Last week, we posted a photo on social media from my recent trip to Ireland. The photo features a group of young students seated on the floor facing the teacher and me sitting slightly back from the group next to one individual student who is facing the teacher and pointing to a number on a black number board.
The caption for this post, which I'll share here, was mostly written to drive home a point I like to make a lot: inclusion is possible.
Here's the caption:
Who says that students in the early stages of learning how to communicate by spelling their thoughts or using an AAC device can't participate in the same environments as their same-age peers? Where does it say that in order to be allowed access to education and communication instruction, a student must first be able to communicate?
If ALL students were given access to literacy instruction and taught to respond in a variety of modalities, the stigma placed on students using AAC would fade.
Here, our director Lisa Mihalich Quinn is supporting a student who is participating in a math lesson with his peers by pointing to numbers on a stencil to form his equation.
Although he is standing back from the group on the carpet, he is listening to, learning from, and engaging with his classmates and teacher.
Inclusion WORKS. And it is WORK.
Providing this level of support requires a commitment from all involved to shift to a mindset of possibility and start leaning into the things you CAN do instead of focusing on what you think you CAN'T.
What CAN you do today that helps facilitate inclusion, education, and communication access in your school or community?
But how did we get to the question of "Is inclusion dangerous?"
I scheduled this post for 7pm and checked in on comments once before bedtime. Nothing big. Some affirming "yes! this!" type comments, and one question - "is this in a typical classroom?" I responded with an enthusiastic "yes!!" hoping to drive home my point from the post that INCLUSION is possible.
When I woke up the next morning, there was a comment in response to that affirmation calling placement of a student with high support needs in an inclusive environment “dangerous” and "foolhardy" and only possible when an advocate from REV was present. The comment was deleted before I could respond with anything thoughtful.
And I think this comment deserves a thoughtful response because we see around the U.S. and around the whole world, this trend toward glorifying "specialized" classrooms, full of experts and teachers and services! Why leave your child to suffer in general education when they could have all this amazing expertise focused on them?
Just because a classroom “specializes” in a particular thing (I’m looking at you, autism units) does not mean the people inside are specialists or can provide better supports than could be provided in an inclusive classroom. Small class sizes and higher teacher ratios don’t equate to better education, more skills learned, or even “safety.”
Safety has a lot of facets including both physical safety and emotional safety. A lack of transparency combined with issues of reporting for students with communication disabilities makes them actually more likely to be abused / neglected in segregated / self-contained settings.
We know that the use of restraint and seclusion in schools puts students at risk of injury, and studies show that the students most likely to be restrained or secluded are students with disabilities.
Some data suggest that disabled children are four times more likely to be physically abused or neglected than their non-disabled peers. The same data set also shows that disabled individuals placed in group homes or other segregated living settings have an even higher change of being abused. Though segregated living settings are different from segregated classrooms, some of the same factors that contribute to the increased likelihood of abuse are present in both settings.
One of these factors is the high levels of stress teachers face when working in those segregated classrooms. This stress contributes to a lack of safety for students as the quality of the educators' work suffers. It also leads to high burnout rates and turnover among skilled staff.
Beyond looking at why segregated classrooms pose greater risks, there’s also just SO MUCH research about why inclusion works and benefits all involved. When we place students in segregated classrooms, they are often exposed to very little actual education, and by denying them the opportunities their peers enjoy, we're creating a different sort of danger.
If you’d like to dip your toe in to all the research that supports inclusion, we invite you to check out this report from the National Council on Disability, particularly pages 37-40 for the research base.
But isn't the system broken? Homeschooling feels like my only option.
Is the system broken? Mostly yes. And in a lot of ways.
Many parents face the difficult decision of letting their students stay in a system that wants to segregate them or won't provide the necessary supports to include them in general education classes. Neither option is good. It's understandable why more and more are choosing to homeschool. We even support many of these families as they make those decisions.
But that doesn't mean inclusion doesn't work. It means it IS work. And consequently, that's why we don't see it being done well as often as we should.
To paraphrase my friend Jordyn Zimmerman, if inclusion were easy, everyone would be doing it already. There wouldn't be decades of segregation in our history or ongoing denials of education and communication access.
Is inclusion more likely to happen when someone who’s trained and has lots of experience implementing inclusion and communication supports is present? Sure. But that’s why we build partnerships with schools to help teachers and direct support professionals build their skills and feel safe trying to implement new things once the “experts” have left.
A “train and hope” model with a single professional development session isn’t effective in any profession. Most change happens when people feel confident, empowered, and supported to think creatively to meet their students’ needs. We’re so proud to be working with schools and families who share that value.
We're also proud to be highlighting those schools and always looking for ways to educate the world that inclusion IS possible.
When we see models of inclusion working, it helps us grow our belief that we too can think creatively and try new things to empower our students with high support needs to be successful in the same classrooms as their non-disabled peers.
Let's be a part of the mindset shift that encourages schools and educators to think creatively about the things they CAN do instead of focusing on what they perceive they CAN'T.