Inclusion Works! Inspiration and Information to Counter Arguments Against Inclusive Education for Students with Down Syndrome: Part II
By Cheryl M. Jorgensen, Ph.D., Institute on Disability, University of New Hampshire/UCED
Editor’s note: Part 1 appeared in DSN, Vol. 32, #2, 2009. If you weren’t an NDSC member at that time, contact the Center to request a copy.
Sam’s Club recently presented employee Nate Archambeau with an award for 12 years of exemplary service. When he graduated from Concord High School in 2001, after being included in general education classes, Nate was one of the first students with developmental disabilities in New Hampshire to march across the stage with his classmates. Two years ago, Nate moved into the townhouse he shares with his brother. Nate was ready years ago, but he had to wait for his dad to be ready to take a chance for Nate to live on his own. Nate belongs to a self-advocacy group and contributes countless hours each year giving speeches and mentoring other young people with disabilities. Nate still is looking for the love of his life.
When Nate was born, his parents were told the same thing that many parents of children with Down syndrome were told 30 years ago: “He’ll need constant care. He may never go past the developmental age of three. He’ll need special schooling. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment — don’t expect too much. Maybe he’ll surprise you.” Nate and his parents proved them all wrong and their experience ought to inspire other parents of children with DS to hold high expectations and strive for an “ordinary life” in the community.
Despite 30 years of research and the personal experiences of thousands of children that support inclusive education, parents and professionals still face roadblocks based on outdated arguments against inclusion for students with DS. In the first part of this article, I addressed the arguments “some students are just too disabled,” “students need to learn functional skills outside the general education classroom,” and “there is no harm in not including children.” In this article, I’ll provide a rationale for why two other common arguments against inclusion are weak or unfounded.
Argument #1: Students need special instruction in a special place delivered by special staff.
Some argue students with DS and other developmental disabilities — those who are labeled as intellectually disabled, who have autism or experience multiple physical disabilities — can’t benefit from instruction in a general education classroom and need a special curriculum taught by special staff in a special education classroom. Wehmeyer and Agran (2006) propose the best place for students to access the general education curriculum may be the general education classroom. Research bears this out by showing a variety of important educational outcomes are positively correlated with the amount of time students with disabilities (regardless of the “severity” of their disability or label) spend in general education classrooms. These include: higher scores on standardized reading and math tests, fewer behavior referrals, better attendance and a greater likelihood of achieving post-high school independent living and employment (Blackorby, Chorost, Garza, & Guzman, 2003).
Certainly placement in general education classrooms is not enough. Effective curriculum, instruction, and supports for students with disabilities who are in general education classes are defined by the following characteristics (Jorgensen, McSheehan, & Sonnenmeier, 2009):
- Based on common content standards for all students.
- Presented in a variety of accessible formats including written information at appropriate reading levels, and in formats as indicated on a student support plan (e.g., video, picture/symbols, actual objects, demonstrations, orally, etc.).
- Individualized by developing personalized performance demonstrations for some students.
- Reflects the learning styles of all students in the class by using visual, tactile and kinesthetic materials and experiences.
- Prioritizes the use of research-based strategies for increasing student achievement, such as:
- Identifying similarities and differences
- Summarizing and note taking
- Reinforcing effort and providing recognition
- Homework and practice
- Nonlinguistic representations
- Cooperative learning
- Setting objectives and providing feedback
- Generating and testing hypotheses
- Questions, cues and advance organizers
- Is provided in multiple formats such as individual, pairs, small groups and whole class.
- Are provided within the general education class and other typical environments to enable the student to participate in and benefit from the general education curriculum and other inclusive learning opportunities and activities.
- Are defined by an individualized student support plan, and may include: physical, emotional, and sensory supports; adapted materials; assistive technology and AAC; personalized performance demonstrations; personalized instruction; and individualized grading and evaluation plans.
Take into consideration the student’s sensory needs.
What does this look like in the classroom? Brianna was a ninth grader with DS enrolled in a general science class. Once a week Brianna’s special education teacher met with Mr. Barclay, the science teacher, to find out what he was teaching the following week. During this 15-minute meeting, they discussed: science standards; instructional materials he would use; assessments that would be given; and general instructional routines (e.g., whole class lecture, small group work, individual seatwork, using the Internet for reference) that would occur. The special education teacher took this information back to the other members of Brianna’s team, including her speech-language pathologist and occupational therapist. They planned the supports Brianna would need to fully participate in and learn from the general education teacher’s instruction.
During a Periodic Table of the Elements unit, Brianna’s team asked themselves two questions: “What supports does Brianna need to fully participate in and learn the general education curriculum?” “What are naturally occurring opportunities for Brianna to work on functional and IEP skills within the classroom and other inclusive school and community environments?”
