Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

How an Inclusive Teaching Experience Changed My Life

How An Inclusive Teaching Experience Changed My Life

By Katherine Lewis

“All means all.”

The way educators define inclusion and include all children has certainly changed over time. Many general education teachers consider “inclusion” to mean that children with disabilities are educated in regular education classrooms and that most services and support are provided outside that classroom.

The School Wide Integrated Framework for Transformation Center (SWIFT) is a national center based at the University of Kansas and built on an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs. At the 2013 PBIS Leadership Forum on Equity in Education, SWIFT described its mission:

Assisting districts and their schools to engage in a transformational process in concert with their families and communities to achieve equity and excellence for all students:

  • Excellence as determined by measurable student social and academic gains
  • Equity as defined by the measurable capacity of each school to deliver the intensity and range of supports to meet the needs of each student and extending to their family and community
  • “All” as defined as the measurable integrated active engagement of all students and their families in the learning process. (SWIFT Center PBIS Leadership Forum 2013)

SWIFT defines inclusive education as meeting the needs of every child—struggling readers, gifted, talented, living in poverty, students with disabilities, culturally and ethnically diverse students, and those with the most extensive needs.  Simply put, “All means all.”

I recently had the opportunity to teach at a knowledge development site, a school selected by the national SWIFT Center as a model of inclusive education, and it was a life-changing experience, both professionally and personally. Because this is such a unique setting (there are currently only six knowledge development sites in the nation), a snapshot of this particular school may be in helpful in understanding my experiences.

West Elementary (a pseudonym I will use to protect the privacy of the school) offered fully inclusive schooling for students from transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. In serving students with disabilities, West mirrored the representation evident in our nation, with about 15 to 20 percent of students with disabilities in each classroom.  (In 2010, about 1 in 5 Americans were classified as persons with disabilities.) West Elementary valued collaboration, differentiated instruction, family partnerships, and instruction based on constructivist theory. The school aimed to provide evidence-based teaching strategies that were tailored to meet individual development. West also served as a theory-to-practice site for students at a nearby university’s nationally recognized school of education. Needless to say, the school was frequented by many visitors, including researchers, professors, student teachers, practicing teachers, administrators, school district representatives, paraprofessionals, parents, and members of the community. The doors were nearly always open and West Elementary thrived on the frequent collaboration and volunteerism among members of the community.

So why was this experience so life-changing? The year I applied to teach at West, I was a relatively seasoned educator eager for challenges and new experiences.  My past teaching experiences had honestly seemed more integrative (and even exclusionary) than inclusive in nature. I must admit that, although willing to try it, I had serious doubts about this full inclusion model. I was concerned about whether or not it was possible to meet the needs of all students in one classroom community. I worried that the students who had special needs may not receive all the services and support they needed. I also worried about the gifted and talented students—would they be appropriately challenged or would they disappear in such an environment? I wanted to be wrong, so I dove right in and tried it out.

The first few months were challenging. I was faced with teaching the most diverse group of students I had ever taught. I had a new student who previously attended small schools for students with special needs and this was his first time in a general education setting. He struggled a lot at first. He had boundary issues, little socialization, and very little experience communicating with his peers. There were times I felt frustrated or at a loss for how to help each student succeed. I was grateful for my special education certified co-teacher and the highly collaborative campus community. We all worked together to meet the needs of the students and I became less frustrated and overwhelmed. Even though I was not a special education teacher, I learned how to support my students with the highest needs. The specialists (i.e. occupational, physical, and speech therapists) were part of our classroom community. They would come in to provide services to both students with and without individualized education plans. The specialists were valuable resources and they showed me how to be cognizant of and address possible areas of struggle for every student.

In about the third month, as we neared our first holiday break, I reflected on my experiences. Here are a few things I realized:

  • Co-teaching and collaboration are invaluable practices.
  • I was wrong. It is possible for every student to receive the services he or she needs.
  • Kids are naturally compassionate and helpful.
  • Educational equity through inclusive practices is indicative of a socially just system and full inclusion is necessary to ensure the civil rights of all individuals.

