clear that what are sometimes portrayed as inclusive educational practices do not always meet the criteria held by many researchers and practitioners (Giangreco, 1997; Villa & Thousand, 2005b). This has led to unwarranted critique of inclusive education, poor implementation of inclusion, and a general lack of understanding of the goals and strategies of those who seek to create opportunities for inclusive structures. Placement decisions regarding students with disabilities are too often made on the basis of inaccurate misunderstandings about inclusion and special education law (Kluth et al., 2002).
Giangreco (2006) found that access to regular education classrooms is still only inconsistently available for students with disabilities, including those with significant disabilities, over 30 years after the passage of federal special education legislation. This may be partly a result, he noted, of the misrepresentation and distortion of what constitutes an inclusive education setting and because of ideological conflict within the field of special education and the broader arena of educational policy.
Educational leaders remain ambivalent at best about including students with intellectual disabilities in regular education classrooms on a full-time basis (Praisner, 2003). Perhaps partly as a result of this and other factors, educators often have inadequate training, support, and experience regarding teaching students with disabilities in regular education settings (Burke & Sutherland, 2004; Coombs-Richardson & Mead, 2001; Garriott, Miller, & Snyder, 2003; Kamens, Loprete, & Slostad, 2003; Lohrman & Bambara, 2006; Shippen, Crites, Houchins, Ramsey, & Simon, 2005; Titone, 2005; Yellin et al., 2003).
Is Money A Barrier to Inclusion?
As educators, we know what it takes to include students with intellectual disabilities in regular education classrooms. In fact, we are learning more and more every year about how to include students: The research base exploring educational strategies is growing by leaps and bounds defining what it takes to create a Universal Design for Learning (Udvari-Solner, Villa, & Thousand, 2005; Villa, Thousand, Nevin, & Liston, 2005). The numbers prove that we have the knowledge and capacity to include students with intellectual disabilities if we want to. We have known how to do it for a long time, in fact.
Does the argument that inclusion costs more hold water? I do not think so. In comparing 2 states, I ranked Vermont as the state still Number 1 in the percentage of students with intellectual disabilities who are fully included for the school year 2002– 2003. I ranked Michigan, on the other hand, as 41st for the same school year. Michigan is not exactly at the very bottom of rankings, but not an awfully long way from it. Now, when I looked at data about the 2 states in terms of per capita personal income (how much people made annually, if it were spread across everyone in the state, on average), Vermont was ranked 22nd among the 50 states in 2002 (below the United States average) and Michigan ranked 20th (also below the United States average). The numbers are certainly not identical, but not so terribly far from each other (National Education Association, 2005, Table D-3, p. 26). Generally speaking, people in neither state were making as much money as other people around the country.
I then looked at how the 2 states were ranked in terms of the per capita expenditures made by state and local governments for all education in 2001–2002. Here, Vermont ranked 6th, and Michigan ranked 7th; again, not identical but very close indeed (National Education Association, 2005, Table H-3, p. 52). With a broad paintbrush, you could say that people in Vermont made a little less money but spent a little bit more on education than did people in Michigan. The difference between the 2 in these two areas, however, was not extraordinary—not identical, but by no means terrifically different.
The difference between these 2 states on these three measures (inclusion, per capita income, and per capita spending on education) is in the area of inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities. There is a huge difference between the 2 states in terms of their levels of inclusion, yet very little difference in how they are ranked in per capita personal income and per capita expenditure for education. One would be safe in saying that whatever the difference between these states in terms of including students with intellectual disabilities in regular education classrooms, the difference is not about money, not in terms of how much individual citizens have to spend, or how much they spend on education.
There is enough money for inclusion to happen, probably in either state, at least given what Vermont was able to do. In fact, the National Council on Disability (1994) found over a decade ago that inclusion was no more expensive, and perhaps often less expensive, than providing education to students with disabilities in segregated settings. It is not about enough; it is about whether, how, and on what to spend money. As one of my students said to me recently, “It's not about the money. We're already spending it.” More precisely, the issue is not whether there is enough money, but on what the money is spent.
Research done some time ago by the National Council on Disability (1994) and the Center on Special Education Finance (Parrish, 1993, 1994, 1996) found that there were significant financial disincentives at state and local levels for including students in any but restrictive settings. Policymakers have chosen to fund special education in such a way as to ensure that students with disabilities, including those with intellectual disabilities, receive supports in noninclusive settings. Given the analysis above, there is enough money to make inclusion happen, but policymakers have simply chosen not to provide it.
If It is Not About Money, What is It About?
Money, in and of itself, does not seem to be a significant barrier to including students with intellectual disabilities. Instead, the inclusion of such students is a policy issue, at both the state and local levels. Researchers and policymakers have been asking whether special education policy is effective for almost 50 years (Kidd, 1958). Some have argued that special education does little to affect the achievement of students with disabilities (Gottlieb & Weinberg, 1999; President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002; Reynolds & Wolfe, 1999). Looking at the data represented here, it is clear that special education policy is not effective in making inclusion a possibility for all students with disabilities, including those with intellectual disabilities. A different way of thinking about special education—what it does, what it is for, who it benefits—is essential.
