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Special Education Inclusion




Making It Work

When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandated that children with disabilities be educated with children who do not have disabilities, education in the United States changed. Education World writer Wesley Sharpe, Ed.D., looks at the characteristics of effective inclusion. Included: Answers to such questions as "How does inclusion benefit kids who have disabilities?"


"A generation ago, few classrooms in the United States included students with disabilities. As late as the middle of the 1970s, an estimated 1 million kids with disabilities didn't even attend school," reported a May 1999 NEAToday Online cover story, "Inclusion Confusion." For disabled children who did attend school, special education usually meant placement in a special class or a special school.

Special education changed with the passage of the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its 1997 amendments. The landmark legislation moved children with special needs from segregated classrooms into regular classrooms.

The problem with segregated special education is that "youngsters will not learn in segregated settings how to function in a non-disabled world," said Art Shapiro, a professor of special education at Kean University and author of Everybody Belongs: Changing Negative Attitudes Toward Classmates With Disabilities. "In a school or class for youngsters classified as emotionally disturbed, the normal thing is to be disturbed," Shapiro told Education World. "Similarly, many times youngsters classified as communication-handicapped are placed in segregated settings with other children who do not communicate."



The string of federal statutes that began in 1975 created confusion in countless American classrooms as educators struggled to provide quality education for special and general education students. Parents and advocates feared that services to disabled children would be lost if they were moved to regular classrooms. Teachers weren't convinced that inclusion would work.

At one point, the American Federation of Teachers even called for a moratorium on full inclusion. "We have great problems with the movement that says 'Start by putting all the kids in the [regular] classroom,'" said Albert Shanker, then the president of AFT, in "A.F.T. Urges Halt to 'Full Inclusion' Movement," a January 1994 Education Week on the Web story.



Although support for inclusion of children with disabilities in regular education gains momentum, research lags behind. "Unfortunately, we do not have research that has directly addressed this issue," John McDonnell, Ph.D., told Education World. McDonnell is the chairman of the Department of Special Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Utah. His research includes funded projects on the inclusion of middle school students with severe disabilities.

"The best available information comes from the follow-up studies of high school graduates. The data suggests that inclusion in general education classes, especially in vocational education courses, is associated with improved post-school outcomes," McDonnell told Education World.

Although research on the long-term effects of inclusion may be sketchy, there is some evidence of the positive effects of inclusive education on students who do not have disabilities. "Both research and anecdotal data have shown that typical learners have demonstrated a greater acceptance and valuing of individual differences, enhanced self-esteem, a genuine capacity for friendship, and the acquisition of new skills," according to Long-Term Effects of Inclusion, from the ERIC Clearing House on Disabilities and Gifted Education. (See also Frequently Asked Questions on Inclusion.)



Pat Linkhorn, a parent and consultant to parents and educators in the special education field, knows that inclusion is more than a one-size-fits-all program. Both of Linkhorn's daughters have received special education services. Krystal, who is blind, is fully included and has a part-time aide. Kimberly is autistic; although she has benefited from inclusion, "more attention to social skills and building on her individual strengths would have been a plus," Linkhorn told Education World.

Linkhorn's experience is an example of how an effective inclusion program works. "I was fortunate enough to have a principal with whom I could actually discuss things. We didn't always agree, but I feel we had enough respect for each other to compromise when we had differing views," Linkhorn said.

"Research suggests that effective schools are not inclined to ship difficult kids out but try to develop ways to meet their needs in the school," McDonnell told Education World. "The view of the faculty is that all students, including those with the most significant disabilities, should participate in the general education curriculum. What changes is how instruction is designed for students and the types of supports they are provided."



"To me, one of the greatest issues is that many programs that call themselves inclusive should really be called Dumping and Running. It's not inclusion if the supports are not in place," Shapiro told Education World. When supports are in place, there are many benefits worth considering. Shapiro listed the following four ways inclusion benefits disabled kids:

  • Inclusion improves learning for both classified and non-classified students. When youngsters who have learning problems are included, students without disabilities often do better academically. A teacher is more apt to break instruction into finer parts or repeat directions if he or she has a youngster in the room who deals with deafness, blindness, or a developmental disability.
  • Children learn to accept individual differences. The best way to help children overcome their misconceptions about kids who have disabilities is to bring them together in integrated settings.
  • Children develop new friendships. Children with disabilities who are included in regular education develop friendships in their home communities. Special education students sent to regional special education programs may become oddballs in their communities.
  • Parent participation improves. When children with disabilities are integrated into local schools, parents have more opportunity to participate in that school and in the community where the school is located.
  • It's a matter of civil rights. Students with disabilities have a legal right to attend regular classes and receive an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.



Education experts warn that a well-equipped technology center does not guarantee successful inclusion. Sometimes low-tech or less-sophisticated aids will meet a child's needs. Such simple accommodations as large-print books, preferential seating, behavior-management programs, or modified desks may be sufficient for many children with disabilities.

Caren Sax, Ian Pumpian, and Doug Fisher, San Diego State University researchers, discuss assistive technology in a research brief, Assistive Technology and Inclusion. According to the researchers, "Many professionals have limited experience with assistive technology. Those who attempt to acquire it for their students rarely consider applications of technology beyond computers, wheelchairs, or commercially available communication devices." Before deciding on assistive devices, special educators should answer the following questions:

  • Has the student been involved in the selection process? "Studies show that one of the main reasons individuals do not use assistive technology devices, even when they would be helpful, is because they were not involved in the selection of the equipment."
  • Is the target activity clear? Rather than try to fit the child to an available device, identify the activity in which the student will participate, then search for the appropriate device.
  • Can volunteers with specific "fix-it" skills help design and construct adaptations? Volunteers may help customize equipment, and service organizations may provide funding.



John McDonnell believes that educators must resolve a number of significant issues before inclusive education becomes a reality. "Although there is a research base on school reform and systems change, the nuts and bolts of what schools should specifically be doing to make inclusion work is just emerging," he told Education World. These issues include

  • The need for more research. This research should determine the technology that best supports disabled students in the general education curriculum and in general education classes.
  • The need to start doing a better job of training new teachers to serve all kids. "I believe that there is a need for both well-trained general educators who have deep knowledge about subject areas and special educators who have expertise in effective instruction for students with disabilities," said McDonnell.
  • The need to redesign teacher education programs. "There is a common core of knowledge that all teachers should have to work effectively in inclusive schools," McDonnell told Education World. "Colleges of education need to begin to be more aggressive in redesigning their teacher education programs to provide novice teachers with this common knowledge base and set of experiences."



According to McDonnell, the most-effective inclusive classrooms have the following characteristics:

  • Kids are clustered in specific classes but distributed across all teachers.
  • Students receive instructional supports that maximize their participation in the general education curriculum and their engagement in the general population.
  • Teachers use a variety of strategies, including curriculum and instructional adaptations, peer tutoring, cooperative learning, and layered curriculum.

When this kind of educational program is in place, inclusion is practically invisible. That's the way it is meant to be.




  • National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
    This site presents the official position statement (April 1, 2000) of NASP. The statement says: "Inclusive education is within the continuum of special education services and must be based on the individual needs, goals, and objectives determined by IEP teams."
  • INCLUSION School as a Caring Community
    This site is loaded with data about inclusion education. It presents field notes containing more than 100 interviews with teachers, resources on inclusion, and an opportunity to question, comment, or contribute.