The Spirit of Inclusion

Author: Karen A. Waldron, Ph.D.

Mark, a fifth-grade student with a hearing impairment, regards his classmate appreciatively.  He’s interviewing a peer for a school newsletter.  Both are delighted to learn of a common interest in football and have begun to discuss their favorite teams.  Joe has already forgotten that he’s wearing the FM receiver around his neck so that Mark can receive amplification of his voice.  A new friendship is developing for both boys.

Not far away in her secondary classroom, Lee Ann and her partners in a Cooperative Learning Group sign "two minutes left" as they complete their study of the legacies of Roberta Reid and Helen Keller.  Previously in a separate school for Deaf students, Lee Ann is becoming bilingual, expanding from her original sign language to encompass an involvement in the oral community.  Her parents and teachers have encouraged her conveying knowledge of Deaf culture to her hearing peers.

With the degree of support by the teachers in Mark and Lee Ann’s classrooms, this quality of academic life for all students can build self-esteem, develop crucial friendships, and develop a sense of respect for diversity. 

Piaget tells us that the Sensory-Motor period for young children affords a multitude of opportunities to move about, touch, feel, see, hear, and taste environmental input.  But language is a critical outcome of this developmental stage as these early experiences form the basis for later abstract concepts and the ability to interact socially with others.  Depending on the child's age of onset and degree of hearing loss, as well as whether parents are themselves hearing or deaf, communication with the child may lag or progress based on early intervention.  While there has been tremendous debate about whether to focus on residual hearing in the development of oral language or to allow sign language to develop naturally or directed into an expressive base, there is agreement among researchers that children with hearing loss should be provided a strong communication system.  Gregory, Knight, McCracken, Powers, and Watson (1998) observe, "Children who have not acquired fluency in a first language by age five do not subsequently catch up, either in a signed or spoken language (p. 65)."  When this early language immersion is absent, students with hearing impairments may appear to be slow learners or sometimes even intellectually delayed, when indeed they are gifted but require a variety of different learning strategies from their hearing peers.  Even when language modeling and instruction are present, if communication differs from that of the family, learning and social interactions will be different from those of hearing siblings and peers.

Sensory losses can have an impact upon relationships with others, subsequently affecting self-esteem and the development of positive, healthy emotions.  We all need at least three things: Attention, Affection, and Approval from others, in order to feel good about ourselves.  But these “3 A’s” are based on a fourth “A”- Affiliation, that acknowledges our need to belong to a group and to enjoy the wonderful relationships that life has in store for us.  Yet, more than 90 percent of children who are deaf are born to hearing parents, placing them in a minority group to which their parents do not belong (Marschark, Lang, & Albertini, 2002).  Rarely intentionally, many children with hearing losses are isolated and restricted from joining in conversations or group activities.  Without intervention, it can be more than challenging to develop a positive self-esteem when young and a clear sense of identity as an adolescent.  Isolation can change to inclusion when successful communication methods of the student are considered and when educators, families, and counselors work together to construct an environment where the child's personal and learning needs can be met.

But, as with other populations, because of wide variations in personal and family factors, a stereotypic response to students will not work. The cause of the hearing loss (hereditary or adventitious) must be considered, along with the age of onset.  If biological parents are deaf, it is likely that children's early exposure to language and interactions with others will be more developed than in a child with hearing parents.  When hearing losses occur after oral language has already developed, educational planning may be clearer.  Other families may be torn between immersing their child into a signed or spoken language, or a bilingual program.  Often, these programs are not clearly defined, but based on school philosophy and educator preference.  It is unlikely that instructional decisions will be made all at once, but will vary along a continuum based on the child's success with a communication system as well as parental preference and available programs in the community.  Students living in larger cities will experience more options than those in rural or isolated areas.

Response to Deaf culture will also be a critical variable for students and their families.  Based on a sense that deafness is not best defined as a disability, but as a cultural and linguistic difference that deserves respect and acknowledgment, profoundly oppositional viewpoints need to be respected.  But ideological differences within the Deaf Community will have an impact in areas of extreme concern for a family:  Should they obtain a cochlear implant for their child or honor the deafness?  Will sign or speech be the preferred method of communication?  Is it an acceptable alternative to join the bilingual community, affording subsequent bi-culturalism as well?

