Inclusion—as its name implies—calls on us to ensure that students of ALL abilities can access ALL aspects of our school curricula alongside their peers. The prospect sounds simple enough on the surface. Alas, my 29 years of life experience as a student and now advocate and young professional with cerebral palsy have me fearing that we may be overthinking it.
Each day, in schools of all shapes, sizes, and stripes across the country, students with disabilities carry diagnostic labels that—to some—are unfortunately more telling than these students' names, unique gifts, and personalities. Armed with these "all-telling" labels, the students receive necessary instruction and support services according to their individualized education plans (IEPs) and/or other legally binding directives. If my own school days still serve as any guide, this service delivery occurs on the periphery: apart from one's peers; behind wall dividers or in dingy auxiliary rooms and converted former supply closets; delivered by well-meaning, well-credentialed, acronym-laden armies of physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and intervention specialists—to name a few. Add in highly subjective benchmarks like "least restrictive environments (LREs)," "attainable goals," and "adequate yearly progress (AYP)," and one has to wonder whether this ever-growing cauldron of definitions and best-practice buzzwords would be better suited for a Scrabble board or a game of alphabet soup than for the actual task of educating students!
The all too common scenario depicted above is what I might call meeting the letter of inclusive, nondiscriminatory education law. Yet, does this mean that we are also capturing the spirit of inclusion in most of America's classrooms? I would answer this with a resounding "No!"
For example, in thinking about truly inclusive classrooms, the critically-acclaimed documentary Including Samuel by father and University of New Hampshire filmmaker Dan Habib shows how most student needs, services, and supports can be sewn into the proverbial fabric of classrooms, keeping all students under one roof. Delivery of these supports and services is plotted as a continual team effort and dialogue among a child's teacher(s), therapist(s), aide(s), and other professionals. As part of this undertaking, instruction is differentiated to allow for multiple avenues into curricular material, suiting learners of all abilities and styles.
If this sounds like a common-sense approach, it is. It simply requires a sustained commitment to think outside of the proverbial box and not simply default to the segregated service and instructional delivery models that—to my mind—are still all too frequent in today's teaching textbooks. A good trick for leapfrogging this hardwired tendency is also simple: just remember that the very core and essence of what we are trying to accomplish with inclusion is TO INCLUDE. If a student's unique services and supports feel as though they are separating him or her from his or her peers, they probably are and could be re-engineered more holistically, simply, and—hopefully by default—more inclusively.
As American comedian and actor Milton Berle once said, "If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door." I like this quote applied to the practice of inclusion for the ingenuity it inspires. That said, in making this parallel, we have to remember that doors also have the potential to work in reverse, shutting students out and separating them from their peers in the process.
So, when it comes to full and true inclusion, let's be careful not to overthink it by working diligently and passionately to build doors when all we need are new avenues, ramps, or pathways in—both in a literal and figurative sense!