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Curriculum Highlights

Inclusive Education and Life Long Learning


  • Participants will be able to describe the benefits and values supporting a quality, inclusive education for all students.
  • Participants will be able to outline specific strategies to achieve inclusion a quality, inclusive education for all students.

Why This Topic is Important

A quality education can pave the way for a life of opportunity and contribution. An education that does not prepare children for a successful future guarantees they won't have a successful future. Schools are for learning and much, much more.  In addition to helping children learn academics, schools can help children develop values, responsibilities, and social skills. They can enable children to learn important lessons about life. If students miss out on these opportunities as children, they will be ill-equipped as adults and will miss out on even more as adults. All of these things are equally true for children with and without disabilities.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. The Board of Education that “separate is not equal.” In 1970, twenty-five years later, exclusion was still the rule. According to the National Council on Disability:1

In 1970, before enactment of the federal protections in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), schools in America educated only one in five students with disabilities. More than 1 million students were excluded from public schools, and another 3.5 million did not receive appropriate services. Many states had laws excluding certain students, including those who were blind, deaf, or labeled persons with "emotionally disturbance" or "mental retardation." Almost 200,000 school-age children with developmental or emotional disabilities were institutionalized. The likelihood of exclusion was greater for children with disabilities living in low-income, ethnic and racial minority, or rural communities.

In 1993, almost forty years after Brown, segregation and an unequal education were still the rule for children with developmental disabilities. Despite IDEA, in 1993, fewer than 7 percent of school-aged children with developmental disabilities were educated in general education classrooms. Forty-four states (including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) educated less than 9 percent of their students with developmental disabilities in general education classrooms.

In 1997, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was reauthorized by the 105th Congress with a number of changes. P. L. 105-17 ensured that the education of children with disabilities moves from merely access to public education to ensuring quality outcomes. Congress specifically mentioned implementation problems resulting from “low expectations, and an insufficient focus on applying replicable research on proven methods of teaching and learning for children with disabilities (20 U.S.C. 1400 (c)(1)) During the 1997 reauthorization, there were several new requirements including the addition of individualized transition plans, and functional behavioral assessment and intervention plans.

The National Council on Disabilities documented the positive consequences that can result:

In the more than two decades since its enactment, IDEA implementation has produced important improvements in the quality and effectiveness of the public education received by millions of American children with disabilities. Today almost 6 million children and young people with disabilities ages 3 through 21 qualify for educational interventions under Part B of IDEA. Some of these students with disabilities are being educated in their neighborhood schools in regular classrooms. These children have a right to have support services and devices such as assistive listening systems, Braille text books, paraprofessional supports, curricular modifications, talking computers, and speech synthesizers made available to them as needed to facilitate their learning side-by-side with their nondisabled peers. Post-secondary and employment opportunities are opening up for increasing numbers of young adults with disabilities as they leave high school. Post-school employment rates for youth served under Part B are twice that of older adults with disabilities who did not benefit from IDEA in school, and self-reports indicate that the percentage of college freshmen with a disability has almost tripled since 1978.2

But, the gap between law and practice continues:

In the past 25 years, states have not met their general supervisory obligations to ensure compliance with the core civil rights requirements of IDEA at the local level. Children with disabilities and their families are required far too often to file complaints to ensure that the law is followed. The Federal Government has frequently failed to take effective action to enforce the civil rights protections of IDEA when federal officials determine that states have failed to ensure compliance with the law. Although Department of Education Secretary Richard W. Riley has been more aggressive in his efforts to monitor compliance and take formal enforcement action involving sanctions than all his predecessors combined, formal enforcement of IDEA has been very limited.3

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) reported the following in 1999:

In 1996-97, over 95 percent of students with disabilities received special education and related services in regular school buildings, and 46 percent were removed from regular classes for less than 21 percent of the day.4

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, prohibiting segregation and discrimination based on disability. And still, a quality, inclusive education remains a distant vision—not a reality—for too many students with disabilities in our public schools.

The emergence of special, segregated educational programs mirrors the paradigm that created institutions. Children with developmental disabilities were virtually denied a public education from the beginning of this century until the 1970s. The first step was to develop special schools and/or special classrooms. Integration was first seen as being included in the public education system (special schools), then into public education schools (special classrooms). Now in the era of community and family living, inclusion, participation, and full citizenship, integration means inclusion in general education classrooms and activities.

During the decade of 2000-2010, schools were focused on the implementation of No Child Left Behind, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-110).  During these years, advocacy focused on including students with disabilities in the general education curriculum, including students in the testing requirements, and ensuring students were graduating from high school and transitioning to adult life.

The reauthorization of IDEA in 2004 (P.L. 108-446) required high qualification standards for teachers and stipulated that all students with disabilities participate in annual state or district testing or documented alternate assessments.

1Back to School on Civil Rights: Advancing the Federal Commitment to Leave No Child Behind. National Council on Disability, January 25, 2000.

2Graduation rates have increased significantly for students with disabilities.

3 Back to School on Civil Rights: Advancing the Federal Commitment to Leave No Child Behind. National Council on Disability, January 25, 2000.

