Including special education students in “regular” classes is a process many educators fear will be difficult, time-consuming, and yet another burden for teachers weighted down by mandates. Educators and others in society, though, have to start viewing inclusion as a right and a social justice issue, not just an educational concern, according to Dr. Mara Sapon-Shevin, a professor of education at Syracuse University. And with the proper training and support for teachers and students, it can work, she said.
Inclusion teaches children how to live in “diverse, democratic communities,”. Segregating special education students or those with disabilities deprives them of valuable peer interaction and affects the quality of their education and prevents other children from learning from them.
It’s very hard to learn to be comfortable with the difference in the absence of diversity. Attempting to do so leads to abstract and theoretical learning rather than the concrete, grounded understanding that allows us to breathe deeply into our commonalities and our differences, confident of our places in the world and our abilities to connect well with others.
Inclusion also means that we pay careful attention to issues of social justice and diversity. How do children talk to one another? Do they help one another? Is there teasing or exclusion going on? Teachers spend considerable energy helping students understand their own and others’ differences and children are encouraged to ask respectful questions and to learn about one another. Helping is considered essential in the classroom, and time is spent teaching students to support one another through peer mentoring, collaborative learning, and other forms of peer support. In the inclusive classrooms, it matters how people treat one another. Learning to live together in a democratic society is one of the key goals of the inclusive classroom.
Every parent wants his or her child to grow up to be able to move through the world with confidence and skill, and much of that will depend on the kind of education they have received. Inclusion is not a “favor” for students with disabilities. Inclusion is a gift we give ourselves, the gift of understanding, the gift of knowing that we are all members of the human race, and that true joy comes in building genuine relationships with a wide range of other people.
It is completely reasonable for teachers to be concerned that they are being asked to take on lots of responsibilities in the classroom without adequate support. Asking teachers to meet the needs of a wide range of learners without educational and personal resources is a formula for frustration and failure. Teachers need to demand (and schools must provide) adequate training and support for inclusion, not only before students are included, but on an ongoing basis. Abandoning teachers with challenging students is irresponsible and unethical and doesn’t lead to success for teachers, students, or their families.
It must also be said that many teachers have found that good teaching — responsive, active, participatory, and multi-level — benefits all students. It is not a zero-sum game in which making visuals to help Jonas hurts Carlos’ education or that allowing Tiana to use manipulatives damages Malik’s math skills. The more teachers broaden their curriculum and allow multiple entry and participation levels, the more students they are likely to reach. The more adaptations and modification are “standard,” the less stigmatizing or problematic variation becomes for any student.