There are three components of inclusive education that matter a lot, which tend to get conflated:
- Being present and welcome
- Access to participation
- Access to content
Being present and welcome means:
- A person with a disability is in the room
- Their right to be there is not questioned
- People want them to be there
- They’re seen as a student and treated as a peer by other students
- They’re treated more or less respectfully
- This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re being taught the material, or that they’re meaningfully participating in educational activities
- A child with a disability may go to kindergarten, and spend a lot of time watching other children do educational activities.
- Everyone might be very happy that they’re there.
- Other children might like them, and play with them during recess or free play time.
- They’re still left out of most activities
- They’re still not being taught the same material as everyone else
Access to participation means:
- When students are doing an activity, the disabled student isn’t left on the sidelines
- They’re given something to do that makes them part of what’s happening
- This doesn’t always give them access to the content, in and of itself.
- They may or may not actually be learning the material the activity is supposed to teach.
- They may or may not really be welcome in the classroom with their peers
- A group of third graders are being taught a lesson about sorting things into categories
- The teacher draws a few giant Venn diagrams on big paper, with topic headings
- The teacher writes a list of words on the board.
- Students are told to draw those words, then tape them to the place in a Venn diagram category that they think it should go in
- Then they’re given a list of words, and told to draw pictures of the words in the place in on the diagram that they think those things go
- A disabled student’s aide gives them crayons and tells them to draw a couple of the pictures, then give them to the other kids to categorize
- The typically-developing kids take the pictures and decide where to put them
- Everyone is more or less happy with this. The student is participating and they are socially included.
- But they’re not being taught the material about categorizing things. They’re just drawing pictures.
Access to content means:
- The disabled student is taught the same material as other students
- They’re given a way to engage with the material that they can understand
- They learn the material, and develop their own thoughts on it
- This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re given a way to participate meaningfully in educational activities with peers
- It also doesn’t necessarily mean that they are present or welcome
- A disabled student may attend a mainstream class, but be pulled out for one-to-one tutoring for most of their actual academic instruction.
- If it’s good instruction, they’re getting access to the content.
- But they’re not participating in educational activities with their peers.
- They also may not really be welcomed in their mainstream class; people including the teacher may believe that they don’t have the right to be there (which is a factor that can lead to a lot of pull out instruction in and of itself).
This isn’t just about children, it’s true in every educational setting, including universities, grad school, and continuing education for adults.
Short version: Inclusion in school has many components. Three of them are being present and welcome, having a way to participate in educational activities with peers, and having access to the content being taught. All three of these things are important. Solving one problem doesn’t always solve the other two. It’s important to keep paying attention, and to work towards making sure students are welcome, that they are able to participate, and that they are learning the content being taught.
In the part of special education community that promotes inclusive education, I often hear advocates say things like “inclusion doesn’t have to be hard,” “inclusion doesn’t have to be expensive,” and “inclusion doesn’t require special skills.”
This isn’t really true, unless we exclude a lot of people from “inclusion”. Some access needs are easy to meet; many are not. We can bring some people in without too much trouble. In order to commit to full inclusion, we’re going to have to be willing to spend money, acquire expertise, do hard things, and make changes.
For instance, people who can’t rely on speech as their primary means of communication need support learning to communicate. This is inherently expensive:
- They usually need expensive devices
- (The cheapest good option is an iPad with a $200 app; some people need dedicated devices that cost upwards of $10,000.)
- They also usually need therapy
- Having a communication device doesn’t solve all of someone’s problems; they also have to learn how to use it
- (And they usually need help learning how)
- Or they need something like RPM, which is low-tech but requires twice-daily 1:1 lessons which use scripts that generally have to be prepared in advance specifically for that student.
- If they are in school, they need teachers who know how to teach them (which generally means that experts have to teach their teachers how.)
- AAC communication is slower, and can be hard to interpret
- Inclusion doesn’t happen automatically; teachers have to learn how to make sure AAC users are able to participate and be heard in class
- (Eg: If someone isn’t using complete sentences yet, it can be hard to know what they mean. You have to be willing and able to do the work of helping them to clarify).
- (And: if someone responds slowly, you have to proactively make sure they get a chance to express their thoughts in class discussions)
- All of this requires money, expertise, effort, and willingness to change
- If we’re only willing to consider cheap options, people who need communication support are left behind
Another example: People need to be able to get into the building
- Many buildings were built incorrectly
- They may have large flights of stairs at all entrances
- They may have many floors that can only be reached by stairs
- They may not have any accessible bathrooms
- The bathrooms may all be too small to enter in a wheelchair (which means there’s no way to fix them without moving walls)
- All of the doors may be big and heavy
- Often, there’s no cheap way to fix this
- There may be inexpensive starting places; we can’t stop there
- If we care about including people with mobility disabilities, we have to be willing to spend money to fix buildings
- We have to hire architects who have expertise in accessibility
- We have to make sure that people with mobility disabilities are part of the conversation, even if no one with a mobility disability has expressed interest in accessing the building recently
- We have to be willing to make changes that make the building look different, in ways that may mean changing or destroying things that longtime users of the building are emotionally attached to.
We can start with the low hanging fruit; we should not pretend that all fruit is low-hanging. A lot of access needs are inherently expensive. There are a lot of needs that no one even knows how to meet yet; the expertise we need does not yet exist. If we want to commit to full inclusion of children with disabilities in schools; if we want to fully include adults in all aspects of society, we need to be in it for the long haul.
Short version: In order to stop excluding people with disabilities, we’re going to have to spend money. We’re going to have to bring in expertise and develop expertise. We’re going to have to do difficult things. We’re going to have to make changes. We’re going to have to start seeing this as normal. People with disabilities are worthy of money and effort.