Inclusion Works! Part 1

Inclusion Works! Inspiration and Information to Counter Arguments against Inclusive Education for Students with Down Syndrome – Part 1

By Cheryl M. Jorgensen, Ph.D., Institute on Disability, University of New Hampshire/UCED

In the late 1980s, Tory Madison’s[1] son Charlie was in third grade when she enrolled in a yearlong leadership institute for parents of children with significant disabilities in New Hampshire. The institute’s goal was to support parents to re-capture their dreams for their children, learn about best educational practices, and develop advocacy and community organizing skills. Tory soon decided to do everything she could to assure Charlie was a fully participating member of a general education class in his home school, learning academics alongside his classmates without disabilities. Tory asked Charlie’s educational team to capitalize on natural opportunities to teach functional skills. During high school, Charlie had summer jobs alongside a typical classmate. He marched at graduation with his class. Between the ages of 18 and 21, the school district provided staff and support for Charlie to learn independent living skills in his own home and city, and to explore a variety of jobs through internships and volunteer activities. Today, Charlie lives in his own apartment with his brother and another roommate, just celebrated 10 years of working at Sam’s Club and has a full life in the community.

Despite the lessons that have been learned over the past 20 years from successfully including thousands of other students like Charlie, parents and professionals still face roadblocks based on outdated arguments about inclusion for students with Down syndrome. Here are three common arguments against inclusion and rationale for why they are weak or unfounded.

Argument #1: Some students are just “too disabled.”

Some argue that students with DS and other developmental disabilities are “too disabled” to learn in a general education classroom. IQ and other tests given to people with significant disabilities are significantly flawed in their ability to identify people’s gifts and talents and the supports they need in order to be successful; so how do we decide if a student is capable enough to benefit from inclusion and instruction in general education academics?

In 1984, University of Wisconsin researcher Anne Donnellan, described a principle called “the least dangerous assumption.” She said: “The criterion of least dangerous assumption holds, that in the absence of conclusive data, educational decisions ought to be based on assumptions which, if incorrect, will have the least dangerous effect on the likelihood that students will be able to function independently as adults.” Furthermore, “we should assume that poor performance is due to instructional inadequacy rather than to student deficits.” Pretty powerful words!

Let’s apply this principle to Charlie, whose mom insisted he be included with his typical peers in every classroom lesson and activity. With the presumption that Charlie could and would learn, his educational team developed instructional, communication, sensory and behavioral supports. Now imagine if a new brain scan was developed that could determine conclusively that, in fact, Charlie didn’t learn very much academics? Was harm done? Charlie was taught both academic and functional skills and seems to have a pretty good life as a happy, healthy, employed adult. Therefore, we might judge that no harm was done.

If Charlie’s mom had believed he couldn’t learn academics, shouldn’t be included, and should only be taught functional skills, he might have been placed in a self-contained class with other students with significant disabilities. The goal of his education might have been to live in a group home and work in a sheltered workshop with few opportunities to develop relationships with his typical classmates. Now, what if the new brain scan showed Charlie was smarter than anyone expected, could have learned academics and moved on to life and work in the community?

Most people say that not presuming Charlie as competent did cause him harm. They say:

  • We lost an opportunity to teach Charlie things he could have learned.
  • We didn’t include him as much as we could have and he did not develop a wide network of typical social relationships.
  • He missed out on the typical high school experience.
  • We might have negatively influenced his self-esteem by treating him as if he were not smart.
  • We narrowed the possibilities for his future career or postsecondary education.
  • We wasted a lot of money pursuing the wrong educational program.

Attitudes about students’ competence are at the heart of many arguments against inclusive education. To presume incompetence could result in harm to our students if we are wrong and is not the least dangerous assumption.

Argument #2: Functional skills are more important that academics to students’ futures.

Parents of children with DS are sometimes told it is more important to learn functional skills than academics. To weigh the merits of this argument, consider the functional skills students with developmental disabilities are usually taught.

  • Telling time and using money
  • Brushing teeth and other personal hygiene
  • Recognizing safety signs
  • Cooking
  • Making beds
  • Crossing streets
  • Job skills like stocking shelves or assembling widgets

Each of us does most of them every day, so they do seem like important things to learn. But we do them to participate in the important things that make up our real lives – having satisfying relationships, earning a living, enjoying our leisure time and giving back to our communities. Functional skills do not, in and of themselves, make our lives interesting and productive, yet they form the core of many self-contained educational programs.

Functional skills are important, but acquiring knowledge and passion for lifelong learning makes our lives interesting! A student with DS may not learn the whole Periodic Table of the Elements but enjoying experimentation and discovery may mean a future job in a chemistry lab. A love of Shakespeare might inspire an actor or writer. There are literally hundreds of opportunities to learn functional skills that make life interesting and rewarding now and in the future: texting a friend, creating a Facebook page, knowing how to throw a great party, being part of a sports team and taking pride in victory while being gracious in defeat.