Throughout the rest of the academic year, I was amazed at how much each of my students accomplished. In less than six months, my new student had progressed from communicating in a few broken words to sharing his thoughts in several, impassioned, complete sentences. I was blown away by his progress! During my end of year parent-teacher conferences, I was allowed to showcase the unique progress each student made, rather than focusing solely on standardized test results and determining whether or not a child fit into the “3rd grade product” box. It was as if each of my students had an individualized education plan and was allowed to progress on his or her own timeline. How liberating! I knew the parents believed in and trusted me as an educator. I also realized that our community was a remarkably strong, dedicated, and compassionate bunch.

At the beginning of the year, I had worried so much about my students with physical or mental disabilities. I worried they would be mistreated, picked on, or “babied” by the other students. What was most surprising is that we all learned, as a community, how to support one another in the most appropriate ways. The students learned about each other’s unique personalities and strengths, and they spent so much time helping each other learn that many of them seemed to become experts at scaffolding learning and encouraging inquiry among the group.

After this invaluable experience, I began to question the purpose of education. Had the current market-based education system blinded us to the simple fact that education is a social science and students are individuals in their own right? I began to wonder why educators still questioned and even spoke out against more inclusive environments. On a more personal level, the experience “opened my eyes” and I began to think of inclusive education as a civil rights issue. I knew, from this point forward, that I was an advocate for inclusive practices.

I had so many questions. What was it about this site that worked well? What is the essence of the phenomenon? Who are the teachers that thrive at full inclusion schools and what are their honest beliefs about inclusion? With a plethora of research questions burning in my mind, I decided to begin the intense (yet satisfying) educational journey of pursuing a Ph.D. in School Improvement.

As a doctoral student and research assistant, I spend the majority of my time researching, reading, writing, and researching some more. With this luxury of thinking time, I often reflect on my experience teaching at a full inclusion school. In nine years of teaching across three different states, it was this experience that impacted my life the most.


Brault, M. W. (2012). Americans with Disabilities 2010: current population reports. Household Economic Studies, 70-131.

(2015). Retrieved 16 January 2015, from

Katherine LewisKatherine Lewis is currently working as a doctoral research assistant and is a first-year student in a school improvement Ph.D. program in Texas. She entered the program with nine years of experience teaching kindergarten through third grade in Texas, Colorado, and California. During this educational journey, Katherine taught in diverse school environments, including: a rural, Title I school, an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme, and (most recently) a fully inclusive charter school. In efforts to improve schools through transformational leadership, Katherine is interested in addressing social justice research questions, particularly advocating for full inclusion practices as equitable education. She continues to contribute to discourses focused on transformational leadership, the emancipatory potential of education, and inclusive practices as necessary for a socially just public school system. Katherine can be contacted at

Until All Means All: Redefining Inclusion

Until All Means All: Redefining Inclusion

By Lydia Wayman

If you have a moment, do a search for “inclusion in education.”  When I did the same search, I quickly discovered that the definitions fell into two categories: those that focused on the inclusion of disabled students (see why I use identify-first language here) among their non-disabled peers and those that took the broader perspective of educating all students in the same environment in meaningful ways.  The difference might not seem important.  After all, if a student has no diagnosis or learning issues, why would he or she even have a need for inclusion?

I was very strong in academics.  I could read by age three, and I finished the 4th grade math curriculum in the second week of kindergarten.  I was the youngest student in my district’s history to enter the gifted program, where IQ tests showed my verbal IQ to be near the test ceiling. In high school, I combined my junior and senior years and went to college at 17.  But… that’s only one side of the story.

As early as second grade, I had issues with teachers.  In third grade, I was bored and asked to be taught from advanced curriculum, but the IEP team determined that I was “lazy” and “not completing work” as it was and thus would not be permitted to do advanced work.  In the report, my state scores (99th and 98th percentiles) and IQ score are on the same page as the comment from one teacher that “Lydia is an average learner,” which shows the bias and the fact that I butted heads with that teacher. In ninth grade, when I broke down in the orchestra room, my teacher said that it was no wonder other kids were mean to me, and that if I would just be “a little less maniacal,” that they wouldn’t be so cruel.  At an elite, private school as an undergrad, several my professors said I was rude and disrespectful.  I asked my parents how I could possibly disrespectful… didn’t my complete panic and shame over the fact that I even made the professors feel that way show that I respected them very much?

