Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

What Does Full Inclusion Really Mean?

What Does Full Inclusion Really Mean

I know that I do not have a corner on the truth. While belief systems and worldviews tend to get mired in rhetoric, the big picture of inclusion (specifically inclusive education) is far more forgiving. My aim in this piece is to clarify a big misconception about what full inclusion really means.

Typically, when the term “full inclusion” gets batted around in the realm of education, there are one of two reactions—the first possibility is utter horror (you mean you want students with disabilities in general education all day every day?) and the second is indifference, cynicism, or apathy (inclusion? Yeah right. Like that will ever happen). A third, less common reaction by educators, but one that is gaining in prominence, is an embrace of the philosophy of full inclusion as a framework to understand how students learn best.

The idea that “we learn better together” is not a new concept. In fact, it is a notion that has been in the refining of academic and peer-reviewed study for 30 years:

Thirty years of research shows us that when all students are learning together (including those with the most extensive needs) AND are given the appropriate instruction and supports, ALL students can participate, learn, and excel within grade-level general education curriculum, build meaningful social relationships, achieve positive behavioral outcomes, and graduate from high school, college and beyond. (SWIFT Schools)

Before you start rolling your eyes, consider that there are many examples of inclusive education around the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world. Could it be that parents and educators simply have not seen enough of it working to believe that it is possible? I am not convinced that is the reason. As some parents and educators point out, not every school is capable of educating every child. The very mention of this protest is like nails on the chalkboard to inclusion advocates. Yet advocates like me should be loath to ignore them; we must address these concerns head on.

Here is where I would like to clarify what full inclusion means to me, and I hope that advocates on both sides of this issue will take me seriously. We spend an awful lot of time talking over each other. Part of the big idea of inclusion is to create synthesis where there is dichotomy, restoration where there is brokenness, and healing where there is trauma. Full and authentic inclusion has more to do with complete membership in a community rather than time spent in general education. If the amount of time students with disabilities spend in general education is one of the largest measures to whether a school is inclusive, we have failed as inclusion advocates and have missed the point. Membership is about belonging, having full access, being accepted, being supported and having an environment in which every student can learn the best. It is puerile to argue that every school and every classroom can achieve this by having all students in general education all day every day at this point in history.

Perhaps you are upset with my statement. Perhaps you see it as an admission that inclusive education really isn’t for everyone. I would disagree with your conjecture…and here is why: Full inclusion is going to look different in every school and every classroom and for every student. When we open up our minds to include the idea that while this framework is for everyone, we can also say that is not available to everyone. While there are best practices that should be followed and held up as the gold standard, we are not nearly were we should be. When we realize that essential factors, like presuming competence, having high expectations, developing typical friendships, building on strengths, learning grade-level curriculum and having access to alternative augmentative communication devices does not only happen one way we will be stronger advocates.

As noted inclusive education advocate Lou Brown states,

It is unacceptable for students with significant disabilities to spend 0% of their time in Regular Education classrooms. While better, it is also unacceptable for them to spend all of their time therein. Self-contained regular and self-contained special education are both rejected because each extreme disallows important experiences and opportunities. The preference here is that they be based in Regular Education classrooms in which they would be based in they were not disabled. Then, the individually meaningful amounts of time each needs to spend elsewhere should be arranged. (1996, Brown, Schwarz, Solner, et al)

At this point, 17 percent of students with any disability spend all or most of their days segregated. That is just abysmal. Having students removed from their typical peers and their typical classroom should be a rare occurrence. In this day and age, it is the norm. The inclusion movement should be about decreasing that number to the smallest possible percentage, not just wiping special classrooms and special schools from the face of education.

Some final thoughts: Full inclusion is really about education reform. Full inclusion is about teaching all students and using best practices. It is not about one-size-fits-all. Full inclusion is about giving access to all and promoting the best outcomes for all. It is about bringing special and general education together as collaborators. This is the promise of inclusion that I believe in. What about you?