4Twenty-first Annual Report to congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. U.S. Dept. of Education, 1999.

Concept Highlights

  • For many years, children with disabilities were not allowed to attend public schools.
  • “Special” schools were created, providing a separate, segregated education.
  • Today, more children with disabilities are welcomed and included in general education classrooms, fulfilling the concepts in IDEA.
  • Most states are not doing enough to develop more inclusive schools; even some disability groups oppose inclusive education practices.
  • Inclusive education costs less than segregated programs.
  • Brothers, sisters, and other children from the neighborhood should be educated together in the neighborhood school.
  • Our schools are microcosms of our communities. Our communities are stronger and better when all children learn and grow together in inclusive classrooms and inclusive community activities.
  • “Dumping” students in general education classrooms without the necessary supports for the student and the teacher and/or isolating a student with a disability in the back of the room with a one-to-one aide are not inclusion.
  • Inclusive schools are better for students with and without disabilities, academically, socially, and in every way. Teachers in inclusive classrooms become better teachers.
  • Schools need to do a better job in following the mandates in IDEA, regarding “least restrictive environment.” They also need to do a better job with the “I” in the Individual Education Program (IEP) mandated by IDEA. Students are not supposed to “fit” into a school's “program;” schools are supposed to create an individualized program for each student who qualifies for special education services.
  • Special education is not a separate entity; it is part of general education. A “special ed issue” needs to be viewed as an “education” issue.


The Learning Community in the 21st Century

  1. An inclusive school represents a community where children and adults engage in a reciprocal learning process that is fun, engaging, relevant, and affirmative, and meets the life-long learning needs of everyone.
    • The learning environment supports a sense of community and respect for individual differences and abilities.
    • Community-building and respect for individual differences best occurs when students of different backgrounds and abilities learn and socialize together in classrooms designed to develop and enhance the abilities of all children.
  2. Inclusion means that students:5
    • Are included in general education classrooms and activities for both academic and social opportunities;
    • Receive an individualized education program which supports learning in the general education classroom and community settings;
    • Have the opportunity to participate in school social and extracurricular activities with peers without disabilities; and,
    • Attend schools in their own neighborhoods.

5Separateness (separate-hood). The Arc U.S., Oct. 1992, p7. The Arc Report Card on including children with mental retardation in regular education. The Arc. U.S., 1992, p4.3.

Questions to ask about a school's policies, practices, and educational opportunities:

  • Is there a school district policy in support of inclusive education?
  • Does the school administration emphasize the preparation of all students to live and work in the community?
  • Does the school leadership encourage the inclusion of all students via its written materials; flexible scheduling; building accessibility; providing assistive technology, supports, accommodations, and modifications to students and teachers; and by other means?
  • Do all school personnel receive annual in-service training on the values of and strategies to achieve inclusive education?
  • Do students with disabilities attend the school they would attend if they didn’t have disabilities?
  • Do students with disabilities ride the same buses as students without disabilities?
  • For students with disabilities, are their school days (length of day, time of arrival and departure) the same as for students without disabilities?
  • Do students with disabilities participate in extracurricular activities with students without disabilities?
  • Do all special education school personnel support students in the general education classroom and/or community settings?
  • Is the curriculum modified, as necessary, to ensure students with disabilities can be involved in and make progress in age-appropriate general education classrooms?
  • Do supports match the student's strengths, needs, preferences, and interests?
  • Are educational objectives based on a comprehensive assessment of the student's strengths and needs?
  • Do curricular and extracurricular activities involve mutual interaction with students without disabilities?
  • Is learning viewed as lifelong? Are people encouraged to take online courses, enroll in community education courses, and in postsecondary education?

Topics for further review:

  • The benefits of inclusion for students with disabilities: opportunities to learn academics and real-world social skills (learning these things are usually not possible in a self-contained classroom), to make real friends, to enjoy grade-to-grade upward progression like other students (this can’t happen when, for example, an elementary-aged student is in the same special ed classroom from K-5), and more.
  • The benefits of inclusion for students without disabilities: opportunities to develop friendships with a peer who may be different in some ways, to better understand the range of human differences, to benefit from valuable lessons that can only be learned from a person with a disability, and more.
  • The difference between learning from your teacher and learning from your peers: positive role model carry-over, incidental learning, deductive learning, peer support, consensual validation of behaviors and positive skills, having something in common that can lead to friendship and bonding. A teacher may be wonderful, but there are many more opportunities for peer-to-peer learning.
  • Read the OSERS Report to Congress, particularly as it relates to your state.
  • Strategies for opening the doors for brothers, sisters and neighbors to all go to the same school and classrooms.
  • Using natural supports (such as peers and cross-age tutors) to facilitate inclusion.
  • The role technology can play in supporting a student in the general education classroom.
  • The relationship of Brown v. The Board of Education to the ADA.
  • Participation in the lifelong competencies of digital literacy and media literacy deemed essential for employment in the 21st Century.
  • Participation in postsecondary education that is inclusive and lifelong learning opportunities.