Outside the family, little defines the childhood of students with hearing impairment more than the type of primary and secondary educational setting.  A continuum of services exists, but as an era of assessment and competition for resources forges ahead, communities have focused on inclusive rather than separate environments.  Yet, to the Deaf community, residential and special schools have been a long-term response to the child's social and cultural needs.  Through providing role models in teachers and peers, they have established a unique opportunity for deaf children of deaf parents to develop an emotional, linguistic, and academic support system that would be very difficult to achieve in an inclusive environment.  While research outcomes vary, more indicate that hearing impaired and deaf children who attend separate schools obtain a higher level of emotional maturity than those attending mainstream environments.  Likely this is a result of the students' education being designed around the needs of children with hearing loss.  On the other hand, hearing families' goals often differ through their emphasis on preparing their child to participate fully in the hearing community as an adult.  Particularly at the secondary level, outcomes indicate that those attending more inclusive settings in public schools may have more exposure to and success with advanced academic subjects (Marschark et al., 2002). 

The question then becomes: Is it possible for inclusive settings to include support to develop a student's self-esteem and identity through respect for diversity of individual linguistic and learning needs?  Inclusion of students with any type of learning difference in general education classes has caused both excitement and upset for educators and parents.  While perceptions and even definitions of inclusion vary, educators agree that it involves the “…maximum integration of students with disabilities into general classrooms or the increase in numbers or proportions of students who receive special services while attending general education classes” (McCoy, 1995; Putnam, 1993).  Inclusion differs from mainstreaming because it is a “pull-in” philosophy, where students are educated in the general classroom for the majority or totality of their day.  Supportive services and technology, such as amplification systems, are brought to that classroom wherever possible.  In contrast, mainstreaming is a “pull-out philosophy,” through which mainstreamed students attend local schools, but often receive their education in separate classes for part or most of their day.  Inclusion goes farther than mainstreaming in assuring that children will be educated with their hearing peers on as full-time a basis as possible.

The degree of inclusion has been a matter of ongoing dispute, especially in considering the placement needs of students with severe disabilities.  Educators such as Stainback and Stainback (1996) believe in full inclusion, where all students attend general classes, despite the severity of their learning differences.  Yet, other researchers such as Lerner (2003) believe that even those students with milder disabilities such as dyslexia and language impairments or behavioral disorders should not be included in general education classes unless numerous ongoing specialized supports are provided. 

Despite the understandable debate over the degree of inclusion, most administrators of special education programs agree that decisions should be made on an individual basis, prioritizing a student’s unique needs and only then selecting the best classroom placement.  They remind school Superintendents and Principals that inclusion cannot work for any students who are placed in general classes with an untrained teacher and without ongoing specialist assistance.

Necessary supports are detailed in the student’s Individual Educational Program (IEP).  This teaching plan is the result of a school or district in-depth assessment of student needs, the diagnosis of a disability, and the input of educators and parents who meet to discuss the best forms of programming to improve the student’s academic and behavioral skills.  The IEP provides a bridge between assessment and intervention.  It elaborates the student’s academic and behavioral performance, underscoring problem areas.  Dates for providing services are included as well as a plan for the committee to meet again to review the effectiveness of instructional interventions.  The plan also contains annual academic and behavioral goals, with specific objectives, and provides ways to evaluate the plan’s success.      

In the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) amendments of 1997 require the members of the IEP team to explore the language needs of each student with a hearing impairment and place the child in a setting where there are "…opportunities for direct communications with peers and professional personnel in the child's language and communication mode, academic level, and full range of needs, including opportunities for direct instruction in the child's language and communication mode (Sec. 300.346, iv)."

