Beyond Inclusion

Educators’ ‘ableist’ assumptions about students with disabilities compromise the quality of instruction by THOMAS HEHIR
Over the past two decades, more and more students with disabilities have been educated for more of the day in regular education classrooms. This movement largely has been positive for most students with disabilities and has supported the broader goal of societal integration for people with disabilities as all children learn that disability is a natural element of human diversity. Further, the inclusion movement in K-12 education has been supported by research that demonstrates that well-implemented inclusionary approaches are superior to fully segregated placement for most disabled students.

However, it has become apparent to many educational leaders and some disability advocates that a one-size-fits-all model of full inclusion may not be appropriate for some students. The deaf community has questioned the capacity of full inclusion programs to meet the communication and social development needs of solitary deaf students. Learning disability advocates and many special education teachers struggle against the prohibitions against all pull-out services for students who may need intensive help in reading. This questioning of full inclusion also receives support from research.

Ultimately the controversy around inclusion is dysfunctional and we need to shift from the value of inclusion as a practice to the successful implementation of inclusionary education that recognizes the full range of needs of the disability population. Central to moving beyond the debate is the need to focus on the goals of education for students with disabilities.

First and foremost our goal should be to maximize the educational development of all disabled students to enable them to fully participate in all aspects of life. However, we need to also recognize that education plays a central role in changing the society in which disabled students will be entering. For instance, though blind people attain comparable educational levels to nondisabled people, they do not access employment at the same level. The reason for this is likely to be found in “ableism,” the pervasive negative attitudes and prejudice in society. We must move beyond inclusion to confront ableism in education.

Ingrained Prejudice
The lens of ableism offers a useful perspective through which the future of inclusion and indeed all of special education can be considered. The various definitions of ableism in the literature share common origins that are rooted in the discrimination and oppression that many disabled people experience in society. Applied to schooling and child development, ableist preferences become particularly apparent. From an ableist perspective, the devaluation of disability results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for disabled students to do things in the same manner as nondisabled kids.

Certainly, in a world that has not been designed with the disabled in mind, being able to perform like nondisabled children gives disabled children distinct advantages. However, ableist assumptions become dysfunctional when the focus of educational programs becomes changing disability. School time devoted to activities associated with changing disability may take away from the time needed to learn academic material. The ingrained prejudice against performing activities in ways that are more efficient for disabled people may add to educational deficits.

Considerable evidence points to unquestioned ableist assumptions that are handicapping the education of children with disabilities and resulting in educational inequities. Despite clear evidence of the benefits of sign language, deaf children were taught for many years to lip read and speak and prohibited from using sign language in an effort to make them appear more “normal.” In recent years, schools have failed to teach visually impaired children to use Braille and instead provided them with taped books or large text books based on perception that these are more normal ways to read. The devaluation of this disability-specific mode of learning has resulted in increasing levels of functional illiteracy among the visually impaired.

The common practice in many school districts of assigning full-time aides to children with multiple disabilities rather than teaching them to become independent, in my view, reflects deep ableist prejudices about significant disabilities. It suggests that people with significant disabilities are weak and incapable of doing things on their own. While many aides do important and necessary work, their presence can have many negative effects. They can become a barrier between the disabled student and his or her nondisabled peers and take the place of teachers in ways that compromise the quality of instruction.

Lowered Expectations
Deafness, blindness and multiple disabilities are relatively rare. In contrast, children with learning disabilities comprise about 5 percent of all school-age children. The education of these children tends to be excessively oriented toward remediation and suffers from low expectations.

Though research strongly indicates that students with a learning disability need more intensive services in reading than their nondisabled peers, wholly focusing their special education program on reading is not appropriate. For students with a learning disability, this reflects the ableist assumption that special education's role should be to change disabilities. These children also should have access to the rest of the curriculum with appropriate accommodations and supports. Though there are effective ways for students with LD to access the same classroom curriculum as their peers by using adaptive technology, schools must modify deeply held beliefs about acceptable student performance in order for them to benefit from these technologies.

In many places, students are required to handle grade-level or higher text in order to be mainstreamed into regular classes. Taped books are not available or not allowed. Still other schools do not allow students to use computers when taking exams, thus greatly diminishing their ability to produce acceptable written work. Though some may defend this rigidity as a means to maintain standards, for students with LD this posture will likely lead to lower educational attainment.

Lastly, though the inclusion of students with disabilities in statewide assessments shows great promise, the imposition of high-stakes consequences for students who do not perform well on these tests gives rise to concerns. This is particularly the case when state policy requires the passage of high-level tests in order to receive a diploma or to move from grade to grade.

Despite many unresolved technical issues, high-stakes decisions are being made that have the potential to deny students with disabilities important opportunities such as promotion or graduation. Applying a narrow definition of reading to high-stakes decisions may mean that these disabled students will be denied diplomas and thus future educational opportunity and potentially lead to higher dropout rates. Because of the dramatic negative effects of failing to acquire a high school diploma, setting standard policies without these children in mind may have a devastating impact on a relatively large number of students.

Ableism and Inclusion
The inclusion movement in education has supported the overall disability movement’s goal of promoting societal integration, using integration in schooling as a means to achieve this result. The strong legal preference for placement in regular classes, coupled with the political movement of disability activists and parents, has resulted in significant positive change for students with disabilities, who are moving on to jobs and accessing higher education at unprecedented levels. Virtually every school has had to confront the issue of inclusion as parents seek integration for their children with disabilities.

Ableism provides a useful perspective through which the inclusion issue can be resolved. First, there needs to be a recognition that education plays a central role in integrating disabled people in all aspects of society both by giving children the education they need to compete and by demonstrating to nondisabled children that disability is a natural aspect of life. Central to this role is the need for students with disabilities to have access to the same curriculum provided to nondisabled children.

