Stop isolating students with disabilities

Credit: Andrew Reed/EdSource

A special education teacher walks with her student down a hallway at a Northern California school.

The pandemic has given us all a taste of forced isolation. We have seen how people can feel lonely, scared and depressed.

Imagine that was your lasting experience.

For many students with disabilities, isolation is standard practice, as they are routinely educated in an environment remote from their non-disabled peers with little regard for the ill effects.

According to a 2020 Policy Analysis for California Education report, California has one of the lowest rates of enrollment of students with disabilities in the US, and students with disabilities are routinely placed in segregated classrooms and schools. To some extent, this is rooted in a preparatory system that separates students who train as teachers in general education and teachers in special education into silos at the university. As a result, attitudes to inclusion are rarely tested, and candidates pursuing a teacher’s degree do not gain the knowledge and skills they need to work effectively with students with disabilities. However, it is also because segregated classrooms in California’s K-12 schools have always been the way students with disabilities have been served with little incentive to change.

As an associate professor and chair of a department of special education, I have been deeply involved in preparing teacher candidates to comply with federal law mandating the inclusion of students with disabilities and advocating for the inclusion of those students in their schools. Yet in 2017, the U.S. Department of Education found that only 6% of California students with intellectual disabilities spent 80% or more of their school day in the general education classroom (the general metric by which we measure “inclusion”), while in Iowa nearly 64% of students with intellectual disabilities were present 80% or more of the day.

The data is even worse for color students. A 2019 report from the Thompson Policy Institute found that in California, inclusion rates were lower in districts with more black students, while districts with more white students had a proportionally higher number of students with disabilities.

Research has shown that all learners benefit when children with disabilities are included in their non-disabled peers. In my own research that paired young students with and without disabilities as reading buddies, interviews with the children found that students were able to identify how “buddies” helped each other academically and social. Participants explained it like this:

“We help each other with the book; he listens to what i say when i point to the book and when i get stuck on a word he says the beginning of the word [for me]†

And this way: “We help each other when someone feels bad, when he feels bad or I feel bad.”

One kid summed it up perfectly: “He’s my friend, so if he was playing alone, I’d say don’t be lonely, do what you love to do with me.”

Yet all too often pupils with disabilities are not educated in their neighborhood schools. Some districts create an “inclusion school” where students with and without disabilities are educated in classes together, but these are rarely the schools that the students with disabilities would have looked into or the peers they would have socialized with if they had not been identified as disabled . Essentially, they were recorded around someone else.

Of course, inclusion can sometimes be difficult if we don’t give children and teachers the support they need to succeed, but by investing in our students and involving them with their non-disabled peers, the long-term costs to society caused by keeping students with disabilities in segregated institutions. Here are some steps we can take to promote the integration of California students with disabilities:

  1. Require districts to assign students with disabilities to a general education class roster, so that each child is seen as a general education student first.
  2. Provide financial incentives in the state funding model for districts to significantly increase the percentage of students in general education classrooms for 80% of the day.
  3. Encourage districts to use some of the funds earmarked for improving outcomes for students with disabilities for the professional development of educators and administrators to support the inclusion of students with disabilities.
  4. Teacher preparation programs require to provide more substantive courses on working with students with disabilities in an inclusive environment for all teacher applicants.

Lisa Simpson is an associate professor and chair of the San Jose State University Department of Special Education and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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