It is my privilege to have Dr. George Van Horn as my guest blogger this week for: Inclusion: The Ongoing Illusion!
I have long believed in inclusion. Inclusion is a school environment that welcomes all and provides what is necessary for all students. But believing in inclusion is not enough. Many people don’t realize that P.L. 94-142 did not create special education, it created general education. In an effort to allow children with disabilities access to the public school system, states and local districts started with the assumption that the environment was focused on educating only students who were already educated in public schools and a system needed to be created. Hence, the creation of general education. Prior to the passage of the federal law, the system educated “all” students. Through P.L. 94-142, “all” was expanded to include children with disabilities. In order to accomplish this, the system in place was kept, named general education, and continued to serve students. However, to educate students with disabilities, a parallel system was created because the existing system was viewed as only being for students without disabilities.
As time moved on it became clear a separate system for students with disabilities was not effective and the initial solution was “mainstreaming”. Students with disabilities were still a part of the separate special education system, but would “visit” general education classrooms. This practice was useful in introducing general education educators and students to students with disabilities. But, the “home” for children with disabilities still remained the special education classroom and they were not members of the general education environment. This practice led to the next step in educating children with disabilities – inclusion.
Inclusion means all children are members of one educational environment, meaning there are no more general education and special education systems. As I reflect on the many years I have supported inclusion, I have come to the conclusion that in reality what many of us have accomplished is advanced mainstreaming. In most educational environments, children with disabilities are still viewed and treated differently. Many educators continue to struggle with the concept of equitable access versus fairness. Inclusion is not about giving all students the same (fair), it is about providing students what they need to be successful (equitable access). While progress providing equitable access for all students has been made, there still remains two educational systems, general and special. While this is not our goal, it is a step toward achieving the goal of creating truly inclusive educational environments. What’s next?
The barrier that has not been addressed is the need to create education environments that remove barriers and create options for instruction, assessment, and most importantly student learning. Until this occurs, it does not make sense for students with disabilities to be placed in classrooms where failure is probable because we have not changed why we do what we do, how we do it, and what we do. The focus in education needs to shift from the individual as disabled to the environment as disabled. I suggest the framework for accomplishing this monumental shift is Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
UDL is a framework that begins with several assumptions:
- Variability is the norm
- Disability is contextual
- Focus on the learning environment and curriculum, not the students.
Through the use of the principles and guidelines of UDL in designing learning environments, educators can identify barriers and create options for ALL students. UDL is not about some students, but instead, focuses on improving learning outcomes for all students. Educators know that students come in all shapes and sizes. Variability is the norm. We know the students we work with will all be unique. In addition to variability, we also know that all students have strengths and weaknesses depending on the activity. Hence, disability is contextual. Everyone is disabled depending on the circumstances. For inclusion to become a reality, we must create one learning environment for all students that allows the students to choose what option works best given the activity. The creation of an environment where all students have a sense of belonging and ownership is our ultimate destination. While this is not an easy shift, it is necessary if we truly want to educate all children.
Dr. Van Horn is currently the Director of Special Education for the Bartholomew Special Services Cooperative in Columbus, Indiana. Dr. Van Horn completed both his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees at the University of Dayton. He received his Doctor of Education degree from Indiana University with a concentration in the areas of school administration and special education. Dr. Van Horn has been a teacher of students with emotional disabilities, as well as having served as a principal, school superintendent and director of special education. Dr. Van Horn has also been an adjunct faculty member at Indiana University Purdue University Columbus (IUPUC), Manhattan College in New York, and Northern Illinois University. He has consulted with school districts throughout the country in the areas of Positive Behavior Supports, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusion.