Inclusion is a right; not a pendulum

By Catia Malaquias

A US article entitled Has Inclusion Gone Too Far? Weighing its effects of students with disabilities, their peers and teachersby Allison Gilmour, Assistant Professor of Special Education at Temple University, was recently published by EducationNext*.

It begins by framing the discussion that follows, by noting “how far” the pendulum has swung in the United States – “today, more than 60 percent of all students with disabilities (SWDs) spend 80% or more of their school day in regular classrooms, alongside their non-disabled peers”.  For context, the US has not been successful in ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD) and its education laws provide qualified access only with most students with disability being in regular classrooms for a portion of their day.

Significantly, the author suggests – in the face of more than 40 years of research that has consistently found that inclusive education benefits students with disability academically and socially, without prejudicing students without disability and if anything enhancing their academic and particularly their social development –  that studies that do report better academic and social outcomes “suffer from methodological flaws”.  The author also states that “studies of inclusion seem to assume that SWDs are educated in a vacuum; that is they fail to examine the experiences of non-disabled classmates” and of “their teachers”.

While leaving critique of the article’s own methodology and assumptions to academic commentators, it is worth noting that “inclusion” is not the same thing as “mainstreaming” (with which it is often equated in the US), nor is “inclusion” a “model of special education”.

Further, the author does not appear to have cited recent major comprehensive reviews of research such as a 2016  review of 280 studies from 25 countries led by Harvard Professor, Thomas Hehir, that concluded that inclusive educational settings “confer substantial short and long-term benefits for students with and without disabilities”.  This finding was confirmed by the  2018 review by the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, “Evidence of the Link Between Inclusive Education and Social Inclusion”.  Similarly, the author does not appear to have considered a 2017 meta-analysis covering a total sample of almost 4,800,000 students that concluded that learning environments with students with disability have also been shown to have no detrimental impact, and some positive impact on the academic performance of non-disabled students.

The article concludes with a call for research into the impact of students with disability on the “ecology” of the general classroom – rather than merely a focus on whether inclusive settings benefit students with disability.

“Special education in the United States has long focused on improving SWDs’ access to neighbourhood schools, general education classrooms, and the general-education curriculum.  Policies and practices have increasingly veered towards inclusion.  However, these policies, and the research on their effects, have narrowly focused on SWDs’ outcomes without considering the confluence of factors that can affect a classroom.  With inclusion as the dominant model in special education, it is imperative that researchers also focus on whether and how these students influence the experiences of their peers and their teachers in order to make schools effective for all children.” [emphasis added]

While the article acknowledges some important points about poor practices in general education classrooms that are far too widespread and the fact that merely being physically present is not enough, aspects of its presentation and language border on dog whistling  – a call to return the balance in favour of segregation – the provision of “special education services”to “SWDs”– dehumanised in that acronym – in separate “special settings”.

This unfortunate messaging cannot be overlooked.  The author asks that an “ecological perspective” for future research to be taken – to effectively study the impact of releasing students with disability into the (perceived) otherwise more orderly and controlled environment of general education classrooms, on the academic and social equilibrium of the incumbent population of students without disability and their teachers.

What is also startling in the framing of the article is the complete disregard for the fact that the right to receive an inclusive education – together with one’s same-age peers – is not merely an objective of IDEA (the US federal law) but a fundamental human right of every child – including students with disability – recognised by Articles 5 and 24 of the CRPD ratified by 176 countries and clarified by  General Comment No. 4 (the Right to Inclusive Education), released by the UN CRPD Committee in 2016.  While as noted above, the US despite being a signatory to the CRPD has not to date been successful in ratifying it domestically, that does not diminish the status of the international rights recognised by the CRPD and in other international law instruments.

The question is not whether students with disability ought to be educated with their same-age non-disabled peers in regular classrooms – but rather how can we best realise their human right to be so educated. It is a social and legal right – untinctured by academic preconditions, a message delivered strongly by disabled people at the UN Social Forum, Geneva, 3-5 October 2016 marking the 10th anniversary of the CRPD in 2016, who called on researchers to engage with the voice of people with disability and pursue research that relates to the exercise and realisation of the rights guaranteed in the CRPD.

Asking how general classrooms and teachers, structured in their design and thinking by the historical legacy of centuries of exclusion of students with disability, may be affected by the belated and imperfect “inclusion” of students with disability, misses the fundamental point that there is no legitimate entitlement of peers and teachers to a continuation of the exclusionary “status quo”.  While such questions may be relevant to efforts to improve the implementation of inclusive education for all, the author’s analysis of that information and the implications sought to be drawn from it, more than anything would seem to reflect the assumptions or beliefs underpinning the article.

Inclusive education is about recalibrating the historically entrenched expectations and assumptions of society – by providing a common socio-educational pathway that is accessible to all – including people with disability. It is based upon the social model of disability that recognises that the disabling aspects of an impairment arise from barriers inherent in environmental and societal responses to the impairment.

Inclusive education is a paradigm shift – a correction of a social wrong – it is not a pendulum – it is a transformation.

We do not ask whether people with disability should be included in general social settings, employment or the community despite the fact that we recognise the functional barriers they face when those environments are not accessible.  We recognise that their exclusion from those settings is pure discrimination.  But for some reason – inclusion in general education settings is different.  Why?  Is it because we have a ready-made and entrenched parallel “special education” system – an alternate “special education” life path – ready and willing to relieve the general education system and its “entitled” incumbents of the burden and growing pains of inclusion?

But the applicable principles are no different in the context of education; “segregation” of students with disability is characterised in General Comment No. 4 and in General Comment No.6 as a form of discrimination. Paragraph 13 of  General Comment No. 4  states that “the right to non-discrimination includes the right not to be segregated and to be provided with reasonable accommodation”.

The article makes much of the limitations of students with disability in their endeavour to thrive in the environment of the general education system.  But those limitations arise predominantly from deficiencies in the general education system’s response to the needs of the student with disability – in adequate support, limited accommodations, poor teacher training and unalleviated cultural bias.

“Integration” – that makes access to general education settings conditional upon the student “fitting in” and “keeping up” – is not “inclusion” – which is another key point of  General Comment No. 4.

“Integration” is about schools failing to adjust and forcing “square peg” students into round holes – the trauma of that coerced experience often manifests itself in frustration, perceived emotional instability and “behavioural issues”. Each recognised forms of legitimate and frequently unheeded communication by students with disability that their general education environment is failing to respond to and make accommodations for their functional needs.

“Inclusion” on the other hand is about the general education system adjusting to accommodate and support students with disability – with no preconditions – to realise their human right to belong to and be part of every aspect of society – particularly the academic –and socially – developmental construct that is our education system and the most direct pathway to socio-economic inclusion in our future society.

There is no doubt that the needs of everyone in every general education classroom must be taken into account – teachers, students without disability and students with disability. But the approach cannot be to question the invitation of the last to arrive – when the classroom party shouldn’t have started in the first place without them – and should have been planned for their equal right to involvement from the beginning.

Students with disability should not be regarded or treated as an “introduced species” to the general education eco-system.  Rather, that artificially and historically restricted eco-system must be transitioned to its naturally representative state – one that is inclusive of the full range of human diversity.

* EducationNext is an education policy journal and a publication of the United States conservative think-tank Hoover Institution.  Read more here.

[Cover photo © Andisheh]

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