Is Full Inclusion of Disabled Students Desirable

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Issue 14 asks the question, "Is Full Inclusion of Disabled Students Desirable?" There are two viewpoints given in regards to this topic. Education consultant, Richard A. Villa and education professor Jacqueline S. Thousand review the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and give strategies for fulfilling its intentions. They believe that with commitment, creative thinking, and effective classroom strategies, inclusion can benefit all students. The opposing viewpoint comes from education professor Karen Agne, who believes that legislation to include students with all sorts of disabilities has had negative effects on schools. Agne argues that emotionally disturbed and intellectually unfit students in regular classrooms denies other students of needed attention, robs teachers of their sanity, and does not serve the special needs students effectively. She also contends that inclusion of disabled students in regular classrooms contributes to parents removing their children from public schools.

I tend to agree more with Villa and Thousand. It has always been my belief that part of a teacher's job is to design lessons that meet all modalities and lessons with differentiated instruction. My education professors taught me that in a class of twenty-five students, each student is different with their own unique learning style. Essentially, in order to properly teach every student in the class, the teacher needs to develop twenty-five individual lessons on each subject taught. I have had the opportunity to teach in classrooms where special needs students were "mainstreamed." Some argue that mainstreaming special needs students means they are in the regular classroom a portion of the day. In my experience, these students were not in the regular classroom for just part of the day, but the whole day. I found myself becoming a better teacher because I had to take into consideration the special characteristics of the learners in the classroom. I had to think creatively to design engaging lessons that would appeal to and "reach" each of my students. And I had to make a personal commitment to each student to ensure I was giving each one the best education possible.

There is plenty of research and studies to show that inclusion works for special needs students. The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) says studies support full inclusion as an effective strategy to support both social and academic growth among disabled students. These students benefit by being exposed to higher academic standards and role models within their peer group. In a three-year study of elementary inclusive settings where co-teaching was used, Walter-Thomas, Bryant & Land (1996), found benefits for both special and general education. Social skills for special education and low-achieving students improved, and all students expressed a new appreciation of their own abilities and accomplishments. Another study suggests that these students had higher self esteem by attending class in a regular education setting (Ritter, Michel, & Irby, 1999).

Salend and Duhaney (1999) also report that general education students in inclusive settings tend to have academic performance that is equal to or better than students in regular classrooms. Social performance also appears to be better because students have a greater understanding and acceptance of student differences.

I disagree with Agne on a number of her arguments that inclusion is dismantling America's public schools. She states that parents are disappointed and upset that their children are in classrooms with disabled students, because most able students in our society are being taught to devalue their abilities and also themselves. I don't believe this. I have witnessed all students in my inclusion classroom working together to help each other learn. Kochhar, West, and Taymans (2000) draw from research to conclude that the benefits of inclusion across grade levels outweigh the difficulties inclusion presents. For example, they believe that for students with disabilities, inclusion develops appropriate social behavior because of higher expectations in the general education classroom. It also encourages levels of higher achievement, provides a wide circle of social support from classmates with and without disabilities, and improves the ability of students and teachers to adapt to different teaching and learning styles.

Staub and Peck (1995) examined studies to compare progress of children with and without disabilities in inclusive classrooms. No significant differences were found between the group with disabilities and the group of students without disabilities. Also, the presence of children with disabilities had no effect on either teacher time and attention or the levels of "undesirable" behaviors.

I believe that despite the challenges of providing ongoing support and appropriate expectations for students with learning disabilities in a mainstream classroom, full inclusion of these students is desirable whenever possible. The social and academic benefits of full inclusion generally outweigh those challenges.