Monday, February 4, 2013

Is inclusion a good thing?

           Inclusion is a murky word. Proponents of inclusion want to have classrooms, social activities and workplaces where there are disabled and non-disabled individuals getting together, commiserating, cooperating…It scares the crap out of me. Why? Because too many people believe that insertion = inclusion and frankly my friends, it does not.
Let us ask ourselves: have the disabled been integrated into society since the “purging” of the state hospitals (deinstitutionalization) began in the 1970’s? By definition, inclusion is “the addition of somebody or something to a group or mixture” (Encarta dictionary). However, inclusion can be nothing more than a simple insertion of an individual into a setting where they are not truly accepted but are merely tolerated. A person can be tolerated without being recognized. Think of that kid that sits alone at the lunch table, not being picked on but not being played with, either. Tolerated but not recognized.
They can be admitted without being incorporated. A student with Down syndrome has a right to be integrated into a non-specialized public school but doesn’t his lack of friends or any after-school programs geared towards his socialization needs and interests prove that inclusion does not equal acceptance? In this case, we are not just talking about his acceptance by his peers; the teachers, administrators, coaches, mentors and the school system as a whole is in question.
Now, “federal officials are telling school districts thatthey must offer students with disabilities equal access to school sports.” Schools will be required to make reasonable accommodations to include students with disabilities. If doing so changes the nature of the game drastically then new programs that have “comparable standing as mainstream programs” must be created.

This worries me some. There are some unintended consequences I can foresee here. Forcing teachers and coaches to make a spot for a kid with a disability in their “normal” routine they’ve been accustomed to can be traumatic for all involved: the teacher/coach, their current students, and the kid being inserted into the team.
Once, when I was working as a hair designer in my previous life, before inclusion went from being a notion to an action that is actively pursued, a client who was a middle school teacher was venting to her colorist how she was being forced to have special needs kids in her classroom. She commented on how difficult it made her life now that she had to develop a lesson plan for a kid “like that” and still have to be able to teach the “normal” kids. The venting went on for a while and I eavesdropped the whole time. This clearly shows that inclusion must be done in a thoughtful, meaningful way. We can’t just tell a school, “You have four kids with physical disabilities and none of them are on sports teams. Stick them in somewhere by next week.” Can you imagine the resentment towards those four kids felt by the coaches and the other students because of a forced insertion? How will that resentment play out? Ignoring them? Dirty looks? Hurtful words? Physical harm? I know that not all teachers, coaches & students will feel this way but is this a risk you’re willing to take with your kid? Not I! And yes, I know, nobody is saying that schools will have a week’s time to make the necessary changes. In fact, there’s no deadline for schools to comply which seems like a built-in loophole to me. But there is ALWAYS resistance when institutions that have not complied with ADA regulations for the entire time they’ve been in existence is told that they must make changes. Just take a look at the whole pool-lift debacle.
Another very real concern I foresee is: how can instructors & teachers who have never had any experience with special needs students be expected to include these students without any formal training?? Not everybody can be a special needs instructor. Just because someone is “good with kids” and gets good results in their classroom or on the field does not automatically ensure that they will know what to do when they’re presented with a whole new set of….problems, shall we say? A kid with autism who self-stims, for example, can be hard to deal with when you’re used to things like Tommy taking Sandy’s pencil. Forcing a teacher to take on special needs kids because of an “inclusion doctrine” with little or no training is detrimental to the students and teacher. I have not read anything, anywhere, which talks about appropriate training for these instructors who now have to figure out ways to truly include new athletes.
And of course we will have those ridiculous comments about how enforcing these regulations will only serve to raise taxes and school districts will become even tighter with their budgets. Oh, and now, regular programs will suffer because they will have to be cut in order to funnel cash to creating new programs for those other kids. Do you know what Title IX is? It made huge positive changes for women in sports. It demanded equal sports programs for women as for men and it led to a large increase of female participation in sports. But of course, there were those idiots who found a way to make it a negative by saying men’s sports had to be cut because of Title IX. AND??? Does that mean that women shouldn’t have the same opportunities because now the men have slightly less? Why should it be any different for people who have disabilities?

