Inclusion vs. Special Ed

I have to confess that I was a little surprised by the general reaction to my last post about Ryan Langston attending a special school for children with Down syndrome rather than attending whatever typical school I assume his brother attends.  I had sort of expected more outrage by like-minded parents, and not necessarily the “Wait a second, let’s look at the benefits of Special Education” that the post instead generated.

So I started wondering: am I naive and idealistic?  Yes, I very well may be.

Nevertheless, inclusion is what I want for Finn, and it’s what I believe in my heart of hearts should be the goal for society as a whole.

I understand that there are lots of anecdotal instances where families can say with absolute conviction that their child is/was better off in a separate, special ed setting.  I have to believe, however, that these instances are only true because true inclusion – or “authentic inclusion” as blogger/writer/activist Lisa Jo Rudy calls it – has not been achieved.  Placing a child with special needs in a typical classroom in which there is a lack or absence of the necessary attitudes and supports necessary to make inclusion work is almost certainly not going to go well.  And the truth is that true or authentic inclusion very likely is difficult to achieve.  It takes committment and genuine willingness on the part of the powers-that-be (i.e., the school/school district staff), it takes money to provide the resources, support and modifications necessary for the student to succeed, and I would venture to guess that both of these factors are rarely achieved simultaneously and continuously.  So what we see time and time again is so-called inclusion, which isn’t authentic inclusion at all, which often fails.  Which leaves a lot of parents feeling like their child will be better served in a separate, special ed setting.

And what happens to a child who grows up segregated in a special ed setting?  Does he grow up with a feeling of belonging and equality with his peers?  Does he grow up equipped to function in society?  Or is he forever instilled with a feeling of otherness and ineptitude?

There are some wonderful articles out there on inclusion.  Here are a couple:

The Need to Belong: Rediscovering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by Norman Kunc (thank you, Alison, for introducing me to him!)

The Moral Imperative of Inclusion by Kathie Snow

Maybe I am naive and idealistic.  And there is no doubt that true inclusion is not an easy thing to achieve.  But isn’t it what we should strive for?



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18 Comments on “Inclusion vs. Special Ed”

  1. Molly
    January 19, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

    I think it’s all about getting the best education for your child. If that means he’s in an inclusion class, fantastic. If not, also cool. Just as long as he’s getting the best education for HIM.

  2. Z
    January 19, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

    I think Allison’s comment on the last post nailed what I was trying to say. It’s about TRUE inclusions as well as community. That’s the goal and I’m glad it’s your goal for Finn.

  3. Caryl Becker Phillips
    January 20, 2012 at 2:14 am #

    I could go on total rant about this whole situation but I will save the discussion for a lunch with you. I have a lot to say but I cannot be professional about it right now, especially being close to Finn and your family. I just had a very irritating situation about this very subject. All I can say right now is $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$. Bottom line. UGH! Makes me sick.

  4. Sweet Pea's Mommy
    January 20, 2012 at 2:37 am #

    I think you are in southern california and Club 21 ( is having a great conference on inclusion on Feb 4th. We will be there as it’s definitely what I want for Sweet Pea.

  5. Jaida
    January 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

    If true inclusion is what you want for Finn, then yes, that’s what YOU should strive for. I think the problem comes when you make assumptions that that is what is right for every child. I find it frustrating when I meet fellow moms of children with Ds and they tell me all about how I need to FIGHT FOR MAINSTREAM FOR THE LOVE OF GOD BECAUSE THE ESTABLISHMENT IS AGAINST YOUR CHILD AND YOU WILL FAIL HIM IF YOU LET THEM STICK HIM IN SPECIAL ED. It’s annoying. I’m his mother, I’m perfectly capable of making decisions for him with his best interests at the forefront. No one is telling me how/where/when I should school my daughter, because evidently they trust me to make that decision myself.

    I also feel like special education is painted in such a negative light, often without evidence to back up the claims. It contributes to the stigma of special education settings and they are a very important part of educating children. I agree that the newscaster in the story should have been aware of person-first language, however I think a school that’s designed for children with Down syndrome sounds intriguing. I’d love to know more about what it offers.