Brianna used balloons and a graphic organizer to depict the structure of the helium atom. She used a variety of supports during instruction and assessment including: enlarged text; animated clips from the Internet showing protons, neutrons, and electrons in the helium atom; fill-in-the-blank worksheets (created with Worksheet Magic®) along with a word bank of scientific terms taken directly from the textbook, and word prediction software (Write Out Loud® that helped her compose her lab report. What did she learn? Brianna worked towards achieving the state science standard of “use models for illustration and understanding,” she had multiple opportunities to solidify her membership and relationships in the class and she improved her communication and organizational skills. Will Brianna eventually become a scientist? We don’t know the answer for her or for the other students in the class. But all students have learned valuable knowledge and skills that will serve them well in their adult lives.
Argument #2: Students will never make “real friends” in general education classrooms.
I recently did a Google search for friendship programs for students with disabilities. One site described a friendship between a student with a disability (Christine) and a young woman who volunteered to hang around with her to get community service credit towards fulfilling her high school graduate requirements (Lesley). Here is what the website reported:
‘November Buddy Pair of the Month: Christine and Lesley.’ Christine and Lesley have been friends for three years now. They share a beautiful relationship that truly illustrates the true meaning of friendship and serves as an example to all of us about the power of the ‘Friends for Life’ program. When we saw the two of them at this year’s Meet and Greet, it brought tears to our eyes as the two of them gave each other a real hug and asked how each other was after a summer apart. Every time I saw Lesley in the summer, all she could talk about was her ‘best buddy’ Christine and how excited she would be to see her in the fall. It is times like this that we are able to really realize the importance of true friendship and the impact it has on both the student buddy and the buddy.
After reading a few such anecdotes, I had to ask myself:
- Who are Lesley’s friends when the buddies program is not having a special, organized event?
- Do typical kids get awards for being one another’s friends?
- Do real friends see each other once a year at a “Meet and Greet?”
- Should we feel good when students with disabilities get “real hugs?”
I think, perhaps, that students with DS deserve more. Carol Tashie, Susan Shapiro-Barnard, and Zach Rossetti (2006) wrote a book called Seeing the Charade: What We Need to Do and Undo to Make Friendships Happen. These authors suggest that if we want our children to have authentic, reciprocal friendships, the first thing to do is address barriers we have, perhaps unwittingly, created to naturally developing social relationships, including:
- Students being “partially included”
- Not presuming competence
- Over-reliance on 1:1 assistants
- Mistaking peer support for friendship
- Creating “friendship programs”
- Seeing disability as “deficiency”
- Parents and educators not working together
- Thinking that friendship isn’t a school’s responsibility
- Inaccessible transportation and public spaces
- Implementing strategies before eliminating barriers
These barriers must be addressed before creating strategies for supporting students to fully participate in the social activities and environments in which friendships develop (Kennedy & Itkonen, 1994).
In part one of this article, I suggested that parents and professionals who find they have 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 like students without disabilities than they are 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.
I would suggest the following additional strategies for parents or professionals who are facing these or other arguments against inclusive education.
- Join your school’s “School Improvement Team” or “Response to Intervention Task Force” (RtI). RtI is based on the idea that all students benefit from universally designed instruction that accommodates students with different learning styles. It’s important for parents and professionals who are concerned about students with disabilities to be part of all school improvement conversations.
- Identify a school in your area that successfully includes students with DS in general education classes and schedule a visit for a team from your school. Arrange for your principal to talk to their principal, for your speech pathologist to spend time with their speech pathologist and for your classroom teacher to shadow a general education colleague for a day. The ride to and from your visit can provide valuable time for discussion and shared reflection.
- Attend a national conference with others from your school to learn about best practices in inclusive education. Three wonderful events, to name just a few, are the annual PEAK Parent Center Conference on Inclusive Education (peakparent.org), the annual TASH Conference (tash.org), and the University of New Hampshire’s Autism Summer Institute (iod.unh.edu). Parent-teacher organizations or state Developmental Disabilities Councils might be willing to partially fund attendance for your school’s team if you commit to sharing information you learn with other parents and professionals upon your return.
In conclusion, if working to include students with DS seems an uphill battle against old prejudices and myths and you are tempted to give up the struggle, remember the wisdom of an old Japanese proverb: “Fall seven times, stand up eight.”
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.
Jorgensen, C. M., McSheehan, M., & Sonnenmeier, R. (2002). Essential best practices in inclusive schools. Durham, NH: Institute on Disability, University of New Hampshire. Kennedy, C., & Itkonen, T. (1994). Some effects of regular class participation on the social contacts and social networks of high school students with severe disabilities. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 19, 1-10.
Tashie, C., Shapiro-Barnard, S., & Rossetti, Z. (2006). Seeing the charade: What we need to do and undo to make friendships happen. Nottingham, UK: Inclusive Solutions.
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.
 Pseudonyms are used for the students and teachers in this article.