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On Accidental, Reverse, and Authentic Inclusion

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Accidental 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…except 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.”“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 as “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 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 it 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


Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for MCIE. Editor-in-Chief of Think Inclusive, and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealTimVegas.

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