    Pacey was in a special education classroom last year and is in a mainstream classroom this year. We are lucky enough to live somewhere he has had ample support in the classroom and yet I can still see pros and cons to both settings. The most important thing I have learned is that it is a decision to be re-visited constantly, to assess where my child is with his education and what the quality of his experience is. I’ll do the same with my daughter – if a typical, mainstream public school classroom isn’t what is right for her, I’ll consider all the options.

    • Lisa
      January 20, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

      Jaida, I’m a little taken aback by the angry tone of your comment. Obviously, I understand that everyone has to make the best choices for their children given the real-world options available to them, and I’m certainly not sitting here telling YOU personally what YOU should be doing. I think there are very genuine reasons why special ed is stigmatized – because in a broad sense, it’s NOT equal to regular education. I have no doubt that isolated pockets of wonderful special ed settings can be found, but I do not believe at all that that is the case across the board. And I believe strongly, too, that separating kids with disabilities into separate programs, be they educational or otherwise, perpetuates the stigma of being different, of being less than, of not belonging. I think inclusion is a societal issue. In an ideal world where every public school welcomed Pacey as an equally valuable human being who deserved the same learning opportunities as everyone else and had the appropriate supports in place to make that happen – wouldn’t you want that for him? Maybe that’s not a fair question, but I can tell you that that’s what I want for Finn, and that’s the ideal world I’d like to see for all children with Down syndrome. And that’s what I do believe we should be striving for. I would venture to guess that the main reason parents settle for separate Special Ed settings is because the ideal of true inclusion has not been achieved.

      • Jaida
        January 20, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

        Apologies for the tone – I allowed unrelated frustration to affect my writing.

        Plenty of food for thought…

  6. Susan
    January 20, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    I think you hit the nail right on the head as usual with this post, Lisa. I hear that argument all the time- that inclusion is good in theory, but in practice, and when it comes to MY child, the best thing is this great special school I heard about. My belief is that we have to be brave and forge ahead- even if it might mean that the inclusive environment won’t be ideal. Otherwise, how is it ever going to change?

  7. starrlife
    January 20, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    You must have been reading my mind.

  8. Esther
    January 21, 2012 at 2:46 am #

    Pardon my ignorance on this subject but what I was wondering about is: when you talk about mainstrain education and full inclusion, do you mean that a child with DS would be in the same class as other children his/her age? As in, would you want Finn to be in “regular” kindergarden at age 5-6 with other “typical” 5-6 year olds? Again, just wondering as this subject is very interesting and this is why I follow your blog- to educate myself…thanks!

    • Lisa
      January 21, 2012 at 3:24 am #

      Esther, questions are always appreciated!

      Firstly, there is a difference between “mainstreaming” and “inclusion.” Most people think these terms are interchangeable, but they mean two different things. With “mainstreaming,” a child is in a separate special ed class, but is allowed to spend part of the day or week with typical peers in a “regular” classroom. Full inclusion means a child with special needs is placed FULL TIME in a regular classroom with his or her typical peers. But as I said, it isn’t really “true” inclusion unless appropriate supports are in place – which can range from a modified curriculum for that student, to assistive communication devices, to an aid, and so forth. Yes, that is what I want for Finn. I want him to be in a regular classroom with his typical peers. And there is a little girl who has Ds at my kids’ school now – she’s in third grade and has been fully included in typical classrooms since kindergarten – which has been very inspiring to me on the one hand, because I know it can be done – and at OUR school! – but also disheartening because I also know that the girl’s parents have been battling the school district to keep her there, as the school district apparently wants to move her to a separate special ed program at a different school. So I expect that we will have to fight for Finn, and that’s based on the experience we’ve already had with our school district with Finn’s first IEP last year (remember that whole saga?).

      Anyway, yes, I want full inclusion for Finn. I want him to be valued as an equal human being, to be offered the same educational opportunities as my other kids, to experience the “typical” public school experience, and to grow up knowing that he is a valued, worthwhile human being.

