As I have studied inclusive education from the perspective of an educator and researcher, I have had the opportunity to reflect upon my own experiences as a child. Because I lost my sight when I was 8-years-old, I have had the unique opportunity to experience general education – before I went blind – special education – in the year I spent learning braille, mobility and other necessary life-skills – and inclusive education – after I returned to my home district. I think educators frequently underestimate the stress a student feels when he or she is assigned to special education in a segregated class. This experience can be isolating, frightening (in some cases) and humiliating. The transition from special education to inclusive education, however, can also be very intimidating. The challenge exists in finding the perfect balance between support, separation and inclusion.
Due to my blindness occurring near the end of my second grade year, I began the third grade in a special education classroom at a separate school. This was deemed necessary, at the time, because my parents and teachers believed it was the best way for me to quickly learn skills, such as braille, that I would need. This transition was very frightening, however, for it meant that I was “leaving” the school where I had always studied with my friends and neighbors. I no longer felt like a part of my community and I lost contact with many of the children I had grown up with.
I did not return to my home district for three years, during which time I slowly made the transition from full special education to education in more inclusive classrooms, but still at a separate school. By the time I returned to my neighborhood school, so much time had passed that the experience was more like moving to a new city than like coming home. It was, again, very stressful and very frightening. I had become a different person, as had many of my former friends.
Was special education absolutely necessary in my case? When I lost my sight in 1992, my home school did not have the capacity or experience needed to educate a blind student. Unfortunately, special education was the best option available at that time. There is no reason, however, that my home district could not have provided me with an excellent education had they followed an inclusive model or had teachers trained in inclusive education. This would have meant finding a balance between the time I spent learning with my peers and the time I spent learning skills specific to my needs.
In some cases, “pull-out” or separated instruction for children with disabilities is absolutely necessary. In my case, learning how to use a cane was something that needed to happen privately, in an environment where I could have one-on-one time with an instructor. Similarly, a child who is learning speech therapy or another life-skill might feel embarrassed to practice in front of an audience of his or her peers. Even in the best scenario, sometimes separation is appropriate. Our goal should always be inclusion for as much of the day as possible, but we must recognize individual needs as well.
One of the most difficult challenges when we focus on the inclusive model, on the other hand, is finding the correct level of support to provide students with disabilities in the classroom. Too much support is as harmful as too little support. Without any support, a student will not have access to the curriculum. In this case, time is wasted and the student is neglected. Too much support, though, can also isolate a student.
In my first year back in my home district, a support staff spent most of her time in the classroom in case I needed help. She would read the words the teacher wrote on the blackboard or help me with handouts that I could not read myself. With an adult always close to me, however, other students were unwilling to approach me. The teacher was also free from having to make effort to adapt his lessons to my special needs. Rather than the teacher learning to read aloud what he wrote on the board, he depended upon my assistant to read. At the same time, other students did not feel the need to incorporate me into their groups because I had my own permanent partner.
During this time, I felt very embarrassed to have an assistant in the classroom and, as much as she helped, I did not want her to be present. This is common to other students with disabilities who I have spoken with. It is possible to be in an inclusive classroom and still be isolated as a result of too much support. One typical strategy, which I believe works well, is for a special education assistant to serve the entire class and not just a single student. It is also a very positive strategy to ask other students in the classroom to help fill the role of assistant. It is surprising how willing students are to offer aid to a classmate who has a disability, but only when they see that the need exists. If it is expected that an adult will help, other students are unlikely to intervene. In the end, isn’t inclusion really about teaching students how to live and work together? Part of this means teaching students how to help one another.
By the time I was in high school, my school had developed a smoothly functioning system of inclusion. Before each new class, I would meet with the teacher to discuss how they could make their teaching more accessible. Most often, this just meant reading materials they put on the projector or blackboard. The support staff who had formerly assisted me in class continued to provide aid by brailing handouts that teachers prepared, but she also began doing other work in the school. When projects were visual, I discussed alternative forms of completing assignments. Friends became my in-class assistants, helping me with materials that were not in braille. Where once I had been “the blind kid” in my school, I became “just another kid” in my school. This was the most important change of all and, I think, is an important victory for inclusive education.