I started off by saying that inclusion scares the crap out of me but I do believe it is necessary and vital to a healthy society, not only for those who are disabled but also for the walkers, talkers & others who are not disabled. Access to school athletics, whether at the elementary, high school or collegiate level is A RIGHT, not a privilege! Too many times people with disabilities are seen as pity-cases. But guess what, people? There are actually people with disabilities who can do things society believes they cannot. Have you heard of Mitch Ryan? Yeah.
 So what is the answer? How can we stamp out stigmas and eradicate discrimination? We can protest and march against the unfair and unequal treatment of those with disabilities. However, to date, research suggests that protests do not promote positive attitudes or increase knowledge about disabilities (Westerholm, et al., 1506).
Education is the main conduit to a better understanding of the life of a person who happens to have a disability. The sharing of correct information will assist in the reduction of stigmas attached to individuals who are physically, mentally and developmentally disabled. In the case of mental illness, for example, after-care information is of particular importance because studies have shown that people who only receive information regarding psychological symptoms increased their negative attitudes about the illness (Westerholm, et al., 1506).
There needs to be an attitudinal shift when considering disability rights. Rather than charity it is imperative there be a focus on civil rights; rather than pity, a belief in a wide range of human possibilities is crucial. A disastrous consequence to the stigmatization of the disabled population is the tendency for the disabled to avoid contact with the able-bodied and, conversely, the able-bodied to ostracize the disabled. I have a firm belief that the best approach to reducing stigmatization and discrimination is to increase meaningful personal contact between folks who have disabilities and those who do not, i.e. full inclusion with appropriate training, not just insertion. For the disabled, this dynamic can help foster a sense of trust towards the non-disabled which may increase their willingness to involve themselves with social interactions they may have previously been resistant to. The development of this dynamic can provide for those who are not disabled important information regarding the positive and negative impacts of mainstream society on those who live with disabilities.
Imagine a world where people with disabilities aren’t fearful of the non-disabled and the non-disabled are not uncomfortable around people who are disabled. That’s the world that I want to live in.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American dedicated to the realization of the equal rights promised to all African-Americans in this country. In his famous speech he described the state of being of African-Americans a century after they were to have been emancipated:

“One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”

What he proclaimed was a concept that should have been obvious without being stated – that every person has the right to be treated equally and fairly.   We can see very strong similarities between the tragedies that the African-Americans and the disabled citizens of this country have been forced to endure. Must we wait one hundred years after the beginning of deinstitutionalization before the civil rights of the disabled are truly recognized?

Westerholm, Robert, Laura Radak, Christopher Keys, and David Henry. "Stigma." Encyclopedia
        of Disability. 4. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006. Print.

Edited for broken link


  1. I'm not a big fan of inclusion. Not with the level of intolerance and ignorance in this world. My #1 job is to PROTECT my child. This is far from possible outside of a classroom tailored to HIS needs.

  2. I share your fears, that's why I started off by saying that inclusion scares the crap out of me. What's important to make inclusions successful is proper training & education. Even with that, not every kid is able to be "included" in mixed classrooms or social activities but it's supremely important that the ones that can be, ARE.

  3. You are right, it's a very murky concept. I write from my 30 years as a high school principal at the school where my Adam attended from ages 15-22. I address my thoughts to those kids with the most severe disabilities.
    Adam always had a 1 to 1 aide, the same one for all those years. He spent most of his time in a separate class for severe special needs kids. They loved him, would talk to him, read simple stories to him, hold his hand...there was a purity in those kids hearts which you would not find in the mainstream. In inclusion situations, he was didn't attention, nor did the teachers..they didn't know how to relate, they were tainted by the prejudices of their world. Adam did enjoy watching the chorus perform, he enjoyed watching PE, he enjoyed being taken outside by his aide...that was the extent of inclusion and that was fine with me. Never once allowed him on the little yellow bus, we worried too much. Some inclusion worked and he got the best, of course, because his dad was the principal.
    Despite the rumble. sports/athletics is not a civil right ... it's a function of having the appropriate skill to make a team, just like AP Calculus is not a civil right, but a matter of having the entrance requirements. If a special education student makes a team, reasonable accommodations are required. A deaf student might require a visual start rather than an auditory one, or even a a sign language interpreter. There are accommodations which are too numerous to mention. If a behaviorally challenged student makes a team, his accommodation might be having an aide at practices and games. Special transportation is also an accommodation.
    As a Principal, I got around coaches bullshit by having my school council (hand picked by me) institute a no-cut policy. If you went out for a team, there were no cuts. You might have no playing time in inter-scholastic games, but all dressed and practice and we did what was necessary to have them be on a team. Same for after school clubs. All kids could participate. If you were in a wheelchair and needed an aide, the Related Services portion of IDEA meant that you got one.