UPDATE (November 2015): Some of my inclusive education advocate colleagues balk at the idea that there should be ANY separate classrooms or spaces for ANY student. For them, this argument is dangerous.  I think it is just as dangerous to say that full inclusion means being in general education all day every day in the current system of education. We need another system. We need to have a system where special and general education teachers work collaboratively for ALL students. Better yet, let’s get rid of special education because if we have different ways of classifying and educating teachers why would we think it would be different for the students who attend our schools? Using the principals of Universal Design for Learning gives us the best chance to create learning environments that are appropriate for everyone. For those families and individuals with disabilities who prefer separate spaces, let’s honor that as well because if we are not listening to the people we are supposedly advocating for that what exactly are we doing? If you don’t think we can educate all students and still support small group learning and spaces within an inclusive model, than you are not thinking creatively enough.


Brown, L., Schwarz, P., Udvari Solner, A., Frattura Kampschroer, E., Johnson, F., Jorgensen, J., Vandeventer, P. & Gruenewald, L. (1991). How Much Time Should Students with Severe Intellectual Disabilities Spend in Regular Education Classrooms and Elsewhere? The Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 16(1), 39 – 47.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Mobility Resource blog.


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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 somewhat reminds me of my days in youth ministry. While many fought against it, I argued that the middle school and high school students should spend a decent amount of time together during their activities. This would allow the middle schoolers to look up to the high schoolers, and would give the high schoolers a chance to help work with and mentor the younger students.

    Similarly, from Lou Brown’s statement “individually meaningful amounts of time each needs to spend elsewhere should be arranged”, we’d still split them up for more grade-specific learning.

    This post laid it out excellently, though I’m not sure how best to achieve that kind of change on a large scale, aside from continuing to push hard using avenues such as this.

    • Thanks for your comment Mickey. Ultimately…this kind of reform has to be dealt from the state or federal level. I know that this is unpopular to talk about because of the general feeling of the government’s over-reach our lives but if we wait for an organic groundswell of change we may be waiting another 100 years. Since there is not incentive to change there either needs to be a push from parents on local school boards or on the legislature. It will be up to them to speed inclusion reform along. My hope is that it comes soon and I would be honored if this site was part of that movement.

  • Organic ground swell comes when parents think inclusion is best for *their* children. That is the perspective that needs to be developed and “marketed,” for lack of a better word. Once you convince parents that their children benefit from inclusion, then they will push their schools and governments for it.

    I just read this today, immediately prior to this article, and the serendipity is powerful – I recommend it as an example of what inclusion could really look like:

    • Elizabeth,

      I agree that inclusion could look like the example in the post…yet it is unfortunate that is doesn’t in most places. There are so few places really “getting it right”. I think it is going to take ed reform from the top down to make sure students with disabilities are not left out. Thanks for the comment.

  • What a beautifully written post. While I do not have a child with educational special needs, I do have a child with Type 1 diabetes. I have often said, that while he is not blessed to carry the burden of his condition, he is blessed that his diabetes does not carry the stigma that many other “burdens” do. What I mean is, he is of course mainstreamed into classrooms and given time or permission to test and treat as needed. A child with a learning disability can be viewed differently by the classroom, teacher and staff. I have great empathy for the need for this educational reform. The world is made up of all different people with all different challenges. The process to teach empathy to our children must start in their daily lives which is the classroom as well as at home.

    • Natalie,

      You are correct. Empathy should start being taught very early…but not only being compassionate to other people but valuing every person. Inherently we have worth. No matter if we are typically developing or not. I am afraid this a long road ahead of us but I think each generation is making a little more progress. I think the key is not sameness but celebrating the diversity of humans in general.

  • Andrea Castillo

    Tim- Do you private consulting? We have a daughter with Down syndrome. She is in 4th grade general ed but is pulled out to the resource room for most of the day and misses all the teaching and class assignments but is still expected to make up the work she missed and complete homework and take tests that the rest of the general ed students are doing. This is not fair to my daughter and would like her to be in general ed most of the day and only pulled out for a very short time for resource but don’t what what that time should be.
    I loved your article!

  • Tim, what a phenomenal piece. I look forward to sharing it and hoping it sparks some thinking in NYC. I particularly like that its not about minutes spent in general ed, but the opportunities to be part of a community. Sadly, I’m in a building where my students are often ignored by the other school we share space with. This motivates me to continue to find ways for our students to know each other, as we wait for our school system to evolve towards full inclusion.