In research using both qualitative and quantitative methods, Furney, Hasazi, and Clarke/Keefe (2005) looked at the implications of state-level reform legislation for students with disabilities who were at-risk. They found that reforms need to be focused on positive outcomes for all students, not just those with disabilities or those who are at-risk. The authors also suggested that appropriate professional development resources need to be made available for all educators and administrators, not just those in special education.
What does this mean? Inclusion, for students with intellectual disabilities as well as other disabilities, is a policy issue not just for special education, but for education in general. In order for students with disabilities to be included in regular education classrooms, all educators and administrators need to take responsibility for all students. Increasing opportunities for including students with intellectual disabilities in regular education does not mean changing special education. It means changing education as a whole (Villa & Thousand, 2002b).
Developing education policy that systematizes shared responsibility for the needs of all students and ensures that pre-service and in-service teachers and administrators have the knowledge, resources, and experience to deliver differentiated instruction to all students, will be essential (Furney, Hasazi, Clark/Keefe, & Hartnett, 2003). All educators, not only special educators, need information, experience, and skills related to teaching students with intellectual disabilities in their classrooms. This will require changing the kinds of training pre-service and in-service that educators receive.
Two other issues may be having an impact on inclusion: high stakes testing and student performance accountability. In the face of state and federal mandates in these areas, researchers have found that reform and other efforts in support of inclusive education may be unsustainable (Cole, 2006; Sindelar, Shearer, Yendol-Hoppey, & Liebert, 2006). National and state data indicate important unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind legislation on students with disabilities, including in the area of inclusion (Cole, 2006).
Changing the way we provide education in the United States, at all levels, will be essential to make that happen. Whatever we have been doing to this point—not much, I would argue—is not working. It is time to do something else.
Future Policy, Future Practice, Future Research
So, we know how to include students with so-called intellectual disabilities in regular education classrooms, and, depending on the state, we have plenty of experience in doing it. Money does not seem to be a legitimate barrier, at least in terms of whether there is enough of it. What specific policy practice and research concerns need to be addressed to ensure that increasing (not declining) numbers of students labeled as having intellectual disabilities are included in regular education classrooms? First, OSERS needs to adopt a clear definition of inclusion (I have suggested Giangreco's 1997 language) and collect appropriate data related to it. Second, funding and definitional disincentives to inclusion need to be eliminated, probably by starting with inserting specific language into IDEIA (using the actual word inclusion). Changing No Child Left Behind to ensure that it harbors no disincentives to inclusion will also be important. Funding incentives for inclusion, at state and federal levels (together with future reauthorizations of IDEIA and No Child Left Behind) would go a long way to encouraging reform supporting inclusion across a variety of levels.
In much of the literature I referenced briefly here, researchers have noted that inclusion is hindered by categorical disability determination and education. Moving federal and state legislation in noncategorical directions, eliminating barriers between special and general education, will be essential to alleviate this issue.
Teacher and administrator education practice will need to change as well, with an increased emphasis on the skills, dispositions, experiences, and attitudes needed to enable general and special educators to work collaboratively to educate students with disabilities in regular education classrooms and for educators and administrators to implement inclusive school reform measures at micro- and macro-levels. This will require substantive change in much of current university teacher and administrator education structures; instead of departments of special education, we will need schools of inclusive education that stretch across disciplinary boundaries and focus more on disability studies. In programs in educational leadership, professors will need to explore how to create learning communities and constructivist leadership models.
Continued policy and practice research will be essential if we really want inclusion to be a goal for all students. We will need to look more at what works, and what does not work, in creating incentives for inclusion. We will need to explore educational reform issues at state and federal levels and at both systems and school-building levels. We will need to look at the kinds of teacher education practices that increase opportunities for inclusion and find out what kinds of supports, administrative and otherwise, are necessary for schools and educators to satisfactorily include students with disabilities in regular education classrooms, and how best to implement them. In addition, we need to explore what it means for people with disabilities to take on important leadership roles in educational and other communities.
Making Inclusion Happen Tomorrow
In the mid-1990s, I applied to work as a service coordinator in an agency providing supports to people with developmental disabilities living in the community. As I spoke with the executive director, I described my values regarding inclusion in both school and community and the need for systemic change. The agency director agreed that those values were important, but noted that just as it was taking decades to close down institutions for people with developmental disabilities, it would take decades to fully include all students with intellectual disabilities in regular education. Thirty years was the time frame he used.
As I thought later about what he said, I realized that he was probably right; it may take a long time and require substantive change. However, I cannot wait that long because the students and adults with intellectual disabilities that I have come to know, many of whom have come to be colleagues and mentors, cannot wait that long. They need things to change, well, tomorrow. Thirty years is too long, much too long. Their lives will be almost over and school will be, at best, a distant memory. They need, and they have the right, to live a life in which they are accorded the same rights (and responsibilities) that we all expect and demand.
So although it may, in fact, take a long time for real change to take place, I need to work as if I am going to make it happen tomorrow—not next week, not next year, not in 20 years, but tomorrow.
The Arc of the United States/American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (2002) position statement on inclusion makes clear what families and professionals believe is an important value in the lives of students with disabilities: “Children should . . . learn in their neighborhood school in a regular classroom that contains children of the same age without disabilities” (p. 1). So, let's get to work.
Author: Phil Smith, EdD, Assistant Professor, Eastern Michigan University, Special Education, 110 Poerter, Ypsilanti, MI 48197. email@example.com