      • esther
        January 21, 2012 at 3:29 am #

        Thanks, Lisa, for explaining the difference between the two terms….I hope that what you want for Finn, will happen for him….

  9. jen
    January 21, 2012 at 7:56 pm #

    I’m interested in seeing how this evolves. You want Finn to be fully included. That makes perfect sense. But you wouldn’t want him involved in certain ways, like the story you talked about with the teen on the football team, even if he enjoyed it. That makes sense too. You aren’t a big fan of extra therapies, which would set him apart. But he might not be able to keep up in a regular classroom without the therapies. It’s a very complex balance and will surely be hard to navigate. Keep advocating for your little guy. He’s lucky to have a mom who’s willing to question the status quo and push for what she wants for her son. 🙂

  10. Alison
    January 21, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

    Lisa, you and I are obviously thinking in very similar ways.

    Full inclusion doesn’t mean that a kid has to “keep up.” The curriculum may need to be modified, and the kid may need additional supports. What it means is that the kid is helped to achieve high expectations, and that the kid is in the classroom with same-aged peers all day long. Because the kid is fully human, a peer, part of the community.

    We know through national and international research that inclusion not only is beneficial for the kids with disabilities, but it’s beneficial for the rest of the kids in the class and helps to create an inclusive society.

    Anecdotal evidence: one of the women I interviewed for some research I’m doing was pregnant and was having some prenatal testing done. I asked if she planned to terminate if the fetus was identified as having Down syndrome. She said no, and one of the reasons she gave is that her school system was inclusive all the way through, so she’d had lots of time in childhood and teenage years with peers who had intellectual disabilities. It was no big deal for her.

    • Lisa
      January 21, 2012 at 8:49 pm #

      Alison, I believe this with all my heart – that inclusion benefits everyone. The only way to destigmatize people with differences and disability is through full inclusion. Continuing to separate people with Ds into “special” classes and groups only perpetuates their “otherness,” alienness, and people’s discomfort around them. I see it with my own kids – having Finn in their life is definitely impacting them with regard to their worldview and how they respond to diversity.

      Kieron Smith talks about this quite a bit in his book, the Politics of Down Syndrome (he needs a good editor, but it’s nonetheless a very good book). “The only way to address prejudice and stigmatization is via familiarity and inclusion in society.”

  11. Lisa Jo Rudy
    January 23, 2012 at 1:47 am #

    Interesting conversation!

    I have found MANY situations in which my son with high functioning autism can be fully included (band, camp, museums, Disneyworld, swimming pools, the beach, volunteer opportunities, the library, bowling league, you name it). But the regular education classroom is NOT among those places.

    Why not? It’s not because he’s not “allowed” in the typical classroom. It’s not because he’s bullied or harrassed. It’s because he learns better in a smaller setting, with teachers who are well-prepared to address alternative learning styles. It’s also because he, personally, thrives in a setting in which there are fewer people and more direct attention from the teachers. In addition, he learns better when content is taught in multiple formats. This can be done fairly well in an elementary school setting, but in a high school setting the focus is on verbal learning – period.

    Tom is not unique in needing a smaller setting and a multisensory learning situation. Nor is he unique in finding it difficult to relate to 20-odd same-age peers in a very intense, high pressure situation. On the other hand, he is thriving in a high school setting where he does feel valued and supported.

    Meanwhile, he is FULLY included in the community – which is where he will be living the vast majority of his life. There are many typical kids in his high school who know him well through camp, band, library, theater… and he feels very comfortable with them (and they with him). But for him to LEARN ACADEMICS, the typical classroom is not the right setting.

    Quite frankly, I think No Child Left Behind and the IDEA are lousy tools for education – for anyone. Least of all kids who think, learn and communicate “outside the box!”