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 21, in my final semester of college.  Things got significantly worse for several years following my diagnosis, including a failure to succeed under the social and sensory demands of student teaching.  I left my placement after three weeks, but I was offered an alternative assignment and still graduated, though without a teaching license.

I am now one term from completing my M.F.A. in English and creative writing.  My graduate experience has been altogether different than my lifelong struggle as an academically-capable but often very unaccepted student.   I finally realized that my graduate program sees me as an individual… they value my strengths, but they don’t discount my weaknesses.  I am registered with Disability Services for medical issues in order to substantiate any need for absences, which I have never needed to use, but I am not registered under any needs related to autism.  As each term begins, I introduce myself, and since we all discuss our backgrounds and current work, it is easy to drop the hint, since I say that I’m an “autistic advocate.”  My professors have been completely positive about this and I have yet to experience a negative interaction with any of them.

I did a mentoring course where I assisted with an undergraduate composition class last term, and when I told my mentor that I am autistic, his response was that he was excited to have a different perspective in his classroom.  I excelled in the course, which left me feeling a bit redeemed from my undergraduate experience in student teaching.  My success came from three things: five years of growing up, an academic environment that plays to my strengths in writing (since it is online), and a school that values every student and strikes the balance between maintaining high standards while understanding individual needs.

I am extremely grateful to have found the school and program.  I believe in the school’s mission and support of all students to the point that my aspiration is to go on to teach in the school’s online undergraduate program.  But I am left wondering… why did it take until graduate school to find this environment?

A definition of inclusion that only focuses on disabled students is problematic because the reality is that every single student, no matter how bright, has weaknesses.  Those weaknesses may have nothing to do with academics, but no person alive is a uniform set of strengths.  When I was young, I was frequently (oh, how frequently) accused of being “smart enough to know better” or “too intelligent to make this (often social) mistake.”  Teachers in elementary, middle, high school, and even college classrooms were so focused on my academic abilities that they were completely blind to the fact that my very real disabilities were affecting me in important ways—socially, emotionally, and even physically.

There are certainly different ways to attack this problem.  We can educate teachers about autism and ADHD and learning disabilities and every other possible disability that an unidentified child might have.  We can also make teachers in gifted programs aware of disabilities to counteract the “not our kids!” attitude.  We can spread the word on college campuses and encourage awareness campaigns so that young adults are aware that some people get to college-age and beyond without being identified.  But, whenever possible, I like to approach problems from a broad enough perspective so as to help as many people as possible… so, I think the simplest solution (or one part of a solution) is to change the way we talk about inclusion.

It’s about students in special programs, and students who work with the aid of a paraprofessional, and those who are quiet but work hard, and students who act out, and students who seem to be academically brilliant but socially clueless, and those who excel in every way and seem to have no weaknesses at all….

In fact, that last student does not exist.  None of us are uniformly strong, and when teachers see a student as “perfectly capable” but then blame an 8-year-old for her own struggles, it helps no one… least of all the child.

Inclusion isn’t about “those” kids or “these” kids… it’s about understanding that intelligence takes many forms and finding ways to accept every one of them in the classroom.  It’s about reaching, teaching, and including all kids.

Photo Credit: NASA/Flickr

Lydia WaymanLydia Wayman is an autistic young adult and advocate. She has her B.S. in Elementary Education and will finish her MFA in English and Creative Writing in November of 2014. Lydia combines professional knowledge with personal experience to reach parents and professionals through her blog, books, articles, and speaking engagements. She also works part-time at a nonprofit autism resource center and enjoys mentoring girls on the spectrum. Her message is that people are awesome not despite their differences but precisely because of them.

Will You Stand Up For Inclusion?

The Power Of Inclusion

This video is of Aaron Devries and his Tedx talk on The Power of Inclusion. Check out the 7 minute speech that brought everyone to their feet.

Inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education classroom is powerful. It not only benefits those students with disabilities but also their peers and the whole community.

A passionate advocate for full inclusion for students with disabilities, DeVries shares stories of failure and success. He shares that we have come along way but there are still things that need to be done. In the end he wants everyone to Stand Up for Inclusion!!!

The following is a transcript of the video.

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved music. She loved listening to the radio, she loved to sing but most of all she loved it when her dad sang to her before bed time. I love you my daughter, I love you my daughter, I love you my daughter, my daughter I love you. You’re beautiful my daughter, you’re beautiful my daughter, you’re beautiful my daughter, my daughter I love you. One day her choir teacher told her that she’d be singing in a historic theater in her hometown. She was so excited she came home and memorized the songs in two days. The time for the concert came and they went off without a hitch she sang like an angel and she had fun on stage with her friends. Her parents enjoyed seeing her on stage but their heart ached a little bit. The reason their heart ached a little bit is that she uses a wheelchair to get around and the stage wasn’t handicap accessible. So instead of her getting up onto the stage by herself her mom had to place a chair on the stage while her dad picked her up and carried her and put her in the chair on the stage. Those concerts took place five weeks ago at the Paramount Theater, the girl in the story is my daughter and I am the dad who carried her up onto the stage.

My job is not to save the princess like Mario does in Super Mario Brothers. My job is to help the princess become the best princess she can be and I believe inclusion has the power to do just that.

Inclusion is defined as the “act of including, or the state of being included,” We have always included our daughter wherever we go in the community. If we go to church she comes to church, if we go to the 4th of July Fireworks she comes and watches them with us. If we go to the fair to look at the smelly farm animals she’s there smelling them right with us. But little did we know the power of inclusion was already working.

As she has grown older she has been in girl scouts and had the opportunity to ride a horse for the first time. For the last two years she has been in Miracle League T-Ball where she goes once a week to Rochester to play with other kids with disabilities. On Wednesday nights she goes and joins her Jr. High friends in a class at our church. There has been several occasions over the years where people come up to us and say “It is so nice you always include your daughter in whatever you are doing, you are great parents.” I usually say “Thank you” but at the same time I am thinking “of course we are including her isn’t that what parents are supposed to do?”

But then I remember that the treatment for those with disabilities has improved greatly over the years. Our daughter is able to live at home with us because of the laws that have been passed and the supports that are in place. She is able to attend a neighborhood school and she is able to be in a general education setting with her peers for most of the day. And every Friday morning at 7:10 AM she is at school singing her heart out with her friends in choir.

But even though we have come a long way there is still more that needs to be done.

Right now at this very moment there are students with disabilities who are segregated in self-contained classrooms.
Right now at this very moment there are students with disabilities who do not go to their neighborhood school because either it’s not handicap accessible or the special education program is in a different building.
Right now as we speak there are students in elementary schools learning life skills they are folding laundry, they are picking up recycling and sorting it and they are copying papers while their peers are in the classroom learning math and reading.
Right now as we speak there are students with disabilities who have no choice but to ride a special education bus because that’s the way the bus company wants to do it.

As much as I would love to tell you the things I just shared were fiction sadly they are not.

Inclusion in a school setting is when special education students are included with their peers in the general education classes. When students with disabilities are fully included all students benefit. Inclusion is powerful. As our daughter has been included more in the regular classroom we have witnessed the power of inclusion first hand. She has been invited to birthday parties, she’s had a sleepover after the homecoming game, but most of all she likes when she gets those phone calls from her friends, they talk about their day at school, they talk about boys which makes this dad a little nervous, but the best thing she likes to talk about is her favorite singer Justin Bieber.

In addition to seeing the benefits our daughter receives studies have shown inclusion is powerful for those students without disabilities as well. Students perform better in an inclusive setting, students without disabilities also gain life skills they gain acceptance, they gain patience, and they gain respect.

Inclusion is Powerful!!! The power of inclusion lies in its ability to bring everyone together in such a way that each person’s abilities can shine through.

“A community that excludes even one member is not a community at all.”

