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Why Reverse Inclusion Is Not Inclusive

Nearly a decade ago, I recorded a podcast episode with Paula Kluth where we discussed her book, Don't We Already Do Inclusion? During our conversation, we talked about something called "reverse inclusion." This is when a special education teacher hosts general education students with learners with disabilities in a space typically reserved for learners who receive special education services.

At the time of our conversation, reverse inclusion was something that I was promoting as a special education teacher. Having general education students in my special education classroom seemed like an easy way to be inclusive without making too much of a fuss. And it was super fun! I even took it a step further and used the time to collaborate with my general education colleagues to plan a lesson together. This was my first introduction to what coteaching could look like.

Here is the thing. Reverse inclusion is not and never was inclusive.

When MCIE talks about inclusive education, we focus on four key elements: placement, membership, participation, and learning (shout out to Cheryl Jorgensen and Michael McSheehan for their work on the Beyond Access Model). Placement is important because you can't be included if you are not physically in a space with everyone else. Membership is vital because you aren't included if you don't feel like you belong in a particular place. The learner may be there and feel like they belong, but are they participating in the life of the classroom? That is why participation is crucial. And finally, the learner should be working toward grade-level standards and with the general education curricullum, not a watered down or canned adapted education program. All of these elements together are what we mean when discussing inclusive education.

Reverse inclusion may create the illusion of these key elements coming together, but after "inclusion time" is done. Where do the learners with disabilities remain? In the special education classroom. How does this get us any closer to authentic inclusive education?

Here is Paula explaining why she doesn't like the idea of "reverse inclusion."

Audio Transcript

Tim: I'm curious to know what your opinion is on the concept of reverse inclusion.

Paula: It's a really great question, and it's actually one of the items that I did address in the book because it came up so often. This is sort of the conversation I have with a lot of teams, especially teachers, who feel very much alone. They'll say there are really great social benefits and I do see the kids doing better. And what I will try to point out ever so gently for folks, folks that I already know are stressed out and feel like they're doing the one thing that they can do. I don't doubt that those benefits are there. Those are the benefits that we would see in an inclusive classroom if we could get out there. From a person who would come in and consult with your school or what would be my opinion in general, Tim, which is a different question. I would say no, it's not a stepping stone because quite frankly, it rarely ever gets you to the other end of that stone path. In other words, it's actually what I have seen is the opposite. It becomes a stopgap. It becomes and for a lot of administrators or school systems, it becomes a reason that you don't have to take the next step because we're already doing something. When you look at the Feds, when you look at the law where we have to bring kids with and without disabilities together, oh, good, we can do that over here. So the kids are accessing that time and space with each other, but we never have to change what we're doing. And that's my biggest problem from it not from what a teacher is trying to do, but from a district or administration point of view, it fails to have the system interrogate itself. And so the larger structures never change. Oftentimes it's the reason why we never get there because we've got this sort of convenient situation now that we're sustaining where kids are getting somewhat access and they're getting but what they're usually not getting is access to that greater general education, the richness of the larger context of general education. The research has been remarkably consistent for 20 years. That the reason that we're asking these questions, which are just I hate that we're even asking and answering these questions about what's this poor teacher all by him or herself supposed to do. We know that the research says that we need leadership. Can you make it happen? I have no doubt. If anybody can, you can. But why should you have to on top of everything else you're doing as a teacher? How exhausting and how hard on both you and the students? We really do need those leaders. And we have seen examples where teachers have been the ones that have been the shepherds of this, but it is so much harder. And when we see schools that are robust and healthy and do the good work of inclusion and get those reputations. That's leadership.

I think Paula says it very nicely here:

...from a district or administration point of view, it fails to have the system interrogate itself. And so the larger structures never change. Oftentimes it's the reason why we never get there...

Recently, a colleague returned from the Council for Exceptional Children's Conference in Louisville, KY and told me that during one of the keynote presentations, a special education teacher that practices reverse inclusion was highlighted as an example of inclusion to the entire audience.

When they told me about that, I immediately thought of my conversation with Paula and how my own mindset had changed when I understood that in order for educational systems to move toward inclusive education, the leaderhip has to make a committment to serve all learners differently. So in a way, I couldn't really fault the teacher for wanting to do something. But it is very disappointing that even after ten years since the episode was published, things haven't seemed to move that much.

Continuing to practice reverse inclusion, have"special needs" dances where typically developing learners support, or plan any events and activities strictly for learners with disabilities in the name of creating a "safe space" may make educators and families feel like a school or district is moving toward inclusion, but in reality, it may be the thing that is keeping it from authentic inclusive education.

To learn more about inclusive education or how MCIE can partner with your school or district, visit


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