    Lisa Rudy

  12. B08
    January 31, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    I also love the passion and fight for what’s best but you can’t judge without being in someones shoes! Not all situations are going to fit in the same box. At this time we are not where inclusion works readily and easily, not every family will be able to help this cause and until differentiated learning and teaching can be expanded and used–most kids of all abilities will lose. Class sizes are huge and it’s not viable to learn much of anything for any but the average. High and low achieves in whatever subject are left behind and bored. It’s a goal and a model to strive and fight for and we can work together to not reinvent the wheel each time (like Noah’s dad seems to think he must and his ego needs credit for–get him some therapy!! Or money his top motivator I bet…sigh) but we can’t expect all parents to always have the right approach to success. Excellent spec needs programs schools and teachers are all over, let’s get their expertise to work WITH US for positive change ASAP rather than an arms length animosity towards their methods and ideas. A teacher mentioned spec Ed and general Ed in the same class (at the high school level), co teaching is an area to explore and lots of things we haven’t even thought of yet I’m sure. Let’s not limit or discussion by drawing boundaries between groups — lets all listen and learn!!

  13. Lianna
    December 22, 2012 at 1:36 am #

    I’m in Ontario, Canada. My son is seven, he is in general Grade two with typical peers, he has full/all day support and he has Ds.

    I think “inclusion” is the best decision for him at this point in his life. However, the idea of inclusion seems to be as tricky as “integration”.

    It has been on-going hard work to convince his school administration, the school board, and teachers as well as his educational aides, that all we want is for Gabe to feel a sense of belonging. Hence our problems…

    I never thought for one moment that:

    • I would have to tell an aide to NOT hold my son by the back of his shirt,

    • or see an aide sit so close to my well-focused four year old son that the kids around him backed away at Circle Time,

    • or see an aide wrestle scissors from my son because he wanted to show off how he was cutting like the typical kids,

    • or watch an aide climb on the play structure after my son to “ensure the safety of the other kids”,

    • or question why my son was given an activity that he could do before he was two years old and bring home the assignment that he should have been doing in that time frame untouched,

    • or listen to my son lament before bed that he eats alone and that the children don’t talk nor listen to him…and then I walk into the school on a surprise visit and see him eating along at a large round table with only two other friends, huddled together on the other side of it, away from him,

    • or asked if my son was a liar,

    • or watch how my son is whisked away out of group activites when he could have stayed that extra few minutes to wrap things up and be part of the group

    • or be brought to me by an aide during a snow day when he could have very well walked with his teacher and peers to the pick up zone.

    These are only a few examples of our fight for belonging. I don’t believe in “inclusion” as a blanket idea. It is the base layer of commitment only in that it says “yes, our doors are open to children with special needs”.

    But ask me if I believe in “belonging/mentoring community teaching” and I say “HELL YEAH!”. (Unfortunately, I just made that up and if it does exist, I’ll be pulling my son out of his much loved-good reputation-highly regarded-Catholic school so quick that heads will spin.)

    Our son’s school has a segregated classroom. There is a healthy population of children with high needs. I imagine that their parents are satisfied with this idea of segregation. I’m not. In the past four years, I’ve never seen any of the children in the school choir, nor do they sit with their age appropriate classes however they are in the classroom photos for picture day. Both my niece and son did not know the names of the children from the special ed classroom when I asked them. I’ve volunteered in my son’s classrooms and I have seen how the children from the special ed classroom are on the fringe. It’s sad. And it is something that could definitely be changed for the better.

    I guess I am telling you about our experience with our son’s school because I thought that once my son was welcomed into this school (the other school in our district has a Principal in place who made it very clear that he did not want another “special needs child” in his building), I assumed that our son would be “included”. He was so over-supported those first years that now he is a completely different child at school. My husband and I believe that any chance of him truly belonging with his peers is lost. We receive notes almost every day of his negative behaviours. This year has been especially rough. It’s not a nice thing to hear the teacher say, “Some of the kids are afraid of him.”

    If it wasn’t apparent to us in the past few years, it is now — inclusion isn’t always what we dream about.*

    Is inclusion worth it? I sure hope so.

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