Why Mixing Students With and Without Special Needs Is a Good Idea

Children with disabilities are often ostracized from their peers. Inclusion in the classroom helps prevent this from happening.

Canadian mom Anne Belanger was outraged after seeing how separate her 7-year-old son Miles Ambridge was in the annual class photo. Without inclusion in the classroom, it's common for kids with developmental and physical disabilities to be left out. (Photo: msn.com)

Jun 25, 2013
Vanessa Romo is a journalist and public radio reporter. Her work has aired on 'Morning Edition' and 'Marketplace.'

The collective beehive of the Internet recently went crazy about a second-grade class photo. In it, a teacher with a warm smile stands beside 22 kids sitting neatly on a set of bleachers. Off to the far right, in what could be considered the Siberia of the frame, a boy in a wheelchair sits separated from his peers.

He’s beaming from ear to ear, and craning his neck toward his classmates, as if to ensure he makes it in the picture.

The consensus from the online/viral world: It’s a heartbreaking photograph that captures the pervasive discrimination against people with disabilities.

The boy is Miles Belanger and he has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that attacks nerve cells in the spinal cord.  He’s never been able to walk, but the disease has no impact on his cognitive ability.

“Look at the angle that he was in,” the boy’s mother, Anne Belanger, told The Province. Fighting back tears she continued, “He’s ostracized. He wants to be part of the gang so much.”

Belanger told The Star, “Being picked on and being set aside is horrendous and this was what was happening.”

The fear that a child will be picked on or excluded from the “gang” is a concern that haunts most parents when sending their kids off to school. But for parents of children with special needs, this fear is more likely to become a reality. The effort to prevent them from being stigmatized and left out is what led to the inclusive education model.

Inclusion in the classroom means that students with special needs are not segregated in separate schools or classrooms but are instead placed in mainstream classrooms with children of a similar age so they all learn together.

“It’s a win-win situation for everybody,” said Margo Pensavalle, a professor at the USC Rossier School of Education, whose expertise includes special education.

She said, “Because everybody brings something to the classroom and that gets to come into the big exchange. And I think from that pool of abilities and differences, everybody gets to learn.”

The advantages of inclusion in the classroom by mixing in students with special needs, regardless of the severity of a student’s disability or socio-economic status, has been well documented, whereas special needs kids who remain in segregated classes fall further behind academically and socially.

The National Longitudinal Transitions Study (sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education) showed that when students with disabilities spend more time in a general education classrooms, they have fewer absences; experience fewer referrals for disruptive behavior; and are more likely to score higher on standardized reading and math tests, which benefits the entire student body and school administration.

Pensavalle said students who may not be classified as special ed, but have difficulty learning or struggle academically, also make big gains. That’s because inclusive classrooms are smaller and they’re often lead by two teachers, or a teacher with additional support staff, in order to provide everyone with personalized attention.

“In these cases, everybody is able to take advantage of [the extra help] and learn more completely in a more supportive environment,” said Pensavalle.

Other positive outcomes extend into adulthood. Inclusion, especially in vocational education courses, can lead to a paying job, living independently in non-segregated housing, and a broad social network.

Not all inclusion programs are alike, and the amount of time a special needs student spends in a general-education class ranges from a single subject such as art or music to an entire day spanning all general education subjects.

Berkeley Unified School Board President Karen Hemphill said there’s no “one-size-fits-all model.”

That’s why, despite the full-inclusion policy employed by the district, Hemphill insists that assessment and an adequate teaching staff are keys to successfully implementing inclusion in the classroom .

“It’s about knowing exactly the extent of a child’s ability—where they are and what they can do—and having the right person there, with the right training, to help them,” said Hemphill.

For example, a fifth-grade class may be studying arithmetic but depending on their grasp of math concepts—addition, multiplication, fractions or decimal—they are broken up into smaller groups or work one-on-one with a special education specialist to solve problems suitable for their skill set. Educators call this differentiated teaching.

Students who require additional specialized attention, such as speech therapy or behavioral counseling, are pulled out of class for a portion of the day.

How children are treated in schools often mirrors how they will be treated in later life.

Hemphill said the district tries to keep inclusive classrooms limited to about 26 children—with no more than a third who are classified as special education students. The district’s more experienced teachers, with the help of at least one instructional aide, usually lead these classes.

It’s a system that is working well thus far, but it becomes more difficult as students enter high school because of the course-credit system, said Hemphill. That’s why “high school is when participation in social activities, sports, and after-school programs becomes a lot more important.”

Educators and social justice advocates argue that inclusion in the classroom for students in their earliest years promotes increased opportunity and greater understanding of differences for all involved.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network  says, “How children are treated in schools often mirrors how they will be treated in later life...A society that separates its children [during their school years] is likely to maintain those separations indefinitely, reinforcing attitudinal barriers to disability in all aspects of life.”

“Learning alongside people who are different is essential to becoming a global citizen and that’s what we should be striving for,” said Angie Bergeson, cofounder and principal of The IDEAL School of Manhattan, a private elementary and middle school built on the principles of full inclusion in the classroom.

In the third grade, IDEAL students take an “identity class,” where they talk about themselves, their talents, and disabilities. It is a pivotal moment in their development, said Bergeson, and it builds tolerance and acceptance of people who are different.

“Neuro-typical” students are taught to make eye contact or lean in when speaking with a classmate with Asperger’s. If a student is easily distracted, perhaps due to ADD or ADHD, a classmate can bring their attention back to the conversation by touching a knee or a shoulder. Students are taught to repeat themselves without becoming frustrated. They’re communication tools that will last a lifetime, said Bergeson. 

Special needs students are also matched up with a “circle of friends” that take on the roles of buddy, class partner, and advocate. They look out for one another, and together they ensure the child is not excluded from activities.

That’s something Anne Belanger wishes her son had on the day the school photo was taken. She said no one took the time to consider how to include Miles in the picture.

Still, this story may have a happy-ish ending.

Since the picture went viral, the photography company agreed the separation of Miles from his class was a mistake and has offered to retake the photo.

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