Is Inclusion an Unreasonable Ideal?

In some circles, the idea of full inclusion for all, in all situations, is seen as an ideal.  It's easy to see why this is the case: the concept of equal access is extremely democratic.  When applied to concepts such as suffrage or civil rights, it's hard to argue with such an ideal.

But once you dig down even a little bit, the idea of full inclusion for all becomes much trickier.

Should "all" children be granted the right to play on elite ball teams? 

Should "all" teens be admitted to highly competitive universities?

Should cultural organizations such as museums be required to make their programs and exhibits intellectually accessible to "all," even to people who, for example, have disruptive behaviors or who lack the cognitive ability to grasp complex abstract ideas?

Most public organizations are more than willing to provide "separate but equal" opportunities for intellectually or developmentally challenged people to take part in their offerings.  Little League runs a special Challenger program for just that purpose, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art runs a Discovery program for a similar group.

There's no question in anyone's mind, however, that these separate offerings do not represent full inclusion.  After all, when a group of people is segregated from the mainstream, they are -- by definition -- NOT included.

Clearly, full inclusion of people with developmental and/or cognitive challenges requires compromise at some level.  Either the people being included have a second-rate experience, or the experience is changed in some basic ways to make a first rate experience possible. 

As soon as the experience is changed to meet the needs of those with developmental and/or cognitive challenges, there will be some who feel that the experience has been dumbed down, oversimplified, or otherwise lessened in value.

I can easily understand both perspectives in this particular debate. 

While full inclusion is, no doubt, an ideal, it seems that it is not always meaningful, comfortable, or even appropriate -- either for the general public or for the disabled community.  But once you agree that there are circumstances in which full inclusion may not be a good fit, you start down a slippery slope.  Is there ANY general community setting in which full inclusion is the right fit?

This important issue is not easy to resolve, and I can't offer a simple resolution. 

From a practical perspective, there will always be organizations and situations that are unable to accommodate individuals who don't "fit."  Yet that reality makes no difference when it comes to physical barriers: even Harvard and the Guggenheim are required to provide elevators, braille, and accommodations for the hard of hearing and deaf community.  How -- if at all -- can that requirement be expanded to those with autism or related disorders?

Your thoughts are welcome!


  1. Uggh! I posted a long-winded, involved comment and it disappeared (hate when that happens). My basic gist was that we should be cautious when demanding inclusion, but we should be able to expect it...does that make sense? For instance, most excellent, forward-thinking schools have well thought out educational plans that really benefit any child who walks or rolls through the door. But when it comes to making demands for inclusion in settings that are less than optimal, who does it really benefit? My son has been turned away from more than a few schools because they did not feel they could meet his needs. Could I have demanded or even legally strong-armed the programs to educate my son? Yep! But, why? I feel like if a school or program doesn't want to serve my son, they more than likely aren't serving anyone well. I know that there are parents who demand inclusion for various reasons from convenience to blazing a path for the future generation of those with disabilities. But even after the trail is blazed, how many of those programs are actually worthwhile? Bottom line: I believe autistic individuals have the right to be included in any program where they feel included and are able to learn and grow with everyone else.

  2. And here is the problem, as I see it: if you "feel included and are able to learn and grow with everyone else," then -- for whatever reason -- you, as an individual, don't need much in the way of special supports for that to happen. My son, for example, can be included with zero extra supports at an art museum, or in a small musical ensemble, or at a church or at the movies. But in public school, he needs so many supports and so much help that "they can't provide for his needs."

    So in essence he's not "included" in the commmunity, he's simply a community member who needs no special inclusion.

    And as regards schooling, he's in the separate but equal category (which is working very well for him, by the way)!

    Neither of these represents intentional and active "inclusive policies."

  3. I do believe that when we talk about is as Paula Kluth says, with the big "I", for everyone. Inclusion is the ideal. But that does not negate that it is sometimes hard to do. When it is done benefits everyone. In doing takes into account the needs of that particular student. There is no magic wand that I can wave and have "inclusion" just happen. It is something that everyone needs to want to happen. I start from the assumption that learning side-by-side with your peers and having access to the general curriculum is better than learning in segregated settings. There are far too many students who are placed in segregated settings that simply do not have to be.

    Something that I feel is missing in your post is the wants of the person who is to be included. That I believe is the difference between comparing inclusive education in public schools to the examples that you propose about "elite ball clubs" or "highly competitive universities". Everyone has the right to an education...which means access to the general curriculum with their peers. For those examples that you describe (disruptive behaviors and cognitive abilities) I believe in the school setting there are ways to make accommodations that are real and meaningful for that student. In other contexts outside of school...we should be looking at whether that student has a desire to participate in those "extracurricular" activities. If a person with autism is fascinated with art from the MET...shouldn't they be allowed to access that art just like everyone else? even with accomodations? If they have no interest in soccer at the Y...why force the issue?

