inclusive education

Inclusive education: presence, participation, and learning

There are three components of inclusive education that matter a lot, which tend to get conflated:

  • Being present and welcome
  • Access to participation
  • Access to content

Being present and welcome means:

  • A person with a disability is in the room
  • Their right to be there is not questioned
  • People want them to be there
  • They’re seen as a student and treated as a peer by other students
  • They’re treated more or less respectfully
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re being taught the material, or that they’re meaningfully participating in educational activities

For instance:

  • A child with a disability may go to kindergarten, and spend a lot of time watching other children do educational activities.
  • Everyone might be very happy that they’re there.
  • Other children might like them, and play with them during recess or free play time.
  • They’re still left out of most activities
  • They’re still not being taught the same material as everyone else

Access to participation means:

  • When students are doing an activity, the disabled student isn’t left on the sidelines
  • They’re given something to do that makes them part of what’s happening
  • This doesn’t always give them access to the content, in and of itself.
  • They may or may not actually be learning the material the activity is supposed to teach.
  • They may or may not really be welcome in the classroom with their peers

For instance:

  • A group of third graders are being taught a lesson about sorting things into categories
  • The teacher draws a few giant Venn diagrams on big paper, with topic headings
  • The teacher writes a list of words on the board.
  • Students are told to draw those words, then tape them to the place in a Venn diagram category that they think it should go in
  • Then they’re given a list of words, and told to draw pictures of the words in the place in on the diagram that they think those things go
  • A disabled student’s aide gives them crayons and tells them to draw a couple of the pictures, then give them to the other kids to categorize
  • The typically-developing kids take the pictures and decide where to put them
  • Everyone is more or less happy with this. The student is participating and they are socially included.
  • But they’re not being taught the material about categorizing things. They’re just drawing pictures.

Access to content means:

  • The disabled student is taught the same material as other students
  • They’re given a way to engage with the material that they can understand
  • They learn the material, and develop their own thoughts on it
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re given a way to participate meaningfully in educational activities with peers
  • It also doesn’t necessarily mean that they are present or welcome

For instance:

  • A disabled student may attend a mainstream class, but be pulled out for one-to-one tutoring for most of their actual academic instruction.
  • If it’s good instruction, they’re getting access to the content.
  • But they’re not participating in educational activities with their peers.
  • They also may not really be welcomed in their mainstream class; people including the teacher may believe that they don’t have the right to be there (which is a factor that can lead to a lot of pull out instruction in and of itself).

This isn’t just about children, it’s true in every educational setting, including universities, grad school, and continuing education for adults.

Tl;dr Inclusion in school has many components. Three of them are being present and welcome, having a way to participate in educational activities with peers, and having access to the content being taught. All three of these things are important. Solving one problem doesn’t always solve the other two. It’s important to keep paying attention, and to work towards making sure students are welcome, that they are able to participate, and that they are learning the content being taught.

People with disabilities are worthy of money and effort

In the part of special education community that promotes inclusive education, I often hear advocates say things like “inclusion doesn’t have to be hard,” “inclusion doesn’t have to be expensive,” and “inclusion doesn’t require special skills.”

This isn’t really true, unless we exclude a lot of people from “inclusion”. Some access needs are easy to meet; many are not. We can bring some people in without too much trouble. In order to commit to full inclusion, we’re going to have to be willing to spend money, acquire expertise, do hard things, and make changes.

For instance, people who can’t rely on speech as their primary means of communication need support learning to communicate. This is inherently expensive:

  • They usually need expensive devices
  • (The cheapest good option is an iPad with a $200 app; some people need dedicated devices that cost upwards of $10,000.) 
  • They also usually need therapy
  • Having a communication device doesn’t solve all of someone’s problems; they also have to learn how to use it
  • (And they usually need help learning how)
  • Or they need something like RPM, which is low-tech but requires twice-daily 1:1 lessons which use scripts that generally have to be prepared in advance specifically for that student.
  • If they are in school, they need teachers who know how to teach them (which generally means that experts have to teach their teachers how.)
  • AAC communication is slower, and can be hard to interpret
  • Inclusion doesn’t happen automatically; teachers have to learn how to make sure AAC users are able to participate and be heard in class
  • (Eg: If someone isn’t using complete sentences yet, it can be hard to know what they mean. You have to be willing and able to do the work of helping them to clarify).
  • (And: if someone responds slowly, you have to proactively make sure they get a chance to express their thoughts in class discussions)
  • All of this requires money, expertise, effort, and willingness to change
  • If we’re only willing to consider cheap options, people who need communication support are left behind

Another example: People need to be able to get into the building

  • Many buildings were built incorrectly
  • They may have large flights of stairs at all entrances
  • They may have many floors that can only be reached by stairs
  • They may not have any accessible bathrooms
  • The bathrooms may all be too small to enter in a wheelchair (which means there’s no way to fix them without moving walls)
  • All of the doors may be big and heavy
  • Often, there’s no cheap way to fix this
  • There may be inexpensive starting places; we can’t stop there
  • If we care about including people with mobility disabilities, we have to be willing to spend money to fix buildings
  • We have to hire architects who have expertise in accessibility
  • We have to make sure that people with mobility disabilities are part of the conversation, even if no one with a mobility disability has expressed interest in accessing the building recently
  • We have to be willing to make changes that make the building look different, in ways that may mean changing or destroying things that longtime users of the building are emotionally attached to.