Every person has a purpose, every person has a gift, every person has something they to contribute to the community.

If we exclude people, if we segregate people, if we look down on them because they are different we are no community at all.

I believe that if we include students with disabilities from the beginning all of the students will grow up to be adults who value each others differences and they will work together to transform the world into a more inclusive place for those with disabilities.

If you are already standing up for inclusion I want to say thank you and keep up the good work.
If you believe all men are created equal STAND UP for Inclusion
If you believe every student deserves to be included STAND UP for inclusion
If you believe “We are better together” STAND UP for inclusion

Thank you

Are you standing up for inclusion? Tell us how in the comments section below.

Does All Mean All? This Parent Doesn’t Think So


By Linda Mastroianni

A version of this article was originally published at

Editors Note: If you are an inclusion advocate, you are probably cringing at the title of this post. I understand…this site normally posts articles that are supportive of inclusive education. Yet, I think it is important for parents and educators to listen to each other and there are no doubt many parents that will find this post is closer to their experience than anything else they will be able to find in our archives. So it is in this spirit that I am sharing this article with you. I want us to be realistic about the challenges of inclusive education and admitting that inclusion is not available to everyone is not the same thing as saying that is not possible or the right thing to do.

There was a time when I wholeheartedly believed that inclusion into a mainstream school for my autistic son was not only the best option but, in my mind, the only option.

I believed that if I kept him out of mainstream schooling it would be like working in reverse for him.  It would not be working in a positive, forward motion for him.  If I want him to integrate into society as an adult then the integration must begin as a child at school, with his peers, his teachers and the first real community that he will experience outside of the family unit.

This belief that I carried with me, this certainty and affirmation was deeply engraved in my mind.  Even as I was looking for a school that would best compliment my son’s special needs, my thoughts and feelings about mainstream schooling never wavered.  I found the best school for him and I ensured he received the proper amount of support he needed to learn and succeed.

This process of learning and growing was so much more than just academics.  This had to include growth on a social level as well.  It had to do with seeing his abilities and building on those skills; listening and respecting his voice even when he was silent; having him feel safe when things around him became overwhelming and understanding his behavior as a form of communication.  So many different aspects came into play when making my final decision on the right school for him.

We were extremely fortunate to have teachers and aides that believed and respected him.  They genuinely cared for him and always managed to push him a little outside of his comfort zone all the while respecting his capabilities and difficulties.    This is not to say we didn’t have daily struggles and challenges, we did, but as a whole, Emilio did extremely well and he was happy.

And in a blink of an eye, he was now in 6th grade; one year before junior high.   It was time to start looking for a school again that would work for Emilio.   A school that would also see his potential just like his previous school had done.

That’s when reality slapped me in the face a thousand times over.  Every mainstream high school I visited felt like a shark tank.  I already knew, just walking into the schools, that none of them were suitable for my son.  I met with the principals and teachers, we went over the program they offered, I asked some questions but all of it didn’t really matter.  They could have had the best possible program for him; it still would have been the single worst mistake I could have made for him.

And so I turned to my only reliable resource I had at that time, Emilio’s older brother.  I asked him “Do you think Emilio would do well at your school?  Do you think he would be bullied?”   Before I could continue with my arsenal of questions his response stopped me cold.  “Mom, Emilio would be a prime target.  No, this isn’t for him.  They would hurt him and I wouldn’t be able to protect him all the time.”

As I let those words sink in, it was becoming increasingly clear that my only option was taking Emilio out of mainstream school and placing him in a special needs school.   All the work and progress we made would now slowly be reversed, or so I thought.

I am ashamed to say it but as vehemently as I believed that inclusion in mainstream school was absolutely THE BEST route to take, I also believed that by sending Emilio to a special  needs school I would be lower the bar for him and thus, engaging the possibility of him regressing.

This canon-sized pill was a hard one to swallow.  Although I knew deep in my heart that a special needs school would be best for Emilio, (in comparison to all the other high schools I visited) sending him to such a school felt like I was receiving his diagnosis for the second time.  And it shook me to my core.

