Inclusive Education: Integrating Special Needs Children within Mainstream Schools

PE blogI have been asked this question many times. Sometimes by people who were well meaning  and a lot of times by those who were not. People have asked me this under the guise of concern and curiosity but I was always able to gauge what they really wanted to know. My fellow teachers in my school were extremely unhappy when the ‘Right to Education’ made it mandatory for them to have children with special needs in their classrooms. They used to complain about the extra burden, lack of facilities and infrastructure and for not being trained to handle children with special needs. I used to tell them to forget about all that and just accept. Acceptance paves the way for a lot of problems and solutions can be found within its realm. It was not just fellow teachers; there were parents too who thought having special needs children in the class would affect their children’s behaviour and ‘these’ kids should go and study in special schools.

One of the common misconceptions was and still is that children with special needs are not educable and it is a time wasting exercise to put effort into teaching them. I believe this is a very dangerous thought for teachers to have, because if you are not convinced yourself, then the chances are you’d never be able to fully support the inclusion.

Now back to the question, why do parents want to put their special needs children into mainstream schools? The answer is not one dimensional and frankly, many special needs parents have not had the best experience with inclusion. Many of them home-school their children based on their unpleasant experiences with the school system but other optimistic parents still send or want to send their kids to school. Let me be clear, academics is the last thing we have in our mind. So what makes this decision for us?

It is our RIGHT: Yes, the children with special needs are as much a part of the society as other children are. It is their right to be treated in the same way. Just like all the children going to the school are not alike and have varied abilities and skills, the same applies to our little special brigade as well. They all come with their own skills, strengths and challenges and it is their right to get the same treatment that their ‘neuro-typical’ counterparts do.

Research suggests it is for the best:  Inclusion is a natural extension of the philosophy that embraces diversity and celebrates individual differences. 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, have been well documented, whereas special needs kids who remain in segregated classes fall academically and socially further behind. One area in which children who enjoy inclusive education show long-term benefits is in their social-emotional development. The bottom line is that “regular, sustained interaction” in inclusive classrooms offers children with disabilities opportunities to observe, develop, expand, and generalize their social skills (Strain, McGee, & Kohler, 2001, p. 357). One research study concluded that children with social and communication delays show “marked developmental progress on intellectual and language measures” in comparison to their counterparts segregated from typically developing peers (Strain & Bovey, 2011,p. 134).

We parents want it: In an ideal world where educators would be well trained and accepting, resources would be plenty and nobody would treat our children differently; no parent would home school or send the children to so called special schools. But even in this less than ideal world I want my child to be a part of the society she has to live in all her life and to equip her to deal with the challenges rather than keeping her in a cocoon. My daughter, who has Down’s Syndrome, goes to a mainstream school with her brother and I can’t begin to describe the feeling when I wave them both goodbye in the morning. I have always wanted them to feel equal and get equal opportunities, and inclusion seems a good way for doing that!

It helps ‘typical’ children: There is strong evidence of the positive effects of inclusive education on students who do not have disabilities. “Both research and anecdotal data have shown that typical learners have demonstrated a greater acceptance and valuing of individual differences, enhanced self-esteem, a genuine capacity for friendship, and the acquisition of new skills,” according to Long-Term Effects of Inclusion, from the ERIC Clearing House on Disabilities and Gifted Education.

“Inclusion improves learning for both typical and special need students. When youngsters who have learning problems are included, students without disabilities often do better academically. A teacher is more apt to break instruction into finer parts or repeat directions if he or she has a youngster in the room who deals with deafness, blindness, or a developmental disability. Also when children are exposed to inclusion at an early age and consistently throughout their lives, they are more likely to approach children with disabilities with acceptance (Rafferty et al., 2001) and are less likely to view a disability as an impairment.” – Education World, ‘Special Education Inclusion’

It is the law: Yes, it is the law and not abiding by it is an offense. It is important for everybody to know that the RTE (Right to Education) Act was passed in 2009 and it is against the law to discriminate against special needs children and deny them admission. It is the responsibility of the schools to hire special educators and have the necessary infrastructure for the inclusion. It is true that many schools still don’t care, but some do.

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.”

Inclusion is still a dream for many parents. We look forward to the day when it will not be a struggle or a fight to put our children into a mainstream school. The day when a child will be treated with respect, dignity and care irrespective of his disability and when the school, parents and the teachers would promise to do the same – that is when the true inclusion takes place.

Re-published with permission from the blog of ParentEdge, a bi-monthly parenting magazine that aims to expose parents to global trends in learning and partner with them in the intellectual enrichment of their children. This blog was written by Deepa Garwa A teacher by profession and a writer by choice, Deepa Garwa is an opinionated blogger, a self advocate on disabilities and a parenting enthusiast. She believes that by thinking out of the box parents can help their children reach their best. A mother of two, (a soccer crazy son and a special needs daughter), Deepa writes about her parenting experiences on www.twominuteparenting.com.