Parents of children with disabilities in the USA began forming advocacy groups to ensure access to education for their children during the 1950s. This opened school doors and led to the passing of the “Educational for All Handicapped Children Act” in 1975. To serve the needs of these students, a parallel special education system with its own practices, regulations, staff, teaching training approaches and assumptions emerged. This has created a dual-track education system where some feel the starting point for students with disabilities is an assumption of dis-belonging.
To counteract this concern, the idea of a single restructured inclusive education system where classrooms are able to meet the diverse educational needs of all students has emerged. This type of system is hard for many educators to imagine and it is impossible to create what cannot be imagined. Personal beliefs affect what can be imagined and so it is important for educators to analyze their beliefs to gain greater insight in to possible barriers to creating this single-track inclusive system.
Lalvani set out do to just this. He interviewed 30 teachers, 20 general education and 10 special education, to gain insight in to their beliefs about learning, intelligence, student abilities, and placement options for students with disabilities. He concluded that teachers conceptualized inclusive education in one of three ways.
One group of teachers saw inclusion as a privilege for students who meet specific criteria related to type of disability, functioning level, cognitive ability, and behaviour. Behaviour was most frequently listed as a reason for students to be educated separately. This group of teachers believed that intelligence is biologically based and that students with disabilities are inherently different. Their beliefs aligned with a medical model of disability that involves identifying deficits or limitations and working to treat them. On the larger classroom level, they saw curriculum as rigid and felt that students who could not fit in academically or socially needed to be moved to environments where they could fit.
A second group of teachers saw inclusion as a compromise. They believed that students who are included experience social gains but it is at the expense of learning academics. They believed that the academic needs of these students could only be met in segregated spaces with specialized, highly qualified teachers. They tended more towards seeing special education as a place rather than a service. They also expressed a belief that it took special characteristics to be able to teach this population. Interestingly, a majority of the teachers that fell in to this group were special education teachers.
The final group saw inclusion as a social justice issue that was about more than just students with disabilities. This group was the smallest group and all but one member of the group were general education teachers. They felt that inequalities in society create variability in learning. These teachers believed in the social model of disability and saw disability as one aspect of human diversity. They were concerned with larger institutional practices and policies that serve to oppress and marginalize and questioned practices related to assessment and how knowledge and learning are defined.
The inclusive education movement is a dynamic and complex social change movement. Educators and educational training programs need to be vigilant in analyzing personal belief systems about disability, special education and conceptualizations of inclusive education. Both biological and socio-cultural components must be critically examined to ensure that we are not unknowingly sending messages of dis-belonging, perpetuating oppressive practices, or creating barriers to either social or academic learning.
Lalvani, P. (2013). Privilege, Compromise, or Social Justice: Teachers' Conceptualizations of Inclusive Education. Disability & Society, 28(1), 14-27. doi: 10.1080/09687599.2012.692028.