    Of course this was goo because dad was principal and was a master of manipulating system stacked against the disabled. He was also very long-winded which is why he got his way.

    Yes, very scary, but Adam's best experiences were in a special classroom for special kids.

    1. "there was a purity in those kids hearts which you would not find in the mainstream"

      I'd have to disagree that this can't happen. My Mac is the younger version of Adam, very similarly physically affected and yet Mac enjoys full mainstream inclusion for school (now in Grade 4) and, because he is there, those children know how to be with him, they think about how to get from A to B, how to change a game, how to include. They set up his computers, act as his communication partners, advocate for him, revere him. I see photos of them at school and the body language is incredible, kids draped over his chair, draped over their buddy, their mate, their peer (oh, and they'll just as quickly dump him in it if they are all getting in trouble too LOL) BUT, there absolutely is purity in those hearts. Kids naturally include - Mac has been included since he was 2yo in pre-school. It is adults who train it out of kids... we make rules that stop them touching, pushing wheelchairs, talking to, holding hands with, looking, questioning. Given the opportunity to include without adults interfering (or adults having already interfered) I truly believe kids will include. We need to watch and learn from them.

      Mac's needs could never be served in a special classroom. He would grow up only knowing he has to have people "paid to care" around him not people who simply "care to care". In Australia he would be "baby sat" not educated. Mac is no use to a similarly disabled student nor they to him... so we would never consider clumping them together to make other people (adults) feel better, or feel less scared. But, we also don't expect educators to do it alone - we work as a team with them, everyone benefits. We would never be upset by an educator who tried something and failed... only one who never tried.

    2. Excellent response. Not to mention EBDs mixed in with that bunch. So many factors make inclusion very difficult..the right ratio, training, and really what is best for the child. Easy to experiment with inclusion models at the expense of children. Accommodations are endless which require individualization.

    3. @ Gina, I would fully agree with you on the elementary and perhaps early middle school levels. Grades 9-12 are a different world. Elementary and middle school teachers are "trained to teach kids." Hence inclusion is usually beneficial. High School teachers are trained to deliver and assess content specialization A math teachers teaches algebra not kids... kids become vessels at this level to be filled and measured with content because their evaluation as teachers is based upon test results for students in content.

  4. We are going to disagree on one detail. Sports/athletics IS a civil right, even if only by extension. Specifically, (and I know I don't need to educate you on this, Phil, but I will make my point shortly) Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 forbids the exclusion or denial of equal opportunity to receive benefits that people without disabilities are afforded in any organization that receives federal financial assistance. Therefore, if a school has a team, anybody is supposed to be able to try out and not denied the opportunity to participate based on their disability. However, that doesn't mean that the student must be accepted, under the law. Sounds a bit wonky, I know. But “reasonable accommodations” must be made, whether that is to find a position on the current team or to create a new team or something else that I have not thought of!
    I mean, it would not be reasonable to expect that my daughter be included on a softball team because she would change the entire nature of the game. Further, we shouldn't be looking to include a student out of pity, either. Allowing a student who doesn't understand the fundamentals of basketball to be a varsity player makes no sense. BUT there should be SOMETHING for that student to participate in. I think that's the central argument of this new effort.

    1. You're's pretty clear in the latest DOE letter of guidance recently published.

  5. Melissa!

    This is phenomenal! I would love to re-blog this on my site Would you be willing to give me permission? Thanks for your is important to admit that this process it scary but when done the best for everyone. Hope to hear from you soon.