  4. Tim: from what I have seen, most of the time, if a person with autism actively wants to be included at a venue or in an activity, he or she is able to be a part of that experience with relatively little accommodation.

    In other words, if you're able to think and articulate the idea "I want to go spend some time enjoying the Monet collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York," then you're most likely going to have little trouble doing so. Sure, you might flap a bit -- but that's not going to stand in the way of other visitors' enjoyment, nor will it create issues for the guards or the staff. And that's where the issues arise.

    When it comes to school, while adults may think about "right to education," few kids actively want to be in the environment. They'd MUCH rather be out in the world, which (depending upon your point of view, may be a better education).

    But setting that aside, I don't fully understand what's meant by "accommodations that are real and meaningful for that child." Once you're out of about 2nd grade, school in the United States is verbally based, there are multiple transitions every day, and demands are pretty intense.

    If a child is in a typical classroom, but is pacing, making noises, and unable to follow or engage with the typical curriculum, what's really going on? The general education teacher can't address her needs. Accommodations would require a completely different style of education, with very different content. Yes, she's in the same room as her peers, but in what way is she authentically included?

    And how do you reconcile that child's right to education with the other children's need to focus on the teacher and the assignment? If you have a child with even mild attentional issues, having kids who need to pace, growl and flap can be very tough indeed.

    1. Lisa,

      I completely agree. The way our (the US) school system is right would be virtually impossible to have a student (as you have described them) be authentically included in a typical classroom where there is no varience in the curriculum or method of teaching. But...I think that you would agree that in a classroom where there is flexibility, where curriculum is "universally designed", the possibilities are there for authentic inclusion. All of this depends on the level of support that is available. What kinds of technology are available? What level of support staff is in the classroom? Are the students strengths being utilized? There are other questions as well...

      You ask a great DO you reconcile all children's right to an education? I believe it is possible to have authentic inclusion happen and still reach all students where everyone learns. There are schools doing that right now (Hope Technology School in Palo Alto, CA). I don't think the United States education system is ready to makes the changes necessary for it to happen on a large least not yet. Until then, I'll hold on to the ideal that "Inclusion" is possible...and try my best to practice it in my own school and classroom. I have been a self-contained teacher for nine years and each year have included students with severe and profound disabilities in general education. It is not perfect...but I work with what I have. I would love to have a longer discussion about this over email (or even a phone call). I have written extensively about my thought on inclusion on my website: I would love for you to take a look and we can continue our conversation.

      Thanks for taking the time to write a response to my reply. All the best, Tim

  5. Ugh, I wrote a long comment and then it was lost! Anyhow, here's my comment from TPGA as I am pondering this issue right now. My son experience a different perfect storm and had an awful experience with "inclusion" (Which was faulty/broken and not inclusion at all.)

    TPGA comment "I'm struggling (processing) acceptance versus inclusion. It SHOULD NOT be a dichotomy, but unfortunately it often is (at least in our family's experience). My oldest did not find confidence and friendship until I took him out of a [faulty] inclusive environment because of extreme anxiety, homeschooled, and then actively sought a so-called segregated school environment where there were other kids with various disabilities (a transitions classroom within the main middle school). He connected with all of the kids, and found one child that he not only experienced acceptance but a real unconditional friendship. All that said, I fight so hard for an inclusive community instead of getting stuck on just a [faulty] inclusive school setting (especially since it is middle is that a traumatic school environment to begin with). Now, my little one is in a coteaching classroom (about 50% IEP students, 50% no IEP, 1 reg ed and 1 sped teacher) and is experiencing so much personal and academic success. Eventhough this option wasn't available when my oldest was at a different elementary school (that district claimed it "doesn't work"), I pushed forcfully for full inclusion for him, which was to his detriment. But I believed so blindly in inclusion in the school setting, I didn't recognize what faulty and broken "inclusion" looked like and that inclusion didn't necessarily mean acceptance. No matter how hard we fought for supports and accommodations, he experienced so much trauma and in return minimal acceptance. Curious about the opinions of autistic adults based on their school experiences. I was so gunho about inclusion in school until I realized that if I had so-called typical kiddos, I wouldn't want them in an inclusive school setting either because the school system is so broken. So instead I practice and preach regarding inclusive communities and just do what's best for my kids in the broken school system. (This is me babbling because this is how I process, lol!) Any input welcome, as all opinions help me think things through."

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Lisa Jo Rudy