Seeing Inclusion in Action Can Be the Spark to Systems Change

Updated: Jun 22

Recently, I gave an all-day workshop over Zoom to special education teacher candidates who were taking a course about teaching students with autism to fulfill a requirement for an alternate certification of their credential. During the class, I showed them a video directed by Dan Habib, a filmmaker renowned for showcasing inclusive education in action.

The short film called “Thaysa” highlighted a young autistic girl in her elementary general education classroom. It showed what was necessary for inclusive education to work in her setting, which included behavior, communication, and instructional supports provided in a class with her typically developing peers, unlike how many districts provide these supports in a separate segregated classroom.

After the film, I asked for reactions, and for the most part, they were positive. And then one teacher candidate took a different spin. They referenced that in the film, the mother of Thaysa said that she was so glad her daughter wasn’t in a classroom for students with only autism because she learned so much.

The teacher candidate, who currently teaches in a self-contained classroom for students with autism, said they disagreed with Thaysa’s mom’s opinion that her daughter would not learn as much if she was in a separate class. And that opinions like those hurt teachers who are trying to teach students with significant support needs.

So why did this teacher candidate react this way after seeing an example of authentic inclusion? I told the group that I understood the cognitive dissonance that some of them must be feeling.

But the reason I like to show the video about Thaysa is to show that inclusive education is possible and happening. Even if educators teach in a disability-specific program now, there is hope that things can change.

The bottom line is that “students in segregated self-contained classrooms [do not] get the same education as general education students in regular classrooms,” said Jacques Smith, a former middle school administrator and Board President of MCIE.

Teachers “are charged with teaching multiple subjects, you don’t have a regular Math [or ELA] teacher, and when students go to special areas they usually [are] not trained or prepared on how to work with students with disabilities,” Smith continued.

Smith recounted his days as an assistant principal before partnering with MCIE on bringing students with significant disabilities back in their neighborhood schools. “We spent a lot of our time trying to convince parents that [special education self-contained classrooms were] a good thing. A good thing but a separate thing. And it was not what the average kids in the school got.”

This mindset changed after Smith’s school started working with MCIE in what was known as the Neighborhood School Project in the early 1990s. Here is one story from that period that Smith said was the highlight of his career (paraphrased below).

A mother came in with a father, two high school boys who played football, and their younger autistic son, Chad. The two older brothers were adamantly against Chad coming to the school because they didn’t want him to be made fun of. After a lot of tears by the mother, the family deci