On Monday evenings, I receive my son's weekly progress report from school. Without fail, on Tuesday mornings I must sit down and compose emails to his general education teachers to inquire why he did not receive his accommodations on certain assignments. This is part of my reality in having a child with special needs. After months of going through the school testing process and hours of sitting in Individualized Education Program, or IEP, meetings, I still have to fight on a weekly basis to get my son not only what he needs but what he also has a legal right to receive. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has mandated that all children are provided with a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. Some people believe that in order to be morally and legally acceptable, all students regardless of disabilities should be taught in the same classroom. This approach is called "full inclusion" and its proponents argue that children would be better served to be taught together and not segregated based on their needs or abilities. Their argument states that labeling and segregating students on the basis of their disabilities can cause a stigma and give children problems with low self-esteem. In contrast, there are those that prefer a "lesser inclusive" environment for children with special needs. They believe that some separation may be necessary for disabled children to have their specialized needs met in a proper fashion. Children with special needs should be supported by having those needs met individually, not by being squeezed into the mold of general education students, who typically have vastly different needs than their disabled counterparts.
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One of the primary concerns of going to a "full inclusion" program is that most general education teachers do not have the time or ability to devote specialized attention to the children in their class with disabilities. In a full inclusion setting, the students' range of abilities would be so wide and varied that a teacher simply would not have the time to cater to each ability level. This could lead to either a lack of attention to the general education students while the teacher focused on the special education students and their needs, or the opposite could occur. If this were to happen, it would seem to be quite contradictory to the No Child Left Behind Act that Congress enacted in 2001. Without truly meaning to, the teacher could be leaving out an entire demographic in their classroom simply because they are trying to cater to the needs of all but are only capable of catering to the needs of one skill set. In a recent email that I received from my son's math teacher regarding an assignment that he received an E on, she said "If a poor grade slips by me, please feel free to let me know." That simple sentence says it all. This general education math teacher is already overburdened and struggles to keep track of the special education students in her class and their accommodations. Imagine if that teacher also had to provide the accommodations as well. How would the rest of the students in that class fare if she continually had to stop and assist a select few? Proponents of the full inclusion theory believe that with the proper support and teacher development, students with mild to moderate disabilities could be better served in the general education classroom. They believe that putting special education children into a full inclusion general education setting will help improve their socialization skills and language development. Proponents also believe that special education classes offer a diluted version of general education programs, and that the teachers have a lower set of standards for their special education students. The current special education system was put in place mainly because the disabled students were not receiving the proper education, attention, or care that general education students were receiving. Parents and educators came together to fight for equal rights for students with special needs, and that fight lead to the creation of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and its successor, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. If schools go to a full inclusion program, what is to stop those same issues from happening again? Both the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have put programs into place with properly trained teachers and staff to cater to students with disabilities. It would be counterproductive to remove those programs and trained teachers at this point.
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Another concern for parents of special education students is what their social interaction would be like with their non-disabled peers in a full inclusion setting. Children can be brutally honest or even cruel at times. If a special education child is singled out in the classroom because they often need extra assistance, parents worry that it will make their child the subject of ridicule or possibly victims of dangerous bullying. Most children are often self-conscious about what they see as their own deficiencies or flaws. Their differences would be so blatantly obvious in a mixed classroom situation that they may compare themselves to general education students who do not need the extra support, and in doing so, they may sustain some damage to their self esteem. Those who are in favor of the full inclusion system feel that having special education students in general education classes will teach the general education students a better understanding of their disabled peers, and will foster improved interaction between the two sets of students. Full inclusion proponents believe that the general student population will have more compassion and be more socially aware of those who are different from them if they are not segregated based on their educational differences. In a perfect world, this would be the ideal situation. The reality of human nature and the immaturity of children make this utopian education ideal an improbable scenario. My son is a sweet, gentle soul whose classmates often protect him from harsh realities such as the loud, dissonant clanging of the fire alarm, but some of those same children bully him and push him around because he is the perfect victim. His educational and emotional struggles make him an easy target to be taken advantage of by children who can spot weakness a mile away. This is not to say that all children are mean and wicked, but there are enough out there to make any parent concerned.
The full inclusion debate will likely continue on for many more years. Each perspective has its valid points, and decisions on the best education possible for all children are both difficult and time consuming to make. The special education system in its current incarnation was put into place to provide for the deficiencies of the general education program in regards to special needs children. This system has trained educators and staff how to provide the proper education and assistance that disabled children need. General education teachers do not always have this training, nor do they often have the time required to devote to giving each child the individualized programming they need. Beyond a likely loss of quality education for the special education children, going to a full inclusion program also runs the risk of subjecting these children to more occurrences of bullying and possible loss of self esteem. In the interest of giving the best education to all students, regardless of abilities or disabilities, keeping a lesser inclusion program in place is the best choice.