Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

Inclusion Is The New Inclusion: On How Accidental, Reverse, and Authentic Inclusion Are More Alike Than Different

soapboxAccidental Inclusion

I’ll set the stage (so to speak)…

It is the intermission to our school’s spring musical and there is an opening scene with the whole cast that is about to begin. The music starts, the lights go on, and everything goes according to plan. Except that there is an extra cast member, dressed in plain clothes, singing and dancing along with his peers. For a moment, we think this was on purpose. The boy, who spends most of his day in a self-contained classroom, was standing with the front row performers as he attempted to copy them in their every move. What was so interesting was…I heard no snickering…no laughter…no angry parents saying he ruined the show. In fact, a number of people came up to me and said how cool it was that no one was doing anything…excepting letting him be who he was for a moment. I happen to agree with that sentiment. The “how” he got up there in the first place is not as important as the “why” he was there…he wanted to participate…he wanted attention…he wanted to belong.

Needless to say, he was not supposed to be there and as quick as his moment of glory came…it went during the scene change. I was talking with a colleague after the show and she noted that a student had come up to her to describe what happened and they remarked (and I am paraphrasing)…”Ms. (so-and-so), it was straight up inclusion.” I believe the student is correct to a certain degree… we can experience what inclusion feels like and looks like in these moments but for this particular student, inclusion is fleeting. He would have been better served to have been included from the beginning, a valued part of the cast even if it was for only as long as he was up on stage. Inclusion is not about the amount of time spent with typical peers…it is about being missed when you are not there. But there go my ideals getting in the way of appreciating a nice moment. Let’s look at another form of inclusion commonly called “reverse inclusion.”

Reverse Inclusion

Recently there was a story about a “reverse inclusion” program and Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) elective course for juniors and seniors that was started by a special education teacher at her high school.

It’s reverse inclusion,” Englehart [the special education teacher] said. “The common philosophy is for special education students to go into general education classes. This approach brings typical peers into my classroom setting.”

Englehart goes on to describe the outcomes of the after school club and elective course, which would “introduce the history and interaction of individuals with disabilities”.

It’s not forced interaction, it’s very natural,” she said. “My kids aren’t sitting by themselves anymore during lunch, and they’re going over each other’s houses on the weekend. It’s more than I ever thought it would be.”

She also describes the interaction as heartwarming.

“You can’t imagine what its like to watch a football player who’s popular and has a girlfriend, to feed a Thanksgiving dinner to a student in a wheelchair,” Englehart said.

To be fair, this teacher is promoting what I believe to be friendships…which as many of you know is difficult if not impossible when students with disabilities spend most of their time educated separately from their typical peers. For many, “reverse inclusion” is an opportunity to increase peer social interaction opportunities while controlling the environment to best meet the needs of the students with disabilities. I would prefer the typical student be referred to “peer-models” as opposed to “positive role models”. That may be splitting hairs too much though…it is hard to know the nuances of a program when someone else is interpreting it through different eyes. Even in this less ideal situation of “reverse inclusion” there are still benefits to be had from friendships, enhanced self-respect, increased awareness and responsiveness, and increased communication skills (Schoger, K.D. 2006).

In my own practice, I have taken a different approach. For most teachers, the practice of “reverse inclusion” is only for social interaction, but I prefer it to be an opportunity to develop lesson plans and curriculum based on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). We have been fortunate to work with willing general education teachers who accompany their class to my self-contained classroom where we have the chance to co-teach lessons on a various standards. The process is not perfect, but as we learned in our teacher training…collaboration is key. So if reverse inclusion is not ideal…what is the ideal situation for inclusion? In my opinion it is authentic inclusion, or to put in another way…intentional.

Authentic Inclusion

Let me make myself as clear as I can be.

My intention is not to make people “feel bad” that they are not where I am philosophically.

