Original Article September 2003 One Classroom for all Abilities: When Inclusion Works By Nancy Knisley Alex Pearsall’s life is pretty typical for a 7-year-old growing up in Howard County. He loves to visit his friends and enjoys computer games and Nintendo. He went to the YMCA day camp this past summer, and he likes to swim. He’s taken trips with his family to Sesame Place and King’s Dominion and has vacationed at the beach. He goes to Sunday school and sings in the church choir. And, when he starts the second grade this fall at Ilchester Elementary, he will ride the same school bus as the other neighborhood children and will be in the same classroom with them. But there’s one thing that isn’t typical about Alex—he has Down syndrome. More than ever, children with disabilities like Alex’s are being taught in inclusive classrooms alongside typically developing children, instead of in separate special education classrooms or schools. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with disabilities are entitled to a “free appropriate public education” in “the least restrictive environment.” In addition, more parents are vigorously advocating for the right of children with disabilities to participate in their community as fully as non-disabled children do—including learning in the same classrooms in their neighborhood schools. The idea has steadily gained support, not only among educators and professionals, but also among the general public. Alex’s mother, Jessica Pearsall, says that she views the right of children with disabilities to be included in their school and community as a civil right, noting that many of the arguments used as reasons to keep children with disabilities in segregated school environments are often the same as those that once were used to argue against the integration of black students: They won’t be able to keep up. They’ll bring test scores down. They’ll be unhappy. Their self-esteem will suffer. They might not be safe. They might be ridiculed. They’ll be more comfortable with students like themselves. She says, “My vision for Alex is very much like the rest of my kids. I want him fully included in the community and a contributing member of society, to participate in the same activities as others, including social activities.” In school, Alex has a full-time aide, and he’s given preferential seating. His work is modified—for example, he uses special lined paper for writing, and the first sentence in his daily journal is already written for him to complete. He gets extra time on tests and, very importantly, says his mother, he has a behavioral plan, which outlines what the school staff should do “for behaviors such as lying on the ground if he doesn’t feel like doing stuff.” The classroom modifications, supports and accommodations provided to students with disabilities such as Alex are an important part of inclusion, according to Carol Quirk, director of Professional Development Services at the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education (MCIE), a non-profit organization that promotes inclusive education for all students in Maryland by providing advocacy services to support families and support, training and technical assistance to schools. Quirk says, “Inclusion is opening the doors for all children to be participating members of a school community….Inclusion is not putting students with disabilities in settings where they are learning something inappropriate or where their behaviors or needs interfere with the rest of class….Inclusion means a program is designed so that all children learn together.” While Quirk says that good planning is necessary in order for inclusion to be successful, “the biggest barrier to inclusion is attitude—on everybody’s part.” She says school administrators play a key role. “Administrators influence the success of inclusion in their schools,” and when administrators believe in inclusion, the school will find a way to include any child. The experiences of Matthew Dotson and Ashley Meissner show how well inclusion can work—even for children with very serious disabilities—when parents and schools want it to. According to his mother, Sue Dotson, Matthew, who has cerebral palsy, was a pioneer in inclusive education in Howard County. “Matt is probably the first student with such significant disabilities to go this far in an inclusive setting,” says Dotson. Now 12 and a seventh grader at Wilde Lake Middle School, Matthew attended an inclusive pre-kindergarten program and has been in a regular classroom since kindergarten. “I was worried about the transition into middle school, which is rough even for typical kids, but we had a fabulous year,” Dotson explains. In the classroom, where he has a one-on-one aide, he either uses a wheelchair or a walker, a communicative device and assistive equipment. His mother says, “He is not on grade level, all of the curriculum is adapted for him.” The modified curriculum allows Matthew to work toward his goals while working in the same subject area as the other students. For example, if one of his goals is numbers recognition, he might pick out numbers, and other students will use those numbers to practice their math facts. In reading, he may be asked to identify characters and objects in the story that the rest of the class is reading. “We’re realistic,” notes Dotson. “Matt isn’t going to get a high school diploma, but we want him to get the most out of his environment.” “We fought to make it happen. There were naysayers along the way, but the schools have been overall very supportive,” she adds. “We’ve been blessed by having people stand behind us. The longer we did it, the more benefits we’d see…Maybe he could have gotten more intensive services in a more restrictive setting, but he wouldn’t have the socialization and friends.” Dotson says Matthew is “very social” and likes being with the other students. “He loves other kids and they love him. Some kids really get attached to him. It amazes me. When he went to middle school, I was afraid that kids would drop him, but they haven’t. His schoolmates from elementary school have taught other kids without experience with Matthew,” Dotson explains. As for how other students react toward Matthew being included, Dotson says, “Kids have grown up with Matt and don’t think anything of it. Their parents have told me that they are grateful that their children are in class with him, that their children learn from him.” Ashley, a 9-year-old who will be in the fourth grade at Howard County’s Fulton Elementary School this fall, has cerebral palsy, a seizure disorder and is cortically blind, which means that while there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with her eyes, her brain doesn’t seem to be processing visual signals. Her mother, Kelly Meissner, says, “We don’t know how much she sees. We don’t know where she is cognitively. She doesn’t speak and has no reliable communication system.” Meissner says that, although she once taught in a special education school, “I’ve always felt in my gut that inclusive education was the right thing to do for my child. It might not be the right thing for each family, but we wanted inclusion.” In the classroom, Ashley, who uses a wheelchair, has a one-to-one assistant and uses a lot of assistive technology such as switches and communication devices. Both her general and special education teachers received extra training, learning how to meet Ashley’s needs while allowing her to participate in what’s going on in the classroom. Her work is modified, and she, like Matthew, is taught material that allows her to work toward her personal goals in the same subject area as the other students. As an example of how Ashley’s goals are meshed with what other students are learning, her mother explains, “One of our primary goals for her now is communication….At this point her goals revolve around that. So, in geometry classes, she might learn to point out shapes.” Meissner says that Ashley has benefited from being around typical children. “We have discovered over the years that she responds better to typical peers than to adults. Sometimes her peers’ response to her leads to new discoveries about her—like the fact that she could recognize colors.” And the response of other children to having Ashley in the class? “Fantastic,” says Meissner. “The kids overwhelmingly love her to death. They fight over who gets to push her wheelchair. They figure out how to include her faster and better than teachers have.” BC For more information, contact the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education (MCIE), 410-859-5400, .