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Overcoming Barriers to Inclusive Education

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

The internet is rife with articles that articulate problems. There is a reason why the most visited post on Think Inclusive is The Biggest Barriers to Inclusive Education. But while the web is full of sharing what is wrong in our world, it is light on solutions.

While the following list should not be considered exhaustive, it is a start to addressing the barriers that inclusion advocates have been up against for decades. The ideas set forth heavily draw on two documents, Overcoming Barriers to Inclusion of Children with Disabilities: A Blueprint for Change and Inclusive Education in Maryland: A Blueprint for Change. Here are some possible solutions to some of the barriers to inclusive education.

Leadership Barriers

Inclusive education must be the expectation from the top-down not only at the school district level but at the state board of education level. For instance, the Maryland State Department of Education has made it priority to increase the percentage of students educated in the Least Restrictive Environment from year to year. Policies that explicitly state goals related to inclusive education are a great start.

In addition, at the school district level, MCIE has observed that when there is a shared understanding of inclusion from district leadership, it is communicated to all stakeholders in a more efficient way. Local boards of education can develop policy statements in support of inclusion and describe specific goals that they are working toward.

Beyond state and district leadership, investing in parents as advocates for inclusive education is essential to communicate to the families in a community that inclusion is an expectation. Many communities already have parent groups that advocate on behalf of students with disabilities. Inclusive education can also be prioritized in the communication of priorities for parent groups as well.

Attitude/Belief Barriers

One way to influence the attitudes and belief systems of educators is to get to them before they even become teachers. Once exposed to inclusion as a philosophy, it is easier for teachers to see how it plays out in the context of a school. Many special education credentialing programs are moving away from only teaching educators about disability characteristics and more about instructional modalities. In these programs, teachers learn how to be an advocate for their students and families, as well as how to encourage participation of their families.

Beyond preservice teachers, we can retrain district staff on the effectiveness of inclusive education. There is no shortage of research that proves that inclusive education works. When MCIE partners with schools to transform their practices, one of the first things we do is create a shared understanding of what inclusive education is and how to provide services differently. This is done with training and workshops over the course of a few months before the start of the next school year, where topics range from collaboration, to scheduling for natural proportions, to learning that disability is a natural part of the human condition.

Instructional Practice Barriers

A long-term dream for inclusive education advocates is that general and special education departments can be eliminated to form one education system. This is a not a new idea, and when discussions of inclusion were at a high point in the 1990s, there was plenty written about it. While there is certainly a space of specializing in certain kinds of support for students with disabilities, any teacher can teach a student with an Individualized Education Program. The line between general and special educators needs to be erased. And this goes for the divide on the state and local level as well.

Lack of collaboration time between general and special education teachers has often been a barrier to authentic inclusion. In inclusive schools, common planning time is essential. It is best when special education teachers are valued members of a grade or subject team and are included in communications. School teams had a lot of practice using online tools to collaborate during the coronavirus pandemic, so there is little room for excuses to share information.

Typically, good education practices benefit all students. Many school districts are implementing a multi-tiered system of supports for every student, not just those with identified needs. What this means is that everyone gets the same base level of support, but when students need more, they receive interventions available at the next tier or level. And for students who need the most, they receive intensive intervention, which includes solid academic and behavioral support.

Having a tiered system of support, along with providing Universal Design for Learning, are how inclusive schools around the United States and world plan for the success of all students.

Resource Barriers

It is important to have common sense economic practices—inclusive education is not supposed to be a cost-cutting measure. Inclusion works because it is the right thing to do and quality education for students with disabilities cannot happen without quality education for all students. How much do you know about how your state spends money for students with disabilities? In some funding structures, school districts receive different amounts of money for students who have more extensive support needs and who are often segregated in special education classrooms and special schools. Funding should be “placement neutral,” which means there is no incentive to have more restrictive placements because they pay more.

State and local boards of education can consider short term funding to support districts that are going through school transformation. In 2021, the Biden administration proposed a historic increase in the funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It is up to state and local educational systems to use those funds to promote inclusive education.

Physical Barriers

If we are going to truly have inclusive schools, our buildings and classrooms must be accessible. State boards of education must take leadership in remodeling and removing barriers in existing school facilities. Local high schools that have accessible parts of their football stadium that are nowhere near the rest of the audience can be put closer together. Ramps that are at the back of the building can be moved to so that all students and staff can enter in the same place. A big part of addressing the physical barriers is to see where a building can be changed to promote membership and belonging.


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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