About a year ago, I struck up an email conversation with a fellow educator of students with significant disabilities named Sharon. We went back and forth about the benefits and challenges of including students with severe disabilities in general education. I think the conversation stretched us both. No matter what side of the fence you fall on the philosophy of inclusive education, it is an incredibly nuanced discussion. Recently, my email partner reached out to me and shared that she had started a blog about the experiences with being an inclusion minded teacher for students with multiple disabilities. They were so good…I wanted to share them with you and encourage everyone follow her blog, Limits Not Included. I suspect there will be more to come.

1) Rationing Time In this post, Sharon expresses her concern about functional communication training for students with significant disabilities in inclusive classrooms. Watch the ten minute video and see if you notice anything that may be missing.

In the classroom, time is, always, our most limited resource, and if students are receiving one service or participating in one activity, it means that they are not receiving another service or participating in another activity. That is the same argument used by proponents of full inclusion for why all related services should be push-in, so that students do not lose access to the instruction and peer access available in the general education environment. But that coin has another side, and those students *are* losing access to time spent in direct instruction of specific skills. And I’m worried that’s time we can’t afford to lose.

This video, of a young lady who has been fully included, was touted as evidence of the benefit of full inclusion for the development of real meaningful social relationships at a webinar I recently attended.

Did you notice what was missing? Jocelyn’s mother was interviewed. Jocelyn’s friends were interviewed. Jocelyn was not. Everyone else spoke about what they *thought* Jocelyn wanted/thought/believed. They don’t know. Because they can’t ask her. Why? As far as we can tell from this video, Jocelyn has no formal communication system (not even a yes/no.) For all we know, Jocelyn wishes these girls would leave her alone and only tolerates them to make her mother happy. We don’t know. We can’t ask Jocelyn.

And that’s what worries me about full inclusion for students like Jocelyn – and for the students I teach. I worry that their limited classroom time will be focused on social integration and on access skills that make them part of the classroom instead of on developing meaningful functional communication systems that will help them create independent lives for themselves as adults.

Listen very carefully to the voices of non-speaking self-advocates. Their intelligence was realized by others after someone taught them how to use a communication system and they were able to communicate their desire to learn (or what they had already learned.) Access to education is nothing without a system to communicate what you know. If we are going to implement full inclusion, we have allocate the time and resources to develop functional communication skills from the very beginning. And for our older students who have not had access to the communication and academic instruction they should have before now, for whatever reason, we have to recognize that our number one priority has to be communication – and that takes time.

2) Assessing Our Place In this post, Sharon shares her opinion about what alternate assessment is really about in relation to students with severe and multiple disabilities.

The controversy over state and national assessments, the common core, and the place of students with disabilities within that structure is a loud and large debate on which everyone has an opinion and everyone knows best.

I don’t know best, but I do have an opinion, which I would like to share.

The MCAS-alt (Massachusetts’s alternate assessment protocol for students who are unable to take the state test, even with accommodations) may not be a valid, or even meaningful, test of student progress toward meeting grade level standards. However, it is an important requirement of all students educational program because it requires teachers, for 40-90 lessons out of the school year, to provide at least some academic instruction to all students, regardless of perceived “ability.”

These are the teachers, and some of them have been my colleagues, who are inordinately proud of themselves for keeping their students safe and happy. They feel that is proof that they are doing a good job. I can’t help but wonder if they are familiar with the difference between the job description for babysitter and the job description for teacher – and which one they think they are doing?

These teachers truly believe, and have convinced many wonderful parents as well, that the MCAS-alt is a waste of both student and teacher’s time because it takes away from focusing on the important (usually developmentally-based) skills that the student “should” be working on according to her/his IEP.

Yet, when the IEP is written with the grade level curriculum as the starting point (as opposed to the outdated and usually bogus notion of the student’s “developmental level”) as the starting point, the MCAS-alt portfolio flows naturally from the student goals, even for students who do not have a formal communication system and students who are working on “access skills” (not necessarily an interchangeable group.)

These teachers get offended at all the requirements to keep a portfolio from being marked incomplete. (10 different dates. Data on work samples must match data on graphs if the dates match. etc.) Yes, it’s a pain, but if you actually teach the lessons throughout the year, it’s really not hard. And that’s the point. Fundamentally, this assessment isn’t about whether the student learned the grade level material (because if they can access grade level material, why are you doing alternate assessment?) It’s not even about showing student progress and mastery (because teachers chose both the skill – within limits – and the mastery criterion.) No, at its most basic level, the MCAS-alt is about forcing teachers’ hands to ensure that all students get at least a little access to instruction in the academic curriculum. And as long as we have teachers who don’t think their students “are ready for” academics we will need the MCAS-alt portfolio assessment, with all its hoops, to make sure they give their students at least a little bit. For the rest of us who are teaching curriculum and trying to move our students forward into more inclusive environments? Well, it’s one more bureaucratic hoop to jump through, and in the world of special education, who will notice one more?

For more from Sharon, follow her on Twitter: @gallianstone