When I dropped him off at school on that very first day, I waved goodbye as he tearfully walked into the building.  I sat in my car and sobbed and sobbed.  I questioned what I had done.  Was this really the right choice?  Maybe I should have given the mainstream school a chance.  Try it out for a few months and then see.  I wrestled with these feelings for a month and I knew I still had a chance to transfer him if I wanted to.

But then I began to notice something.  Emilio was never sad about going to school.  He was always happy and ready to go.  Although he wasn’t able to tell me what he did during the day, the communication journal that the teacher provided told me how his day went.   On occasion I would spend the day in his class and observe.  What I saw overwhelmed me.  Emilio was coming out of his shell.  He was engaging more with his classmates and his teacher.  Here, in this school, with all these children having different abilities, some verbal some not, there was no difference.  These students had no limits.  These students, in their eyes, and in ours, were all the same.  Here, there were no labels, no box to fit into.

As I sit here today, going over my son’s IEP I am extremely grateful for all the progress he has made.  I look back and see how far in our journey we have traveled.  Looking ahead, I can only imagine how glorious it can be.  I am thankful for everything.

I once believed inclusion into mainstream school was the only way to go, I now know better.  It’s not for everyone and where it might be beneficial for one student, it isn’t for everyone.  I also know what works today isn’t guaranteed to work tomorrow.

Photo Adapted from Mr. Ducke.

Linda Mastroianni is founder of She provides support, resources and information to families and individuals living with ASD. She has two sons, the youngest having classic autism. She is a certified autism life coach helping families and individuals living with ASD. She blogs about the triumphs and challenges of her 14 year son and she is also a blogger for Huffington Post Canada.

Literacy for All Learners: Links to Adapted Book Resources


By Robin Parker

A version of this article was originally published on the PrAACtical AAC blog.

To integrate reading and writing into communication and language learning we need to have lots of books that are easily accessible. Books should be accessible physically as well as through content and interest. This holds true for ALL learners even those that don’t like books. We have made literacy accessible for a young girl who only liked elevators, a boy who only liked balls, and a young adult who liked Barney books but not much else.  It holds true for ALL disabilities, and ALL levels of reading and writing.

For this post, we wanted to share the abundance of resources for making adapted books. Because when we have great adapted books, literacy is more accessible. Check out these awesome resources for making your own adapted books and for printing out already created adapted books and lessons.  We love early literacy adapted books as much as we love adapted chapter books. We have found time and time again, that adapted books are the foundation of opening up a world of literacy for ALL of our learners. Enjoy and feel free to share any other resources you use.

Handout on Adapting Books by Pam Harris– Explicit instruction for preparing adapted books

5 Ways to Make Page Fluffers & Spacers– Accessibility for turning pages

Verbs, Verbs, Verbs (Printable Adapted Books Collection) by Ruth Morgan at Chapel Hill Snippets– Wonderful collection of adapted books

Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities- Adapted Literature  – Resource for adapted chapter books, lessons, and more

New York City Department of Education: Adapted Books – Great collection of adapted books

Baltimore City Schools- Book Specific Communication Boards– Communication boards to go with adapted books

Dade County Public Schools ESE- Interactive Storybooks– Awesome collection of adapted books

Tar Heel Reader– Adapted books searchable by a wide range of topics and also a resource for writing books. Just read the books first as these adapted books are for ALL ages

SETT BC- Accessible Books– Great collection of adapted books

SLP Corner- Adapted Books by Peg Hutsonp Nechkash at Pedia Staff– Thoughts and resources on adapted books

Adapted Books- Autism Helper– Collection of adapted books and lessons

Accessible & Adapted Books- LiveBinders– Resources on adapted books and writing

Adapted Books Room Eighty Three on Pinterest– Nice curated resources for adapted books

Adapted Books and Related Materials by Special Education Service Agency– Resource for adapted books and related materials

Adaptive Book Fun– Thoughts on adapted books

Robin Parker is a professor of speech language pathology who has loved supporting the communication and language of children and adults with autism spectrum disorders for more than 20 years. One of her professional passions is spreading the word about PrAACtical AAC. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Helen Keller

Photo Credit: azrasta

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