The Case For Inclusion (Part Three): Sea Change

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Guest post: Tim Villegas is a special educator and inclusion advocate. His Think Inclusive website and blog are intended to create a bridge between educators, parents, and advocates. This guest post represents Tim’s perspective and does not necessarily reflect the full range of options for service delivery in IDEA.  A version of this post was originally published at Ollibean. This concludes the three-part series.

Connecting to general education

The longer there is a strong distinction between general and special education, the worse it is for students who are labeled with a disability. It perpetuates the language of us and them. These two worlds need to meet and the sooner they meet, the better.

I will try to make it as simple as possible. In my opinion, there are the three things that need to happen in order for our schools to become better for all learners.

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Making things better for all

1) Acceptance – Create environments of acceptance in the classroom. We may not all be the same, but we are all deserving of understanding and acknowledgement of our strengths.

2) Access – A curriculum that is accessible to all learners! Modifications, accommodations and assessment are the key components to giving our students with special needs access to the general curriculum.

3) High Expectations – Never assume that what we are teaching is going over our students’ heads. This sells us (as educators) and them (as learners) short. We must always presume competence of our students and give them the support that they need in order to be successful.

Oh…and I forgot about the wildcard: Technology! Assistive technology is often the missing piece to getting a reliable communication system for our students; not to mention accessing the curriculum by moving beyond paper and pencil work. The farther technology advances, the more access our students will be able to have.

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Let the Common Core work for you

So! How in the world are you going to do all that Tim?

There is a little thing called the common core standards, maybe you have heard of them. This might be the open door that special education has been waiting for to get back into general education classrooms. Before No Child Left Behind, inclusion and mainstreaming were much more the norm in public schools. When high stakes testing was introduced, students with disabilities started to disappear from general education classrooms. The emphasis shifted to getting students up to grade level, rather than facilitating more organic learning environments that focused on strengths. Now with common core rolling out across the country, general and special education teachers have the opportunity to work together to create lessons that reach all students. There are some great resources on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The idea is a curriculum that adjusts to the diverse needs of our students rather than the one-size-fits all approach. Special education has been doing this for years; hopefully we can lend our expertise in this area.

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Using students’ strengths

Beyond UDL and the common core, we need to shift our focus away from deficits. Special education has always been (as far as I can tell) based on a deficit model. Where are your weaknesses? How can we catch you up to where everyone is supposed to be? When I am planning for an IEP meeting, I prefer to focus on the strengths of the student and how we can make them stronger. Or in the least use their strengths to bring up their other skills.

For instance, if a third grader who is non-verbal, a wheelchair user, and has cerebral palsy loves to grab objects and throw them on the floor, let’s create an activity within the context of a third grade common core lesson where the means of expression for choosing an answer is throwing grade-level materials on the floor. It can even be a Language Arts lesson as well, perhaps throw bean bags on the floor filled with vocabulary words to pick nouns/adjectives/verbs for a “mad libs” activity.

I know this is out of the box thinking, but if the research says that having students with disabilities in the general education classroom does not take away anything from instruction (http://tash.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/TASH-Myths-of-Inclusive-Education.pdf ) than we need to start thinking about what they can add to the classroom.

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How to get there from here

One last word (are you still with me?) about segregated classrooms. I absolutely applaud the work that many teachers are doing for their students in self-contained classrooms. I know that for many of them, their passion is to see their students grow to their full potential. I happen to believe that in order to prepare our students with disabilities for an integrated life in the future, they need to be integrated early and often! Please know that I am all for getting rid of segregated schools and classrooms in exchange for schools that value all learners BUT I am not willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater…because at this point…there is [virtually] nowhere to send our kids that is worth it. The majority of school districts rarely include students with disabilities in enrichment classes let alone a segment or two of general education. We are a long way off from this becoming a reality. So in the meantime, we need self-contained classrooms to function properly, for teachers (like you and me) to actually give access to the curriculum and for us to have high expectations for our students. It will also take a group of educators to talk about how things can be better and do the slow work of bringing our students into the light of general education and say that they matter.

So…let’s begin the work that is so desperately needed. I’m all in…are you?
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NOTICE: The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) is no longer in operation. Our funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) ended on September 30, 2013. Our website and all its free resources will remain available until September 30, 2014.