The term inclusion describes the practice of teaching students with special needs in regular education classrooms whenever possible. In the United States and many European countries, inclusion is generally used to teach students with mild to moderate special needs. Today, regular education teachers frequently teach students with disabilities ranging from hearing loss to autism.
For many years, schools excluded children with special needs from regular education. Children with severe special needs often were institutionalised. Special needs children who were admitted to school were usually taught in special education classes aimed at a lower academic level than the regular curriculum. But shifting cultural attitudes toward the disabled throughout the 1950s and 1960s led to a series of laws enabling inclusion. Since 1976, the percentage of special needs students in regular education classrooms has grown. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 53.7 per cent of students with disabilities spent less than 21 per cent of their day outside of regular education classrooms in 2006
Two key federal laws govern inclusion in U.S. schools. The primary federal law is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law establishes the right of U.S. students with disabilities to receive a "free and appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment." Additionally, students who don't qualify for special education services under IDEA may still receive accommodations under Section 504 of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a federal law designed to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities.
Teaching special needs students in an inclusive classroom is challenging. However, there are several approaches that schools use. Many schools assign a regular education and a special education teacher to team-teach a class of regular and special education students. Such paraprofessionals as sign language interpreters and aides can help regular education teachers work with special needs students. Such strategies as differentiated instruction, cooperative learning and layered curriculum are used by regular education teachers when working with special needs students.
Pros and Cons
Inclusion in U.S. schools has improved opportunities for students with disabilities. A 2006 study showed that in inclusive classrooms, both students with disabilities and regular education students had more positive attitudes toward school. However, some criticise the way that inclusion is implemented, pointing out that students with special needs require special services beyond the practical capacity of regular classroom teachers to deliver. For example, high functioning autistic students, such as those with Asperger's Syndrome, may be quite capable academically, but have great difficulty socially in a regular classroom setting.
Inclusion in U.S. schools is well established and as an ideal is generally unquestioned. But its overall effectiveness remains unclear. The National Education Association supports "appropriate inclusion," but points out that appropriate inclusion must include such things as collaborative planning time, appropriate professional development and class sizes "that are responsive to student needs." Failing to provide these may complicate implementing the ideal envisioned by the lawmakers who established the right of students to learn in the "least restrictive environment."