The goal of an American education is not simply to produce “worker bees.” It is to educate people to participate in our democracy by understanding the lessons of history, the logic and magic of science and math, the joys of art and music, and the power of words to inspire and communicate. Do students with DS deserve less?

Argument #3: There is no harm in not including students.

In the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Congress found: “Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible, in order to…be prepared to lead productive and independent adult lives… “

Several large long term studies have also found – even when controlling for factors such as students’ socio-economic status, age, gender, and severity of disability – that there is a positive relationship between the amount of time students with disabilities spend in general education classrooms and a variety of positive outcomes, including (a) higher scores on standardized measures of reading and mathematics; (b) fewer absences from school; (c) fewer disciplinary referrals; and (d) improved post-school outcomes such as enrollment in post-secondary education, independent living, and gainful employment (Blackorby, Chorost, Garza, & Guzman, 2003; McGregor & Vogelsberg, 1998; Wagner & Blackorby, 2004). Leading researchers have postulated that the general education classroom is the optimal place where access to the general education curriculum occurs (Wehmeyer & Agran, 2006). Furthermore, no research studies conducted since the late 1970s have shown an academic advantage for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities educated in separate settings (Falvey, 2004).

Bolstering these positive outcomes of inclusive education are studies that show segregated education has negative consequences including: poorer quality instruction in academic skills (Wheelock, 1992); poorer quality IEPs (Hunt & Farron-Davis, 1992); lack of generalization of learning to regular environments (Stokes & Baer, 1977); disruption of sustained opportunities for social relationships (Strully & Strully, 2003); a decrease in confidence by general education class teachers for teaching diverse learners (Giangreco et al., 1993); and disruption of Maslow’s theory that all human beings need to belong before they can achieve (Kunc, 1992).


Arguments against inclusive education are often rooted in firmly held attitudes and information that is prejudicial and inaccurate. Parents and professionals who find themselves in the position of having to justify inclusive education might engage in the following activities to educate themselves and develop supportive allies:

  • Know and be able to express your own deeply held values
  • Emphasize that children with DS are more alike than different
  • Understand the law and be able to cite research
  • Visit inclusive schools and help connect professionals from your school with them
  • Engage outside experts for professional development and consultation
  • Start an inclusive education task force in your school that includes other like-minded parents and professionals, as well as people who are not supportive of inclusion
  • Involve adults with disabilities in all your efforts so that they can share the wisdom of their experiences

Remember, the least dangerous assumption is to presume competence, and we must make decisions now that give students the best chance in the future for a typical life in the community.


Blackorby, J., Chorost, M., Garza, N., & Guzman, A. (2003). The academic performance of secondary students with disabilities. In M. Wagner, C. Marder, J. Blackorby, R. Cameto, L. Newman, P. Levine, et al. (Eds.), The achievements of youth with disabilities during secondary school. A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study–2 (NLTS2; pp. 4-1 – 4-14). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Donnellan, A. (1984). The criterion of the least dangerous assumption. Behavioral Disorders, 9, 141–150.

Falvey, M.A., Blair, M., Dingle, M., & Franklin, N. (2000). Creating a community of learners with varied needs. In R. Villa & J. Thousand (Eds.). Restructuring for caring and effective education (pp. 186-207). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Giangreco, M.F., Edelman, S., Cloninger, C., & Dennis, R. (1993). My child has a classmate with severe disabilities: What parents of nondisabled children think about full inclusion. Developmental Disabilities Bulletin, 21(1), 77-91.

Hunt, P., & Farron-Davis, F. (1992). A preliminary investigation of IEP quality and content associated with placement in general education versus special education classes. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 17, 247-253.

Kunc. N. (1992). The need to belong: Rediscovering Maslow’s hierarchy. In R.A. Villa, J.S. Thousand, W. Stainback, & S. Stainback (Eds.), Restructuring for caring and effective education: An administrative guide to creating heterogeneous schools (pp. 25-39). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

McGregor, G., & Vogelsberg, R. (1998). Inclusive schooling practices: Pedagogical and research foundations. A synthesis of the literature that informs best practices about inclusive schooling. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Stokes, T. F., & Baer, D. M. (1977). An implicit technology of generalization. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10, 349-367.

Strully, J. & Strully, C. (2003). Inclusion: A road worth taking. Impact 16(1), 1 & 27-29. Minneapolis, MN: Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Minnesota.

Wagner, M., & Blackorby, J. (2004). Overview of findings from wave 1 of the special education elementary longitudinal study (SEELS). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Wehmeyer, M.L., & Agran, M. (2006) Promoting access to the general curriculum for students with significant cognitive disabilities. In D.M. Browder & F. Spooner (Eds.), Teaching language arts, math, and science to students with significant cognitive disabilities (pp. 15–37). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Wheelock, A. (1992). Crossing the tracks: How untracking can save America’s schools. New York: The New Press.

[1] “Tory” and “Charlie” are pseudonyms.