The Spirit of Inclusion

Authors: Karen Waldron, Ph. D. and Michael Steer, Ph.D.

Jacqui, a student in second grade with low vision, removes her bean seed from the sprouter on the class window ledge and carefully replaces the cover. Bringing it to her desk, she places it on a rectangle of black construction paper and slides it under her stand magnifier. She leans closer to the lens then touches her classmate's arm. "Take a look Annie- the bean has hairs!"

With the degree of support by the teachers in Jacqui’s classrooms, this quality of academic life for students with vision impairments can build self-esteem, help develop crucial friendships, and give faith that the future is there to explore.

In the worst of circumstances, where students with sensory losses are excluded from daily interactions in and around school and from supportive technology, we can only imagine what it would be like for Jacqui to have to guess at the appearance of the objects and people around her.  In training workshops, we adults can simulate the experience by wearing a blindfold, but even during this imitation we know in our hearts that our sensory deprivation is only temporary.  In minutes we’ll be able to peel off the blindfold and after describing our feelings to others, return to the full sensory exploration of our day.  

But without our support, this return to the “typical” world isn’t possible for the many children who experience a vision loss.  Jacqui, for example, can’t take off the blindfold that shields her from her friends’ faces in a classroom or prohibits full involvement when peers enjoy a video.  The very nature of a vision impairments results in exclusion from childhood experiences critical to learning, experiences that her sighted classmates share without effort.

Piaget tells us that the Sensory-Motor period for young children affords hundreds, even thousands, of opportunities to move about, touch, feel, see, hear, and taste input from their environment.  But having had accidents, a child who is blind may be placed in a “playpen” for safety’s sake.  He or she doesn’t crawl to the coffee table and look down through the glass top and so develop an awareness both of the concept of “table-ness” and a heightened sense of depth perception when peering over the top. As a result, students with vision impairments may appear to be slow learners or sometimes even extremely intellectually delayed, when indeed they are gifted but require a variety of different learning strategies from their sighted peers.  

Sensory losses also have an impact upon relationships with others and affect self-esteem and the development of positive, healthy emotions. We all need at least three things: AttentionAffection, 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, rarely intentionally, many children with visual losses are doubly isolated, and therefore doubly disabled.  The very nature of vision disability restricts their joining in conversations or group activities, and they may also receive a major part of their school instruction in separate classes or schools, away from ordinary, everyday sighted communities.

But a vision impairment does not have to be a lifetime sentence of exclusion. Many people with limited vision do have happy personal and professional lives, often as a result of early intervention by educators and families who worked together to provide the best learning and emotionally supportive environments possible.  Embracing the normalization principle that Wolfensburger (1972) described more than 30 years ago, they have found that access to situations and relationships that are “normal” for mainstream society allows them to have healthy and fulfilling lives as well.  As a result, increasingly more students with vision impairments are participating in general education classrooms,* supported by educators working together.

Inclusion of students with any type of disability in general education classes has caused both excitement and upset for some 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, and supportive services such as orientation and mobility training 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 daily with their non-disabled peers, allowing the enhanced development of social and academic skills that are so important to their happiness and success as adults.

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 the disability.  Yet, other researchers such as Janet 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 ongoing specialized supports are provided.  The Council for Learning Disabilities (2001) underscores that students should be supported by the spectrum of special education services.  They support a full continuum of units for students with disabilities, permitting placements in resource and self-contained environments when these settings would provide significant student learning  support. 

Despite the understandable debates 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 academic and developmental needs and only then selecting the best classroom placement (Council of Administrators of Special Education, 2004). They remind school Superintendents and Principals that inclusion cannot work for any students who are “dumped” into 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.      

The IEP includes specific services the student will receive, such as orientation and mobility training or supplementary aids, such as Braille, talking books, and a variety of hand-held magnifiers.  Often, 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 technology support, or scheduled consultation with a teacher of the vision 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, in an age faced with concerns over equity and excellence, understandably some teachers still have ambivalent responses to including students with vision impairments in their general education classes.  Most agree that every child deserves to receive the same quality of instruction.  They understand from years of research that most students with disabilities have a more “normal” experience and greater self-esteem when placed in general education.  Yet, teachers need to be able to maintain high performance standards without slowing or “watering down” the curriculum.  In a time 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 vision 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 include students with vision impairments without sacrificing the learning of the rest of the class.

The purpose of this web site is to provide both theoretical and practical aspects of successfully including students with vision losses in general education classrooms.  In our Research and Reflections sectionwe will include a number of conference papers that enable the exploration of both philosophical and research-based conclusions.  This link will be updated as we receive important papers from acknowledged leaders in the field of vision impairment.

On an applied basis, after initially describing the learning characteristics of  students with vision impairment and supports for an inclusion program, 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 behavior management and 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 these ideas, reproduce individual pages or entire sections 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 also that every student can have a place in our classrooms.

* Throughout, we use the term general classes to refer to those attended by non-disabled students.

  • Comments and Recommendations on the Spectrum of Services in Special Education:  Submitted in Response to the White Papers Presented at the Learning Disabilities Summit.  Leesburg, VA:  Council for Learning Disabilities (August, 2001).
  • IDEA 2004 – Accountability:  SEA, LEA, and IEP Implementation (2004).  Arlington, VA:  Council of Administrators of Special Education.
  • Kochhar, A.A. & West, L.L. (1996). Handbook for successful inclusion.  Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers.
  • 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.
  • Wolfensberger, W. (1972).  The principle of Normalization in human services.  Toronto:  National Institute on Mental Retardation.