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December 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 4

Full Inclusion Is Neither Free Nor Appropriate

Requiring all disabled children to be included in mainstream classrooms, regardless of their ability to function there, is not only unrealistic but also downright harmful—often for the children themselves.

What happens when a 4th grade teacher with a class of 30 or 35 finds that several new students have severe behavioral disabilities? The teacher has no previous training in working with disabled children, and the principal says that getting any extra classroom help is out the question—the school district simply can't afford it. The teacher's main resource, the special education aide, who must serve 60 children in four schools, is stretched pretty thin. As the year goes on, the teacher finds that math class is disrupted every single day by the demands of one or another of the special needs students. How can the teacher meet these extraordinary demands without robbing some students? Many teachers are facing problems as difficult as this—and far more difficult—as the result of a movement known as full inclusion.

Rush to Include

Since the passage of the landmark Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142) in 1975, youngsters with disabilities have had a right to a “free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.” Until recently, this usually meant some kind of special placement. Now, state departments of education and school districts, as well as some advocacy groups for the disabled, are pushing to have all handicapped children educated in regular classrooms, regardless of the nature and severity of their handicap. And inclusion advocates are taking advantage of court decisions that favor their position to move ahead quickly.
Advocates for full inclusion raise the issue of equity. They say that disabled youngsters are burdened with an additional handicap when they are segregated from their nondisabled peers because they are denied the chance to develop the social and academic skills necessary to function in the mainstream of society. Many local school boards, state departments of education, and legislators also back full inclusion, but for a different reason. They see it as an opportunity to cut back on expensive special education services. These services have become a crushing financial burden, especially because Congress has never appropriated funding at the level promised by P.L. 94-142, leaving states and local school boards to shoulder most of those costs.
Not all advocacy groups are enthusiastic about full inclusion. Many—including those for blind, deaf, attention-deficit-disordered and learning-disabled children—believe a one-size-fits-all approach will be disastrous for the disabled children themselves. Nevertheless, we are seeing a rush to inclusion regardless of the disability.

Who Pays?

Of course, disabled children placed in regular classrooms are supposed to get special services so they can participate academically and socially and so the other students' learning is not disrupted. That's the behind-the-scenes reality in the documentary film Educating Peter, which won an Academy Award in 1993. Filmgoers see a moving story about a child with Down syndrome who learns to work and play with his new classmates. What filmgoers don't see is that the class was relatively small—19 students—and Peter's teacher was intensively prepared for his arrival, as were the parents of his classmates. Moreover, a full-time special education aide was with Peter every minute of the day, and an “inclusion specialist” worked with him daily and was available to help his teacher and classmates.
This kind of comprehensive help is expensive. Because states and school districts are putting disabled children into regular classrooms as a cost-cutting measure, such expenditures are the exception rather than the rule. Instead, the responsibility for disabled youngsters, who may need specialized medical attention (like having catheters changed or mucous suctioned out of their lungs), falls on teachers and paraprofessionals. Unlike Peter's teacher, most have no more than a few hours of training. And they are largely on their own when it comes to figuring out how to help the child fit in, and how to tailor lessons to his or her requirements, while keeping other students up to speed in arithmetic and reading and science.
Full inclusionists say this ad hoc approach to inclusion must change and all the supports for disabled children in special education settings must follow them into regular classrooms. This is the ideal, but given the reason most states and school districts are adopting full inclusion—to save money—it is no more likely to happen for disabled children than it did for mentally ill people who were de-institutionalized years ago. Their supports were also supposed to follow them, but now, as we know, large numbers of these people are out on the streets. That's one reason that many parents of disabled children oppose full inclusion. They fear their children will lose the range of services now available and end up, like those who were de-institutionalized, with nothing.

Who Benefits?

Who are we helping if we put disabled students into regular classrooms without the supports they need? If they get these supports, a regular class would be the best possible placement for many of these youngsters. But will a child with multiple physical disabilities or behavioral disorders learn to socialize with other children simply because he or she has been put into a class with them? Will the other kids receive that child as a friend in the absence of special encouragement and support, or will they ignore or tease that child and make his or her life a misery? What happens to attempts to raise the reading or math achievement levels of other children when their teacher must devote extraordinary time and energy to disabled classmates? (In the documentary, Peter's classmates learned to live with him and accept him—and Peter himself improved—but the film does not address his impact on their education.)

Staying Put

Finally, what happens when a child whose disability has led to disruptive and even dangerous behavior must, as the law requires, remain in class because a judge refuses to have the child removed? Those who created P.L. 94-142 and its subsequent amendments wanted to prevent these kids from being jerked around from one placement to another. But one of their tools, the “stay-put” provision, has turned out to be a nightmare for other students and for teachers. According to “stay-put,” once a child has been placed in a class, he or she can't be excluded because of behavior related to a disability for more than 10 days a year without consent of the parents or a formal hearing process that could take months. This means that a student with a behavioral disorder who constantly disrupts the class—or even assaults a teacher or schoolmates—cannot be excluded.
Recently, I received a letter from Edward Martin, who was the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Education for the Handicapped and now heads an advocacy group for the disabled. He, too, opposes full inclusion, and he is especially troubled by the idea of making sweeping changes without any data or research to support them. Where are our figures on how well disabled students in regular classrooms do in comparison with those in special education settings? How many drop out? How many go on to college or vocational programs? Without this information, we have no way of knowing what is working for these youngsters and what is not. “Special education programs,” Martin says, “must be judged on their successes, not on our wishes for a more inclusive society.”