We can start with the low hanging fruit; we should not pretend that all fruit is low-hanging. A lot of access needs are inherently expensive. There are a lot of needs that no one even knows how to meet yet; the expertise we need does not yet exist. If we want to commit to full inclusion of children with disabilities in schools; if we want to fully include adults in all aspects of society, we need to be in it for the long haul.

tl;dr In order to stop excluding people with disabilities, we’re going to have to spend money. We’re going to have to bring in expertise and develop expertise. We’re going to have to do difficult things. We’re going to have to make changes. We’re going to have to start seeing this as normal. People with disabilities are worthy of money and effort.

A thought on making difference ok

One issue with accommodations and modifications in school, is that it can often be hard to avoid stigma. Kids don’t usually like being singled out or doing things conspicuously differently. Also, nondisabled kids often resent it when disabled kids are allowed to do things that they are not allowed to do.

Further, one frequent objection to accommodations is “but if I let one kid do this, then all the other kids will want to.”

Sometimes that’s true — and, often, the best solution to that problem is to just let all the kids do whatever the thing is. Sometimes there’s no good reason to restrict access to something. Sometimes changing the rule works better than making exceptions to it.

One way that something works to correct this problem is to make some of their accommodations available to other kids who would like to try them. The kid who has a documented need for accommodations probably isn’t the only one who would benefit from them.

And even aside from that, it’s good for kids to explore the world and experiment with different ways of doing things. This is a good way to learn that difference is normal, and that doing things differently is a basic fact of life.

For instance, if one kid needs to use manipulatives for math, maybe try making manipulatives available to all the kids. 

If one kid needs a large print worksheet, maybe make a few large print copies and let kids try doing it that way.

If one kid needs to chew stuff, maybe make things available for other kids to chew.

If one kid needs to use fidget toys, maybe make them available to all the kids who would like to try it.

If one kid needs to type, and you have the resources to make that available to other kids too, maybe let them try doing assignments that way. And let the kids that works better for continue to do it.

And, beyond that, it helps to get in the habit of providing different ways to do things even when there isn’t a kid who needs them as a specific accommodation. 

Not in the sense of “take a walk in the disabled kid’s shoes”, this is not a disability simulation. The point shouldn’t be empathy building, and it should not be presented as being about the disabled kid. The message is “there are a lot of legitimate ways to do things, and it’s ok to experiment and figure out what works for you, even if most people don’t do it the same way as you”.

You can’t always do this, and you can’t always do this for everything. When you can, it helps, a lot.

A thought on inclusive teaching

When you teach a class or lead a discussion, participation is often easy for some people and hard for others.

People who find participation easy will tend to talk a lot and ask a lot of questions. They can really easily fill up all the space with their confidence and their speech. This can result in people who struggle to participate feeling like they have no way to say anything. (This is not necessarily anyone’s fault.)

It is possible to create space for them in several ways. They all start from presuming competence. Specifically - start from the presumption that people who aren’t participating have worthwhile things to say, and 

They also start by paying attention to who is and isn’t participating. If you notice whose voices are absent, it becomes easier to find ways to include them.

Some specifics:

It can help to call on people specifically when you notice they’re not saying things, in a low-pressure way:

  • Say you notice that Susan hasn’t said anything in the discussion
  • You can say, “Susan, would you like to add something?” or
  • “Susan, what do you think?”
  • If you’re not asking for an answer to a particular question, and you ask in a non-demanding tone, this can be a good way to give people a chance to talk
  • Particularly if you wait a few seconds after asking, and take no for an answer (whether it’s a stated no or an implied no)

It can help to ask in a more general way:

  • Sometimes the conversation is dominated by a few people 
  • You can often address this by saying something like
  • “Would anyone who has not said anything yet like to say something?” or
  • “I’d like to hear from people who haven’t spoken.”
  • This lets people who aren’t speaking up know that you care about what they have to say without putting individual pressure on anyone
  • It also lets people who are taking up the space know that you’d like to make sure you hear from everyone

It helps to be available through email:

  • Some people who care deeply about the subject and want to participate aren’t able to do so in real time
  • If they are better at using email, being available by email will make it possible for them to participate
  • (It might also make it easier for them to tell you about barriers to their participation)

People who teach: What have y'all seen work well for people who want to participate but find it difficult? 

People who find it difficult to participate: What have teachers done that made it easier for you? What made it harder?

A school project not to assign

If you are a teacher, do not ask your students to make a family tree as a school assignment. *Especially* do not do this as a class art project to be posted on the wall.

A lot of kids have very complicated families, and complicated feelings about which words to use for which people.

For instance: Some kids call multiple people “mom”. Sometimes this is because they’re being raised by a lesbian couple. Sometimes this is because they are adopted and also maintaining a relationship with their mother who gave birth to them. Sometimes this is because their parents divorced and remarried and they also see their stepparents as parents. None of these relationships map easily onto a family tree project.

Some kids don’t have any parents at all. This isn’t something that they should have to tell their peers if they don’t want to. 

Some kids aren’t sure who their parents are. Is it the people who adopted them when they were a baby and disrupted when they were six? The person who gave birth to them? The people they’re living with now? The one nice staff in their group home? The person they’re in foster care with who they’re hoping will eventually adopt them? It’s complicated and not ok to ask kids to declare this in writing in front of everyone.

There are any number of emotionally fraught and complicated situations that go along with describing families. It’s not good to have kids do that as part of an assignment, unless you’re working in a context in which getting people to do emotionally fraught things is appropriate.