  • Well said!

  • Pat Esposito

    Let me start my comments by saying that I am a certified Special Education/Rehabilitation Teacher, originally in the field of Vision Impairment, and later across the lines, working successfully (and happily) within special education’s various levels of physical/mental disabilities, from the most severe to mildly disabled. I have been in Special Education for over 42 years, and always felt inclusion was the way to go. years ago, I pushed for including totally blind students to be in their home schools, participating in local school and neighborhood activities. At that time, most of the special needs students had one primary disability (such as blindness) and were socially able to be an active participant in a regular classroom.

    Years passed, and I had 4 children, the youngest two have autism, diagnosed at 3 years and 18 months (they are now 26 and 28 years old). With all my expertise, i had little knowledge of autism, pic syms, behavior modification, and basket hold restraining techniques. I CHOOSE to have my boys placed in a supportive, special needs class within a special needs school. They were included with other children, born with a variety of disabilities. I got to meet other parents who were struggling with similar needs, questions, choices, and felt the staff was most able to answer my concerns/questions for the maximum development of my sons….all the while, continuing to take classes educating myself on current trends in special education. My sons blossomed with the intensive program, and by 4th grade, were ready to enter our local elementary school, which had been prepared by workshops, videos of my sons,addition of special education aides/assistants to help the staff with additional needs created by their inclusion. They made “school buddies’ in that each week, a student’s job was to be my son’s friend (child would get extra stars each day), NO ONE ate with them at lunchtime, unless prompted to. My older son was invited to ONE birthday party in 10 years of school, and when we had pool or birthday parties for him, only a handful of classmates came. They were more EXCLUDED than INCLUDED…teachers can not and SHOULD NOT force classmates to always be a buddy/helper, and by my son’s behavior, he was not able to react as other peers did.

    My sons could NOT keep up with classwork, and so assignments were either cut short or accepted late or watered down. Projects were more parent directed, than student made and we were caught in a spiral of trying to be “included” with classmates/peers. The children we saw out and about during the summer, barely spoke to my sons, even though my sons were speaking to them, reminding them of classes, the teachers, etc…I was the educated, professional who was also a special needs child’s parent, and my heart was broken over and over again.

    Fast forward to graduation time, my eldest went to the school Prom and lasted 45 minutes before calling us to come get him. His “inclusion” class friends did not talk to him, ask him to join them, or even acknowledge his existence. Luckily, my husband and I were able to find support groups for the boys, get involved in special need parties/dances, where my boys are the higher functioning ones, who remember the exclusion they experienced during their inclusion years. we were in a well to do district, that tried to meet the letter of the law and beyond, but learning about the steppes in Russia as part of a geography lesson did NOTHING to help prepare MY SONS for REAL life issues of banking, self care, phone skills, etc….ONLY THE SPECIAL TIME IN A SPECIAL EDUCATION CLASS TAUGHT THE BASIC LIFE SKILLS. I, therefore, have changed my thinking to say that some disabled children may do well included into a regular classroom, but that too many of our special need students are NOT having their needs or interests met by general education programs.

    {Another time, I will address the concerns of the regular classroom teachers who knew my boys would be in their classes!!}

  • Chris

    My so with autism has been fully included always starting from birth,church preschool through now jr. High. The district knows he has several diagnoses but we will never tell about the definitive autism dx. He doesn’t have a lot of friends but is learning in school. He learns the hidden curriculum as well as he can. We teach him chores and other life skills at home and in the community even if we are stared at or scorned. Our son with Down syndrome is not so lucky. We almost signed for pullout services which would require 8 extra transitions during his school day(lost educational time). Then at the end of the meeting the sped teacher said”I hope you will be more flexible after a month of school”(for more pullout time). I met with the superintendent regarding something else and he said the exact same thing the sped teacher said. So we decided against pullout and now the district has removed his math and reading goals from the iep. He is very social and has many friends who he wouldn’t even know if he was in the sel contained classroom. He reads and imitates his typically developing peer role models. My heart is broken everyday by the educators who want to segregate him. The attitude of the educators is the number one factor for successful inclusion.

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