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The Long Reach of Inclusive Education

March 31, 2016
Across the globe, many students with disabilities face challenges in accessing high-quality education. Longstanding misconceptions exist regarding the capabilities of children with intellectual, physical, sensory, and learning disabilities to benefit from formal education. These misunderstandings have, for generations, driven educators to deny these students access to formal schooling.

I recently had the great privilege to participate in the World Down Syndrome Day events at the United Nations. My role was to represent the research community and share evidence on how education shapes the academic and social development of students with disabilities. Citing findings from a set of quasi-experimental studies conducted in the U.S., Europe and South America, I argued that inclusive educational settings — those in which children with disabilities are educated alongside their typically developing peers — can confer substantial short- and long-term benefits for children.

As a researcher, I put my faith in evidence that is generated from rigorously conducted evaluations, reviewed by panels of experts, and shown to be replicable in multiple contexts. Research of this type of evidence offers useful guidance to policymakers, educators, and parents. It is how we know that the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms can support the development of disabled and non-disabled students.

Beyond numbers, evidence of the deeper benefits of inclusion is most apparent in the stories of people’s experiences.

Throughout the World Down Syndrome Day event, people with Down syndrome discussed how being included in their families, schools, and communities helped them build rich and fulfilling lives. Aleksandar Matovski, a high school senior from Macedonia, described how being included throughout primary and secondary school led him to develop deep interests in poetry, music, and karate. French disability rights activist Antoine Fontenit discussed how being included as a young person helped him learn the skills necessary to hold a job, live independently, and participate in the political life of his community. New Jersey teenager AnnaRose Rubright spoke of how lifelong inclusion in her school and community has both helped prepare her to attend college and a work full-time. Equally important, she noted how inclusion allowed her to form a group of close friends with whom to share the joys and struggles of everyday life.

A number of the speakers remarked how they and other people with Down syndrome have the same aspirations as everyone else. They want opportunities to learn, to work, to live independently, to make positive contributions to their community, to love and be loved.

The speakers at World Down Syndrome Day also spoke out about the challenges of exclusion. Speakers noted that their greatest challenges in achieving their goals are never chromosomal. Their greatest barriers stem from the ignorance, fear, and prejudice of non-disabled people.

Acts of exclusion can be intentional and obvious. One speaker described being excluded from a preschool program dance recital because the teacher felt concerned that she would not perform the routine correctly. Another speaker relayed a story of being separated from her date at the movies so that another, typically developing couple could sit together. Other times, speakers noted, discrimination can be more subtle and can be found in strangers’ curious stares and pitying gestures.

These personal stories aligned well with research evidence on the impacts of inclusive education. A preponderance of research evidence indicates that students with disabilities who are included in regular classrooms have stronger skills in reading and mathematics, have higher rates of school attendance, are less likely to have behavior problems, and are more likely to complete secondary school when compared to otherwise similar students educated in segregated settings. Among children with Down syndrome, there is substantial evidence that the amount of time spent with typically developing peers is associated with a range of academic and social benefits, such as improved memory and stronger language and literacy skills.

The remarks I heard at World Down Syndrome Day also show that true inclusion for people with disabilities must extend beyond the classroom and into the daily interactions between people with and without disabilities. The good news is that evidence suggests that inclusion can promote broader acceptance. Typically developing students who attended inclusive schools have demonstrated less prejudice, and patronizing, or pitying behaviors toward students with Down syndrome when compared to students who attended non-inclusive schools.

The reach of inclusive education is long — it both supports the development of skills and abilities for people with Down syndrome and contributes to creating an environment where they can use those skills to fully participate in their communities.