    Tim Villegas

  6. Gina, I can't tell you how great it is that you have found a place where your son is accepted to the fullest extent. That's how it should be everywhere. Let's remember though, that not every place is like that (yet?) I VERY often think about (and weep over) the fact that my daughter doesn't have people who come to see her just because they think she's cool to be around. Everyone is paid (therapists & caregivers). So it truly makes me happy that your son has that very important aspect in his life.

    1. Thanks Melissa, but we didn't 'find a place where my son is accepted... we made a place. The default in Australia is to segregate and exclude and many parents still buy into that even though there is no evidence to support such an approach. Australia is big on segregated early intervention, segregated schools or support units in mainstream schools, rarely offer post secondary education for PWD, open employment is the exception rather than the rule. If you follow that life plan then your child would have 13 years of segregated schooling and 65 years of day programs with no say, no control, no life.

      You will never get inclusion if you wait for people to be ready and it can never happen if there is a mindset that it is OK for some and not others, or it is OK here but not there. It isn't always easy but the rewards are certainly worth it.

    2. I hear you but I hope you're not implying that people who are not in inclusionary settings did not try hard enough. Sometimes, it's not possible (for various reasons). Hopefully, that will change sooner rather than later. Segregation is a problem world-wide, I guess, because what you describe happening in Australia is what happens in the US.

      I do agree with you however that inclusion won't happen if everybody waits for somebody to do something about it. We all need to BE that somebody.

  7. Thanks for this piece Melissa. You have insights that are worth reflecting on. The story you tell from your time as a hairdresser highlights an important truth. The late Marsha Forest, a great warrior for Inclusion, said that anyone can be included, IF WE WANT THEM...and I think that's at the heart of the difficulty of what has passed for inclusion over these few years.
    You are right that some of the difficulty has occurred when it has seemed that Inclusion has been forced on people. You don't have to be a great psychologist to know that people don't do well when they feel they have no choice. Even good people respond badly to being made to do something. And while I have some sympathy for their predicament, I do wonder what gives people (who may well be public servants) the right to make the call, 'THis child...not that child...'
    Teachers (certainly this is the case in Scotland) are trained to differentiate the curriculum so that their lessons work across the range of abilities of students in their classroom. Teaching children and young people with disabilities is simply an extension of that skill - although it requires a skilful, committed teacher to do it. My experience is that many teachers are comfortable differentiating across learning styles but less comfortable differentiating the lesson content across the range of abilities of the students in the class.
    You are absolutely right...Inclusion...Integration...Insertion...these are not all the same thing. But I'm not sure that it would describe the concept as 'murky'
    We keep trying to define Inclusion as a noun...a name for something...Marsha Forest again used a quote from Thelonius Monk who, when he was asked to define jazz, said that it was hard to define but that he knew it when he heard it. It may be hard to define the noun 'Inclusion' but you certainly know it (and feel it ) when you experience it.
    MIchael Kendrick defines Inclusion as a verb...a doing word...and he says that 'Inclusion is the means by which we set the stage for people to be successful with each other' that means good support, relevant and differentiated curriculum and a heart that knows that children belong together. It acknowledges that Inclusion won't just happen: we have to work for it, set the stage for it. It means that every child is different...That Inclusion is a whole of school endeavour...not simply an isolated activity in the 2pm slot on a Thursday. It means that Inclusion is a civil rights issue...we don't get to choose this child or that child. They are all children...a precious resource...our most valuable asset...our most loved members.
    You ask 'Is Inclusion a good thing?'...with all my heart I say 'YES'...
    Thanks for making me think...

  8. The curriculum differentiation sounds like Universal Learning Design (UDL) which is something that is striven for here in the US. (Not sure if you've heard that term in your part of the world)
    Inclusion is..."not simply an isolated activity in the 2pm slot on a Thursday." I couldn't agree more with this statement.
    Thanks for your thoughts!

  9. Very interesting read. Certainly gave me a new perspective.I am working to launch AuditGenie a website compliance testing tool that is helping to increase the level of inclusion online.