A Look Inside an Inclusion Classroom « CBS New York
A special education teacher recently told us that she was interested in inclusive schooling and that she decided to "try" it with one of her students. Patricia, a young student with Down's syndrome, began 1st grade in Sept-ember, but the school moved her back to a special education classroom by November. The teacher told us how difficult the decision had been and explained why educators had changed Patricia's placement: "The kids really liked her and she loved 1st grade, but she just wasn't catching on with the reading. She couldn't keep up with the other kids."
Many families and teachers have the common misperception that students with disabilities cannot receive an inclusive education because their skills are not "close" enough to those of students without disabilities. Students with disabilities, however, do not need to keep up with students without disabilities to be educated in inclusive classrooms; they do not need to engage in the curriculum in the same way that students without disabilities do; and they do not need to practice the same skills that students without disabilities practice. Learners need not fulfill any prerequisites to participate in inclusive education.
For instance, a middle-school social studies class is involved in a lesson on the U.S. Constitution. During the unit, the class writes its own constitution and bill of rights and reenacts the Constitutional Convention. Malcolm, a student with significant disabilities, participates in all these activities even though he cannot speak and is just beginning to read. During the lesson, Malcolm works with a peer and a speech and language therapist to contribute one line to the class bill of rights; the pair uses Malcolm's augmentative communication device to write the sentence. Malcolm also participates in the dramatic interpretation of the Constitutional Convention. At the Convention, students acting as different Convention participants drift around the classroom introducing themselves to others. Because he cannot speak, Malcolm—acting as George Mason—shares a little bit about himself by handing out his "business card" to other members of the delegation. Other students are expected to submit three-page reports at the end of the unit, but Malcolm will submit a shorter report, a few sentences, which he will write using his communication device. His teacher will assess Malcolm's grade on the basis of his report and participation in the class activities, his demonstration of new skills related to programming his communication device, and his social interactions with others during the Constitutional Convention exercise.
The Constitutional Convention example illustrates how students with disabilities can participate in general education without engaging in the same ways or having the same skills and abilities that others in the class may have. In addition, this example highlights ways in which students with disabilities can work on individual skills and goals within the context of general education lessons. Most important, his teachers designed and put in place the supports and adaptations that Malcolm needed for success. Malcolm did not have to display all the skills and abilities of other students to participate. Instead, Malcolm's teachers created a context in which Malcolm could demonstrate competence.
For Malcolm to be successful in his classroom, his teachers need to provide him with a range of "supplemental supports, aids, and services," one of the law's requirements (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1412 [a]). Supports, aids, and services might include a piece of assistive technology, use of an education consultant, instruction from a therapist, support from a paraprofessional, peer tutors, different seating or environmental supports, modified assignments, adapted materials (such as large-print books, graphic organizers, or color-coded assignment books), curriculum that is differentiated to meet the needs of the learner, time for teachers' collaborative planning, coteaching, training for school personnel, or any number of other strategies, methods, and approaches. Schools do not need to provide every support available, but they must provide those required by the student with disabilities.
Families do not have to prove to the school that a student with disabilities can function in the general classroom. In Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon School District (1993), for example, a U.S. circuit court determined that the neighborhood school of Raphael Oberti, a student with Down's syndrome, had not supplied him with the supports and resources he needed to be successful in an inclusive classroom. The judge also ruled that the school had failed to provide appropriate training for his educators and support staff. The court placed the burden of proof for compliance with the law's inclusion requirements squarely on the school district and the state instead of on the family. In other words, the school had to show why this student could not be educated in general education with aids and services, and his family did not have to prove why he could. The federal judge who decided the case stated, "Inclusion is a right, not a special privilege for a select few."