Further, education plays a vital role in building communities in which disabled children should be included. Therefore, for most children with disabilities, integration into regular classes with appropriate accommodations and support should be the norm.

However, the lens of ableism should lead to the recognition that for some students certain disability-related skills might need attention outside the regular classroom. Learning Braille or American Sign Language or how to use a communication device are not typically in the curriculum and might be more efficiently taught outside the mainstream classroom. The dyslexic high school student who needs intensive help in reading may feel deeply self-conscious if such instruction is conducted in front of his nondisabled friends. The 19-year-old student with a significant cognitive disability may need to spend a good deal of time learning to take public transportation, a skill that ultimately will enhance her chances of being integrated into the community as an adult. Nondisabled students do not spend time in school learning this skill because they learn this easily on their own.

The nature of mental retardation is such that this type of learning does not typically happen incidentally. It must be taught over time and within the context in which the skill will be used. Uniting around the goal of societal integration and recognizing that the difference inherent in disability is a positive one that at times gives rise to disability-specific educational needs may help advocates move away from the fight over placement to one that focuses on educational results.

Ending Ableism
The lack of acceptable educational outcomes for large numbers of children with disabilities in an era of standards-based reform should force a re-examination of current practices. Fortunately, there is a foundation in both research and practice upon which to build a better future. Educational leaders, along with parents, teachers and advocates, can do much toward ending ableism in education, including these steps:

* Encourage disabled students to develop and use the skills and modes of expression that are most effective and efficient for them.
The strong preference within society to have disabled students perform in the same way that nondisabled children perform ultimately can be handicapping for some students. The problem is not the natural desire of parents and educators to have children be able to perform in a typical manner, but rather the missed educational opportunities many disabled kids experience because of a lack of regard for what are often disability-specific modes of learning and expression.

* Special education should be specialized.
Special education should not mean a different curriculum, but rather it should be the vehicle by which students with disabilities access the curriculum and the means by which the unique needs that arise out of the child's disability are addressed. This role requires a good deal of specialized knowledge and skill.

Unfortunately, one by-product of the well-justified critique of special education practice has been the minimization of the need for specialization. In many states, specialized preparation of special education personnel is minimal and requires preparation as a general educator first. Though this is desirable in the ideal, this emphasis on general education may take away from the need to learn specialized skills and also may inadvertently be contributing to the increasing shortage of special education and related services personnel.

If one accepts that the role of special educators and related services personnel is to help disabled children access the curriculum and meet the unique needs that arise out of their disability, the need for specialization should be obvious. Well-trained special educators are needed to assist general educators and the students they teach in inclusive settings and, at times, to provide intensive instruction outside those settings.

The need to ensure that special educators learn specialized skills is not an argument for traditional categorical (by disability) special education teacher-training programs. Such programs often reinforce existing approaches that focus on the characteristics of disability to the exclusion of access to the general curriculum. We need to develop clear standards for special education teacher-preparation programs that recognize the specific needs of disabled students and ensure that teachers have the skills necessary to develop the individualized programs. These programs must explicitly challenge the ableist assumption that the manner in which nondisabled children perform school-related tasks is always the preferred goal for disabled students.

* Promote high standards, not high stakes.
Because the education of students with disabilities has been plagued by low expectations, many in the disability community have sought to include in state and national accountability systems. In 1997, advocates were successful in getting IDEA amended to require students with disabilities to be included in statewide assessments.

Before the passage of the 1997 amendments to IDEA, some states had begun to implement inclusive assessment policies. Some emerging evidence indicates that inclusion in statewide assessment may be improving the educational opportunities of students with disabilities.

In New York state, where an emphasis on including students with disabilities in Regents exams began in 1998, the number of students passing this high-level test has greatly increased. In Maryland, where students with disabilities have been included in the state's basic-skills test, many school districts have shown steady progress to the point where the vast majority of students with disabilities are passing the test.

An important point to reiterate here is that the most damaging ableist assumption is the belief that disabled people are incapable. Therefore, the movement to include students with disabilities in standards-based reforms holds promise. However, high-stakes testing that prevents students from being promoted or from receiving a diploma based on performance on standardized tests is problematic.

In a real sense, some students with disabilities will have to become nondisabled in order to be promoted or graduate. This is ableism in the extreme. Thus, a promising movement, standards-based reform, ultimately may reinforce current inequities if performance on high-stakes tests becomes the only means by which disabled students can demonstrate what they know and are able to do. As such, disability advocates should oppose high-stakes testing.

* Apply concepts of universal design to schooling.
First applied to architecture, this principle called for the design of buildings with the assumption that people with disabilities would be using them. However, the concept of universal design has yet to become widespread in schooling. Using the analogy of architecture, we often attempt to retrofit the child with inappropriate interventions after they have failed in school, rather than design the instructional program from the beginning to allow for access and success.

As is the case with architecture, the failure to design universally is inefficient and ineffective. For instance, even though learning disabilities are common in students, we have yet to design our reading programs with these children in mind. We tend to have one-size-fits-all reading programs in the primary grades. However, research is increasingly demonstrating that early reading approaches that are successful with dyslexic students are also effective for students who are struggling with reading for other reasons. Further, whole-school discipline approaches that schools have employed to integrate students with significant disabilities such as autism have been shown to reduce the need for suspensions for entire schools.

American schools can be proud of their work to expand educational opportunities for students with disabilities since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act more than 25 years ago. It is time for us to take the next step by seeking to eliminate ableism in schooling.

Thomas Hehir is director of the school leadership program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Appian Way, Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail: thomas_hehir@harvard.edu. He is the former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.