My intention is to change how we think about inclusion and see it is as a possible future and one that we can have a hand in creating right now. Inclusion has more to do with our frame of mind than any specific program that we create. My point is that whether it is 15 minutes, 3 hours, or all day every day…inclusion should be intentional. It should be on purpose.

I read this the other day from a chapter written by Marsha Forest and Jack Pearpoint and I think it hits the nail on the head:

Our critics say, “But it SHOULD be natural. It SHOULD be spontaneous.” Who made that rule, we wonder? When people say, “It should happen naturally,” we start to worry. We do not believe anything in life just happens naturally. Nor do we believe we can make everything we want happen. Life just does not work that way.

We do believe that we can set the stage, create conditions for good relationships, good health, and optimal learning. Then we can hope and continually work for the best possible outcome (Nesbit, 1992, pg. 70-71).

So after all my soap-boxing, persuading, and exhorting…at the end of the day…we all just do the very best we can. Inclusion is the new inclusion. Let’s start by changing our mindset.

I will leave you with one final thought.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

― Maya Angelou

Thanks for your time and attention.


Nesbit, J. (1992). Natural Supports in School, at Work, and in the Community for People With Severe Disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Schoger, K.D. (2006). Reverse inclusion: Providing peer social interaction opportunities to students placed in self-contained special education classrooms. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 2(6) Article 3. Retrieved [3.21.13] from

Photo Credit: aconaway1

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Tim Villegas

Founder and Curator-At-Large at Think Inclusive
Tim Villegas has worked in the field of special education and with people with disabilities for over ten years. Tim has turned his passion for blogging and promoting ideas about inclusive schools and communities into his own website, He believes that we can create a bridge between educators, parents, and advocates (including self-advocates) to promote ideas, innovation and inspiration to change our world to be more accepting and value each and every human being. Tim lives with his fetching wife and three adorable children in Marietta, GA.
  • This riveting article went straight to my heart as a mom with its simple truth that we are all a part of the whole and there should be a place for everyone to participate as a valued member in a truly inclusive environment. Sharon Fialco – author: Starabella Musical Series of Inclusion for children.

  • Tim – I wrote about this particular article on reverse inclusion too but I think I took it harder than you did =D
    I definitely believe that the teacher had the best intentions when she created the program. And I agree with you that it is a good opportunity to increase social interactions – which is extremely importance to a well-balanced, healthy life for anyone. I guess my anger stemmed from the thought of someone using my daughter just to make themselves look better to others or to put down “volunteered with disabled kids” on their college applications. What I mean to say is, I want whoever spends time with her, to do so because she’s fun & loving & thoughtful (or whatever other great reason), not just because they feel like they’re doing her a big favor & gathering kudo points for themselves for sitting with the handicapped kid…It’s such a fine line!

    • Tim Villegas


      I think part of me really wants this program to be successful because I am an educator and there is a bias there…but I share your concerns because they are my concerns for my own classroom. I know that I do my very best to balance how I approach facilitating relationships at my school. I go to great lengths to explain that my kids are just kids…and we should get to know them just like anyone else…by spending time with them. Not necessarily helping them… That is certainly a way to get to know someone but it does not end up being reciprocal sometimes. Another thing that is difficult about this…is that it is hard to judge the character of the students in this program simply by reading a article. It would be different if my own children were participating… Inclusion is very much a “feeling” as it is a set of criteria. On the whole…I am not saying that reverse inclusion is a substitute for authentic inclusion. To me it can be a stepping stone to authentically inclusive schools….but we MUST keep moving forward instead of saying, “we’re done”.

  • Ali

    Tim, thank you for sharing that. I didn’t think of a lot of what you wrote. I do agree that this is not really “reverse inclusion.” But for me, especially because it was an experience at such a young age, it was such a special way to get to know other kids my age who had severe and profound disabilities. I learned that they worked tirelessly to achieve the same things to achieve so much that most of us take for granted. I learned that Seth was a lovebug and was so positive and Max loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and had more of a temper if you didn’t do things just as he liked. I learned that although the kids in this class couldn’t talk, they had plenty to say. Most of my classmates had no clue what went on in the TLC (they called the self-contained special ed. room the “Therapeutic Learning Center”), and it was nice to tell them.