The IEP includes specific services the student will receive.  It notes strategies for teaching the student, such as shortened lessons with activity breaks for students with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD).  It indicates the type of participation the student will have in general education classes, such as, for example, full inclusion with only technological support or scheduled consultation with a teacher of the hearing impaired.  The IEP becomes a legal contract which details the responsibilities of the general and specialist teachers who will work with the student, as well as necessary related services and family supports, in order to meet educational and behavioral goals (Waldron, 1996). 

But, despite the most carefully written IEPs and the best of plans, national and statewide programmatic changes can yield far more influence that decisions made on individual school campuses.  In the United States, the advent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001 (PL 107-100), renamed the No Child Left Behind Act,  now requires system-level accountability to assure that all students are reading and performing math at grade level by 2014.  It mandated that only one percent of students in public schools can receive alternative assessments and that two percent can be assessed with modified standards.  The majority of students receiving special education services who are exempted from taking standardized tests have serious cognitive impairments, such as autism or severe developmental delays.  All other students must demonstrate "Adequate Yearly Progress" in order for their school to be considered in compliance with the law.

Understandably, these legal decisions have created very challenging programmatic issues for teachers and students with hearing impairments and their families.  While students are permitted to use assistive technology supporting their ongoing success in the classroom, deaf students and children with less-developed abilities to read and write English may experience failure for reasons outside their control.  And in an age faced with concerns over equity and excellence, some teachers will have ambivalent responses to including students with special needs in their general education classes.  While most agree that every child deserves to receive the same quality of instruction, they need the skills and techniques to be able to maintain high performance standards without slowing or “watering down” the curriculum.  In an age where educational success is measured by the results of standardized tests and competition in the work-world, all students must be able to learn and apply content at a rapid rate.  These emphases make it particularly difficult for the classroom teacher when students with unique differences, such as a hearing loss, are placed in their classrooms.  Rarely does a teacher want to exclude any child from the classroom. But without training in teaching students with sensory losses and with recent funding cuts resulting in fewer visits by specialist teachers, it’s often difficult to meet the needs of students with hearing impairments as well as fully support the learning of hearing peers.

The purpose of this handbook is to provide specific and practical things that educators can do to successfully include students with hearing losses in their general education classrooms.  After initially describing students' learning characteristics, the focus will then be on teachers’ primary concern:  the most successful teaching strategies available.  We will discuss the way educators can make best use of even limited specialists’ time in their classrooms, as well as the technology available to enable students to participate as fully as possible.  Importantly, we will offer daily social skills strategies so that the student can adapt to teacher expectations and develop the friendships that are so important to all of us.  We will focus on ways to work with children and families from varied cultural backgrounds, allowing educators to interact well with parents and to model and embrace diversity daily in their classrooms.

We will refer you to on-line Internet resources for the sites you may want to visit for additional information.  As you develop inclusive programs in your schools, we hope that you will use the ideas in this book, print individual pages or the entire text freely to share with your colleagues, and modify strategies to meet the unique needs of your classroom.  Our goals are twofold:  to see that no student faces the tragedy of a lonely, isolated childhood and to assure that every student can have a place in our classrooms and experience personal and academic success.





  • Gregory, S; Knight, P; McCraken, W., Powers, S. & Watson, L. (1998).  Issues in deaf education.  London: David Fulton Publishers. 
  • Marschark, M., Lang, H.G., & Albertini, J.A. (2002).  Educating deaf students: From research to practice.  New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lerner, J. (2003).  Learning Disabilities:  Theories, diagnosis, and teaching strategies. Boston, MD:  Houghton-Mifflin.
  • McCoy, K.M. (1995). Teaching special learners in the general education classroom: Methods and techniques.  Denver, CO:  Love Publishing. 
  • Putnam, J (1993).  Cooperative learning and strategies for inclusion: Celebrating diversity in the classroom.  Baltimore, MD:  Paul H. Brookes.
  • Stainback, S.B., & Stainback, W.C. (1996). Inclusion:  A guide for educators.  Baltimore, MD:  Paul H. Brookes.
  • Waldron, K.A. (1996).  Introduction to a special education:  The inclusive classroom.  NY: ITP/Wadsworth.