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Stranded Starfish: Addressing the Systemic Segregation of Students with Disabilities

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

By Debbie Taub

There is a well-known story of a person walking on a beach littered with starfish who sees someone else picking up individual starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. The individual walks up to the starfish thrower and says, “What are you doing? You know you aren’t making any difference.”

The thrower picks up another starfish, throws it into the ocean and then responds, “I made a difference to this one.” This story is usually used as an inspirational story, especially for teachers, about the difference one person may make in the life of another.

The first time I heard that story, I thought of the individual students with whom I have worked. Students who others did not necessarily believe would ever be a part of the general education classroom, learn to read, write, or even communicate effectively. Students who could be thought of as those starfish who were being saved. However, as I heard the story again and again, I started thinking about all of the other starfish. Why in the world were we focusing on throwing individual starfish back into the ocean instead of questioning why there were these mass strandings in the first place?

I did some reading about the starfish on the beach. Why were they there, and did it really make a difference to throw them back into the ocean? Well, there may be several reasons for mass strandings, including cold weather, a strong wave hitting starfish as they come closer to shore to reproduce, lack of food, or the result of human dredging of coral reefs and the ocean floor. And, as for those starfish thrown back into the ocean, it will already be too late for most of them. Many of those thrown back will still die because of the damage already done or because of further damage done by handling them to throw them back.

When I look at this metaphor from an educational point of view, I am pretty much horrified. We have to consider the thousands of students who are “stranded on the beach” and “need to be saved.” Are large categories of students “naturally” destined for the beach? No. Research has demonstrated time and again that we have ableist and racist systems in place that result in students being shuffled out of general education classrooms into segregated or punitive settings that, for many, continue for the rest of their lives. Research has also shown that there are no prerequisites that must be met to be in general education classes, activities, or communities. Even being present in school is not necessarily a requirement, especially now!

But don’t they have to learn to communicate first? Nope. Students in inclusive classes and contexts tend to have increased communicative gains. Their communication is more partner-based than one person trying to solicit a response. Snell, et al., 2010; Biggs, et al., 2017

COVID-19 and the distance learning that resulted demonstrate that even being in the building is not a requirement for being included in a class with your grade-level peers with and without disabilities. During COVID, there have been times when no students were physically in schools. How and, in many cases, what was taught had to change.

However, these educational shifts have also laid bare how tenuous inclusive practices are for students who receive special education, especially those with complex disabilities. For many districts and schools, there was an almost automatic regression to teaching students with complex needs, even those who had been included in general education classes until then, in separate groups and classes. I get it. Part of it was fear—missing out on specialized services has significant repercussions for students, not to mention the potential legal repercussions. However, a huge part of this regression goes back to those systemic biases that require students with disabilities to “prove themselves worthy” of being included. Think about that. Imagine having to prove that you deserve to live in a community with other people. You have to prove that you have the same basic rights as other people.

They are so far behind their peers. Don’t we need to catch them up first? Research has demonstrated time and again that students with significant disabilities in inclusive classes have more opportunities to learn the academic and non-academic skills necessary for being as independent as possible. Taub, et al., 2017

If you have an intellectual disability or are in any other way marginalized, should you just lay on the beach, hoping a kind soul will notice you before you completely wither and die outside of your natural habitat? Or, should we be identifying and dismantling the forces within the educational system that are causing the mass beaching of huge groups of marginalized people?

Given that we have over 40 years of data and experiences that demonstrate that students with intellectual disabilities benefit from being included rather than on the beach, it is necessary to start investigating the systems that are forcing these students out of their habitat.

But don’t they have to be able to do x, y, or z first? With few exceptions centered around personal dignity, if a skill is worth learning, it should be able to be embedded in general education contexts and routines. In fact, research has shown that embedding foundational and IEP goals within the natural routines and general education instruction with their peers improves generalization and skill development. Bowman, et al., 2020

It is time to move beyond the trope of “teacher as savior” who walks the beach, finding stranded starfish who may not have enough life in them to survive being hurled back into the ocean. It is not the teacher’s fault those starfish ended up on the beach, it is the result of unquestioned systems of education that pushed them onto the beach. Yet, the individual does have power.

But don’t we have to get their behavior under control first? Problem behavior is often reduced in truly inclusive classrooms and should not be an automatic reason for being placed in a segregated setting. Saunders & Wakeman, 2018/19

If you want to build school systems that prevent throwing out our most vulnerable students, then start advocating for and working toward:

  1. Seeing barriers as existing in the classroom, instruction and materials, not the student;

  2. Questioning why we would ever exclude someone rather than wondering why we would include them;

  3. Expecting problems to have solutions and work accordingly. Thomas Edison is famously quoted as saying, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” This is how we should approach any barriers—they are not a reason to stop, but another step on our way to figuring out the answer

We should not accept a dystopia where we consider it normal for large groups of students to be removed from their natural settings because of a label, race, behavior, way of communicating (or not), or test score. Rather than creating barriers to inclusive classes, we need to identify and break down those barriers. We should be looking at how our assumptions and systems are pushing students toward failure.


Biggs, E. E., Carter, E. W., & Gustafson, J. (2017). Efficacy of peer support arrangements to increase peer interaction and AAC use. American journal on intellectual and developmental disabilities, 122(1), 25-48.

Bowman, J. A., McDonnell, J., Ryan, J., Coleman, O. F., Conradi, L. A., & Eichelberger, C. (2020). Effects of General Education Teacher-Delivered Embedded Instruction to Teach Students with Intellectual Disability to Solve Word Problems. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 55(3), 318-331.

Saunders, A., & Wakeman, S. (2018/19). Myths vs. facts: what is true about including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities?. Impact, 31(2), retrieved from

Snell, M. E., Brady, N., McLean, L., Ogletree, B. T., Siegel, E., Sylvester, L., … & Sevcik, R. (2010). Twenty years of communication intervention research with individuals who have severe intellectual and developmental disabilities. American journal on intellectual and developmental disabilities, 115(5), 364-380.

Taub, D. A., McCord, J. A., & Ryndak, D. L. (2017). Opportunities to learn for students with extensive support needs: A context of research-supported practices for all in general education classes. The Journal of Special Education, 51(3), 127-137.


Deborah Taub, Ph.D., is a published author who conducts research, training, and technical assistance around ensuring equitable opportunities to learn for all students, including those with significant and complex needs. Dr. Taub collaborates on projects to support universally designed and accessible standards-based instruction for all students. She works with Project TIES as a technical assistance specialist on moving students with significant cognitive disabilities to more inclusive contexts.


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