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After 20 Years, It's Time for an Inclusion Update

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This post is by Sarah BarnesEducation Specialist Program Manager, High Tech High Charter Schools.

The year was 1999; I was working towards a special education credential as an undergraduate student. IDEA (Individual with Disabilities Education Act) had just been reauthorized, ushering in an educational approach popularly known as inclusion. The call sign of inclusion proclaimed that special education students had a right to be educated in the "least restrictive environment," which resulted in students with disabilities receiving their education in their neighborhood schools in unprecedented numbers. 

After nearly two decades of inclusion we know that ensuring students with disabilities have access to the same educational environments as their peers has resulted in significantly improved outcomes. These improved outcomes were recently highlighted in the California Charter Schools Association 2016 Special Education Report. Despite these outcomes, progress to fully include students 20 years later has stalled; today, according to the same report, only 53 percent of special education students in California are educated with their general education peers. 

During the nearly two decades of this new millennium it has been my joy and privilege to navigate the complexities of inclusion with my colleagues and students. Our thinking about disability and inclusion has evolved due wholly to advocacy by current and former students segregated by our educational systems. As we address the stall in our ability to meaningfully include a greater number of students with disabilities, we need to update our inclusive approaches to include student voice and advocacy while making room to celebrate a student's success through a deeper learning lens. 

Update #1: Include Inclusion 

When discussing equity in education, special attention is often and rightly placed on students who have been marginalized due to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and identity. When we include topics of ableism and perceived ability or disability when examining issues of equity, we not only uncover unexamined barriers to learning and access for students with disabilities we also unpack unacknowledged privilege and bias that prevents students of all ability levels from benefiting from and meaningfully collaborating with each other. 

Update #2: Understand that Mainstreaming Is Not Inclusion

Advocates of the inclusion movement borrowed from the civil rights movements of the 1950s and '60s and declared that separate educational facilities were not equal; but just having students in the same room together is not inclusion. Placing students in the same room together is mainstreaming; mainstreaming is not inclusion. 

Ubiquitous terms such as "inclusion" and "normal" can be problematic, as their undefined use can lead to the marginalization of those we are seeking to include. To avoid this, it is important to define inclusion as the design of inclusive contexts; meaning that we call a practice inclusive if it provides access to curriculum and community, not just to a seat in the room. When we empower all teachers to have ownership over providing access to a deeper learning curriculum for all students we encourage instruction in multiple formats, we empower students to showcase what they've learned in a variety of ways, and we assess a student's performance based on a student's individual goals, interests, and personal growth versus mastering of a specific standard or a predetermined outcome, or a compliant behavior. 

Update #3: Embrace Neurodiversity

The Neurodiversity movement was and is fueled by members of the Autism Community who do not want to be viewed as "disordered." We should value Neurodiversity just as we value diversity with regard to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation/identity. Neurodiversity denotes an approach to learning and disability that argues that diverse neurological conditions are the result of normal variations in the human genome and as such should not be pathologized or "fixed."

When our IEP identification process focuses on what is right with the learner instead of what is wrong with them, it encourages school-based professionals to work together to identify students who are in need of additional services and support to accesscurriculum and community as opposed to identifying learners who need to be remediated to fitinto a learning community. This updated approach drives an individual education program that outlines supports and services that capitalizes on the learner's strengths in order to address their areas of need so as to design personalized access to curriculum and community.

This is in contrast to a deficit model that focuses on pathologizing, labeling, and remediating students. The neurodiversity movement sees all learners on a continuum; by honoring Neurodiversity in our educational practices, we are not only creating a climate where positive academic mindsets are cultivated, we are creating a more inclusive society where all people belong and are valued.

Update #4: Champion "Nothing About Us Without Us"

The "Nothing About Us Without Us" movement was driven by disability rights advocacy in the 1980s and '90s during the early years of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The call was simply for a seat at the table for people with disabilities when services, accommodations, and policy aimed at disability were discussed. Our current IEP (Individual Education Program)/special education process is governed by legal mandates that are tied to a medical deficit model that insists that we diagnose and pathologize students in order for them to receive "help." But we do not have to remain tethered to its outdated prescriptive model. The best way to humanize and personalize this often-impersonal process is to make student-led IEPs the norm rather than an isolated exception for students whom we've decided "have the ability" to lead an IEP.

We could literally ensure that our students with IEPs have a seat at the table--and, preferably, the head! Proponents of this idea often claim that students are too young or wouldn't understand, or that what is discussed would upset them; I question then how a meeting that is not accessible to them or would hurt them could be beneficial? When we personalize the individual education plan through a student led IEP that covers the legal mandates yet focuses mainly on leveraging a student's strengths in order to facilitate access to the classroom content and the classroom community, we empower students while also centering the IEP process around deeper learning competencies like communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.

By honoring student voices both past and present we can update our approaches to inclusion, ensuring more meaningful access to inclusion for more students. That would strengthen us all for this millennium and the next! 

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