Toward a Definition of Inclusion

Inclusion is not a new concept in education. Related terms with a longer history include mainstreaming, integration, normalization, least restrictive environment, deinstitutionalization, and regular education initiative. Some use several of these terms interchangeably; others make distinctions. Admittedly, much of the confusion over the issue of inclusion stems from the lax usage of several of these related terms when important differences in meaning exist, especially among the most common-mainstreaming, integration, inclusion, and full inclusion.

Mainstreaming and other, older terms are sometimes associated primarily with the physical assimilation of students with disabilities with their non-disabled peers. This may be more a matter of "connotative baggage" rather than intent. Nevertheless, mainstreaming assumes that students with disabilities may share the same physical space (classroom, playground, etc.) with those who have no disabilities only when they are able to do the same activities as everyone else with minimal modifications. Further, the primary responsibility for these students' education remains with their special education teacher.

According to Rogers (1993), mainstreaming has generally been used to refer to the selective placement of special education students in one or more "regular" education classes ... [Mainstreaming generally assumes] that a student must "earn" his or her opportunity to be mainstreamed through the ability to "keep up with the work assigned by the teacher to the other students in the class. (p. 1)

For some students with more severe disabilities, this has meant that their opportunities to be around non-disabled peers have been limited to (at most) lunch and recess; others may also have been integrated into physical education, music, art, and/or vocational programs. Typically, however, only students with mild disabilities have been allowed to participate in the traditional core academic content areas (mathematics, language arts, science, history, etc.).

Integration is a carry-over from the civil rights/racial desegregation legislation of the 1960s and before. Consequently, integration is primarily a legal term. It brings a greater implication than simply the physical blending of different ethnicities on a bus, at a workplace, or in a classroom. For schools this has meant not only busing children for appropriate ethnic balance demographically, but also seeking ways of fostering social and academic interactions. Just as in racial desegregation, the term "integration," as used by special educators, conveys the idea that students with disabilities ought to be desegregated from "pull-out" programs, self-contained classrooms, special schools, or institutions, and integrated into the realm of regular classrooms. Further, this change is meant to be not only in terms of physical proximity, but of academic and social integration as well. Sailor (1989) also suggests that special education integration, parallel to racial desegregation, should incorporate the notion that classrooms reflect naturally occurring percentages of those with disabilities (approximately 10 percent) in relation to those without disabilities. This position, however, is not universally held.

Inclusion is a somewhat more values-oriented term than integration, its legal counterpart. "The true essence of inclusion is based on the premise that all individuals with disabilities have a right to be included in naturally occurring settings and activities with their neighborhood peers, siblings, and friends" (Erwin, 1993, p. 1). Supporters of inclusive education use the term

to refer to the commitment to educate each child, to the maximum extent appropriate, in the school and classroom he or she would otherwise attend. It involves bringing the support services to the child ... and requires only that the child will benefit from being in the class (rather than having to keep up with the other students). (Rogers, 1993, p. 1)

Note that both Erwin and Rogers stress the idea, held by many inclusion advocates, that students with disabilities should not just be educated with non-disabled peers, but that these educational efforts should be accomplished in the child's neighborhood school-"in the school and classroom he or she would otherwise attend." This means a commitment to move needed services and resources to the child with a disability rather than to place the child in a more removed or segregated setting where services and resources are located. An inclusive education program allows daily and/or weekly time in the school schedule for regular and special educators to collaborate. It seeks to expand the capacity of regular educators to be able to teach a wider array of children, including those with various disabilities, and to expand the roles of special educators as consultants as well as teachers. Also, in contrast to mainstreaming, the primary responsibility for the education of students with disabilities in an inclusive environment rests with the regular classroom teacher rather than the special education teacher. This does not, however, mean that special educators have no direct involvement in the education of these students. It simply means that the ultimate responsibility for the education of all students in a classroom resides with the classroom teacher in charge.

For inclusion to work, educational practices must be child-centered. This means that teachers must discover where each of their students are academically, socially, and culturally to determine how best to facilitate learning. Indeed, child-centered teachers view their role more as being facilitators of learning rather than simply transmitters of knowledge. Therefore, skills in curriculum-based assessment, team teaching, mastery learning, assessing learning styles (and modifying instruction to adapt to students' learning styles), other individualized and adaptive learning approaches, cooperative learning strategies, facilitating peer tutoring and "peer buddies," or social skills training are important for teachers to develop and use in inclusive classrooms. Soffer (1994) emphasizes that these are not just good special education practices, but are good practices for all teachers.

The remaining term needing definition is full inclusion. Though many use inclusion and full inclusion interchangeably, others make distinctions. Those who advocate for full inclusion believe "that instructional practices and technological supports are presently available to accommodate all students in the schools and classrooms they would otherwise attend if not disabled" (Rogers, 1993, p. 2). Consequently, according to full inclusion advocates, it is very seldom, if ever, appropriate for a special education student to be outside the mainstream classroom setting. On the other hand, there are inclusion supporters who believe that numerous intervening variables make such an "absolutist" stand to be dangerous and irresponsible. According to them, the unique nature of individual disabilities, the school context, the capacity of teachers in terms of training and experience, and the availability of resources should all be taken into consideration before determining appropriate placement. However, they believe that all schools should be moving toward the greater inclusion of students with disabilities into mainstream classroom settings.

To summarize these terms as used in reference to special education, mainstreaming generally refers to the physical placement of students with disabilities with their non-disabled peers. The assumption is that their disabilities are able to be accommodated with relatively minimal modifications. Integration is primarily a legal term connoting the actual assimilation of different groups together (disabled and non-disabled), rather than just the facilitation of physical proximity. This may require more than minor modifications. Inclusion is the more popular educational term referring to the move to educate all children, to the greatest possible extent, together in a regular classroom setting. It differs from the term full inclusion in that it also allows for alternatives other than the regular classroom when more restrictive alternatives are deemed to be more appropriate.

Next Page: Underlying Assumptions Surrounding Greater Versus Lesser Inclusion

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 4, Number 3, Inclusion: The Pros and Cons (1995)