    I know that you can see the end goals for inclusion and all that that can mean, and this is definitely not that. But I do see it (from the perspective of someone who is more of an “outsider” than are you in the world of inclusion) as a step in the right direction. For a lot of these kids, it might be their first experience ever with kids with special needs. Hopefully, they’re not just seeing this as something they can say they did or something to put down on their resumes as volunteer work. Hopefully, it’s much, much more.

  • Becky

    Tim, thank you for this thought provoking article. It made me smile being the mother of 4 children. I know this is simple but just thought of the phrase, Treat others as we want to be treated ourselves as I read it. Great perspective and you have a great heart.

  • great thoughts. the more kids are allowed to just do their thing, i.e inclusion, the more “normal” those kids seem because they are just doing what kids do. my daughter’s school practices this where the special ed kids come into her classroom for rotations once a week so my daughter and her friends get the opportunity to hang with them and see that we aren’t all that different from each other.

  • Melanie

    Your post brings up so many of the important points when including all students in a school. I have been a special educator for over 14 years. Although my class is considered “a self-contained” classroom, I have had students who were fully included all day to students who spend a selected amount of time to students who spent their entire day in the classroom (except for lunch/recess).
    I think the thing I have come to realize over the years is that the a school has to have the climate that ALL teachers can teach and that ALL students can learn. This is especially the case this year as our district began a new reading program and I was going to teach a reading block. My group is made up of IEP and non-IEP students of varying abilities, but all are struggling readers. The students all work together, play together, and learn together. The students who might not normally be exposed to UDL have that opportunity in my classroom. The opportunity to have students come into my classroom, for them to see that I am a teacher, for them to see that the students are learners has been a powerful this year. It has also extended into other shared classroom activities where it isn’t “your going to the special ed room” it is “we are splitting up into 2 groups, one will start with Mrs. P and one will start with Mrs. B” as well as students interacting with peers they would not have normally.
    Inclusion should be purposeful, it should be meaningful, it should be full of supports. I love your term “authentic inclusion”. If we want the students to gain the most, the situations have to authentic to ALL the students. Although I still struggle with how to make the best decisions and set up the best situations for my students, I am thankful that their are individuals out there who I can discuss such topics with. Thanks for making me think!

    • Tim Villegas


      Great thoughts! We need to get away from the idea that “my inclusion is better than your inclusion”. Don’t get me wrong…inclusion without support is not inclusion…it is simply bad teaching. The key is what you say in your comment…support for ALL students to succeed. This way…no matter what the context…everyone is expected to learn…everyone is valued. Of course…my dream…my ideal…would be that everyone is educated with everyone. I see schools like Hope Technology School and the Ideal School in Manhattan and I wonder why it is taking so long for public education to follow suit. My feeling is that high-stakes testing is the culprit. If we were not so focused on everyone being on grade-level and making high test scores…who knows how much progress could be made. That is a rant for another time. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Tim, you are a convincing advocate for what is certainly a worthwhile cause. I enjoy your thoughts, energy, and commitment to your mission. Keep advocating and convincing!

  • I simply wished to just take a few minutes and tell you that I enjoyed reading the write-up.
    I honestly don’t think most people know what amount of energy that goes into creating a good blog. I’m sure this will be kind of random but
    it really bothers me sometimes. Anyways great article.

  • Wow, this post hit me right in the heart. As a former elementary teacher, I hate to admit I’ve never seen inclusion “work” because the special ed and regular ed teachers at the school I worked at were never trained on how to make it work. I wish there were more advocates like you out there, penetrating these small and rural schools to help get a strong inclusion program going and WORKING for the benefit of the students.

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