Separate but Equal

Full inclusion is often justified by an analogy with the racial segregation practiced during a large portion of our history. “Separate but equal” always meant “inferior,” and inclusionists feel the same is true of any separate classes for any disabled children. But the analogy is faulty. African-American children have the same range of abilities and needs as white children. They were excluded only because of the color of their skin, which was irrelevant to their ability to function and benefit in a regular classroom. This is quite different from putting a blind youngster into a special class so he or she can learn Braille, or from excluding a youngster who is emotionally disturbed because he or she will disrupt the education of others while deriving little benefit.
When I was growing up, the great majority of children with disabilities were not allowed to come to school at all. And the ones who were—mostly children who were considered mentally retarded—were warehoused in “opportunity” classes where their capabilities and needs were ignored. It's a good thing those days are gone. However, this bad policy is being replaced by another bad policy. In calling for all disabled children to be placed in regular classrooms regardless of the severity and nature of their difficulty, full inclusion is replacing one injustice with another.
We need to discard the ideology that inclusion in a regular classroom is the only appropriate placement for a disabled child and get back to the idea of a “continuum of placements,” based on the nature and severity of the handicap. Make the ability to function in a regular classroom, given the necessary support services, a condition for placement there.

A Better IDEA

  • Congress must pay its fair share for educating children with disabilities as promised in P.L. 94-142. In 1975, Congress agreed to provide 40 percent of the cost of educating handicapped children, but in nearly two decades, it has funded no more than 12 percent of the costs (7 percent this year)—even though it has continued to add new requirements. With resources scarce, providing the rest of the money is a hardship for all but the wealthiest school districts. Many, in fact, have had to cut back their regular programs to pay for these unfunded mandates. (In New York City, 60 percent of all new money for the schools goes to special education, even though children with disabilities represent less than 20 percent of the school population.)Many other districts are trying to control costs by simply dumping students with disabilities into regular classrooms, without the necessary help for either the youngsters or their teachers. This undermines the education of all students. Ironically, because regular programs have been cut back to pay for legally mandated services, many children with learning problems, who normally could get the help they need in a regular classroom are pushed into special programs.
  • The law needs to be amended to require school districts to provide adequate training for all teachers who work with disabled students. The success of any placement depends to a large extent on the classroom teacher. Yet many teachers and paraprofessionals, particularly those in regular classrooms, are ill-prepared or unprepared to work with students who have disabilities.
  • A rewritten law should give equal weight to requests from parents and referrals by teachers for special education services.
  • The law should specify that a child's teacher—not some proxy appointed by the school district—must be part of the team writing a child's individual education plan. Except for parents, teachers know better than anybody what a child needs.
  • The revised law should allow teachers to report failure to provide services and offer protection to those who might hesitate to blow the whistle for fear of reprisal. The teacher is in the best position to know whether or not the services called for are actually being provided.
  • The “stay-put” provision should be rewritten to allow responsible alternative arrangements for disabled students who are violent or disruptive until the issue of their placement is resolved. These youngsters' rights can be protected without sacrificing the education of other students—some or all of whom may also have disabilities—or endangering their safety and that of their teachers.

Special Education Legislation 1975–1994

1975 Education of All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142 or EHA) requires that a free and appropriate education and related services be provided in the least wrestrictive environment (LRE) and that an individualized plan (the IEP) be written for each student.

1983 P.L. 98-199: Amendments emphasize planning for transitional services for secondary students and authorize parent training and information centers.

1986 P.L. 99-457: Amendments extend the provisions to children ages 3–5, and create a discretionary early intervention program for children 2 and younger.

1990–91 Congress renames EHA the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (P.L 101-476 and P.L. 102-119 or IDEA). IDEA expands the definition of disabilities (formerly handicaps) to include autism and traumatic brain injury; and adds new related services—therapeutic recreation, assistive technology, social work, and rehabilitation counseling.

1994 Congress begins considering recommendations for IDEA's reauthorization in 1995, including a provision that specifically addresses the inclusion of disabled students in regular classes.

One final issue: There is often a larger number of minority children in special education—especially classes for the learning disabled—than their numbers in the school population would seem to warrant. This, some minority advocates believe, indicates that special education classes are being used to resegregate schools. As a result, many members of minority groups are vocal supporters of inclusion. This is an important but separate problem. It can't be forgotten or pushed to one side as we try to make our system for educating disabled children flexible enough so that the welfare of one group is not sacrificed for the welfare of another.

Albert Shanker has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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