Future Reflections Special Issue: Blind Children with Additional Disabilities
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by Srikala Naraian
From the Editor: Born in India, Srikala Naraian taught blind and visually impaired students in the United States for eight years. Having earned a PhD in education from the University of Missouri at St. Louis, she is currently an assistant professor at Teacher's College of Columbia University. Her work and her life reflect her passionate commitment to inclusive education.
When I was a teacher of blind and visually impaired children, the greatest impetus to my work came not from my teacher preparation program but from the mentoring and friendships I found through the National Federation of the Blind in Chicago. I remain acutely conscious of this important connection today as a faculty member within a teacher preparation program at a major university. As I prepare special educators to push forward the goals of an inclusive agenda, I adhere to a tradition in academic scholarship that has come to be known as disability studies in education. This tradition uses a "social model" rather than the "medical model" approach to disability that is widespread in many professions. It does not see blindness and other disabilities as deficits within people. Rather, it interprets disability as arising from the interaction of people with social institutions such as education, law, and health care. It goes without saying that this body of work is deeply rooted in disability-rights activism.
In this article I would like to share some thoughts about inclusive education. I am especially concerned with students with significant multiple disabilities. These are the children and youth who often are considered "too disabled" to be included in a general education setting. The concept of inclusive education emerged from within special education as families and educators pressed for students to be moved out of restrictive self-contained classes and placed in general education classrooms. Today the meaning of the term has been broadened to connote schools and classrooms that are hospitable to all learners, particularly those from historically marginalized groups. Within schools, however, inclusion continues to be framed as the placement of students with disabilities in general education classrooms. Consequently, educators speak of "inclusion" classrooms, almost as though other classrooms do not need to be inclusive. Broadening the concept of inclusive education necessarily implies that we cannot put arbitrary limits on who can or cannot be included. All classrooms must be inclusive. All students should be welcomed into the schools and classrooms they would attend whether or not they are disabled.
For too long it has been presumed that inclusion can only work for students with mild or moderate disabilities. Schools all over the country struggle with, and sometimes resist, the inclusion of students with significant disabilities within general education classrooms. It is commonly thought that such students are better served through more restrictive placements that supposedly can meet their unique needs. However, research has clearly shown that the rationale behind segregated placements is flawed. Such placements create an artificial separation between "functional" and "academic" skills. They do not consider the learning opportunities inherent in the myriad interactive experiences that occur within mainstream classrooms. They prepare students for institutional care rather than community living.
In my own research I have sought out classrooms where students with multiple disabilities have been successfully included. My goals have been twofold. I certainly wish to advance our knowledge about the inclusion of students with significant disabilities within mainstream settings. Simultaneously, I use significant disability as a lens through which to investigate how inclusive classrooms can be implemented. Such examination provokes a deeper inquiry into how we understand classroom communities.
I have spent many hours in elementary and secondary classrooms where students with significant disabilities were included. Through my observations I have tried to understand the factors that determined the nature of their participation. I found peers eager to explore relationships with their disabled classmates, expressing their interest in many and varied ways. I have noticed deep relationships forming between students with disabilities and their peers, relationships that were supported by teachers. I talked with teachers who were committed to ensuring that these students experienced safety and security within their classrooms and furthered their academic development. I spoke to therapists who supported these teachers in all the ways they could. I encountered administrators who prioritized family concerns when facilitating the inclusive process.
On the other hand, I also heard some teachers express discontent and even anger at school policies that required inclusion. They worried about the "functional" development of students with significant disabilities who were included, and felt that such "inclusion" policies seemed to discount their professional knowledge in favor of yielding to family wishes. I came to realize that "inclusion" also meant enrollment in special education courses and lower-track classes. I noticed high-school students with significant disabilities being offered preschool texts while their peers worked on literacy goals, or idling in the hallway when their peers were taking tests.
I also observed peers having very little interaction with multiply disabled students outside the classroom. When I met with peers in a series of interviews, they expressed indignation at ways in which the educational program of their classmates with disabilities had been designed. They argued that teachers focused so much on a student's disability that they were oblivious to his/her needs as an adolescent, struggling like other students to make sense of high school. Some peers suggested simple ways that a student with significant disabilities could be drawn into the classroom community. "Like just saying his name," one teen commented regarding Michael, a visually impaired classmate who uses a wheelchair and is largely nonverbal. "You know how a teacher will pull out a student and say, 'So-and-so, are you awake?' It could be like, 'Michael, do you understand that?' When he hears his name he knows he is being talked to." Other peers were outraged that teachers had unthinkingly placed Michael in a girls-only aerobics class.
I found that these students could imagine many scenarios for successful inclusion of students with significant disabilities outside the classroom. They suggested that Michael could take part in a fashion show or have a non-speaking role in a school play. They even described his capacity to care for others and to have meaningful relationships. One of Michael's peers observed, "I could see him helping other people a lot, even if it's just coming into the room and, you know, just being there. He can help anybody. He's just got that type of characteristic where he can just help someone." Such ways of thinking about Michael seemed beyond the scope of most educators.
In all these instances, it seemed clear that the nature of participation of the student with significant disabilities was contingent on the moral stance of administrators and teachers. Did they see students with significant disabilities as legitimate members of the school community? Did they feel that these students should be involved at every level in the school's programs, and did they recognize their capacity to contribute?
It was clear that the practices within schools and classrooms determined the extent to which "inclusion" was successful. The teacher's approach to curriculum and facility with various instructional methods framed the possibilities for participation for all students, including those with significant disabilities. When classrooms were dominated by whole-group instruction, stringent expectations of independent performance, and rigid assignments, there were very few entry points for students with significant disabilities. The teacher also set the tone for interactions of students in the classroom through the climate she/he created. The types of student-student and teacher-student interaction that were permitted, the rules of behavior, and the seating arrangements all made a difference. Equally important were the ways the teachers handled and helped students understand social conflict, peer relations, and questions about disability and ability within the classroom.
I also learned that some common practices of special education have an impact on the participation of students with significant disabilities in the general education classroom. The practice of pulling students from class to deliver instruction in hallways or other "special" rooms, accepted as necessary and reasonable, serves to set the student apart from peers. The "velcroing" of paraprofessionals to students also compromises peers' abilities to recognize their classmate with significant disabilities as a member of their classroom. Teachers' assumptions that the primary responsibility for the students with disabilities belongs to the special education teacher also works against such membership. In deferring to the "specialized" knowledge of the special educators, general education teachers fail to recognize their own expertise in facilitating the social and academic growth of the student with disabilities. Thus both general and special education structures are implicated in the success or failure of students with significant disabilities to participate effectively in mainstream classrooms.
All students want and need to be known by their peers and teachers. They need to be allowed to express who they are in their classrooms. Traditional tools such as speech and writing may be ineffective for some students with significant disabilities. While technology certainly offers some advantages, teachers' creativity in structuring classroom experiences can generate many opportunities for students to come to know each other in ways that might otherwise remain hidden. We need peer narratives that can counter the traditional assumptions that are often made by adults in schools, assumptions premised on notions of a student's inability or incompetence. My studies document that it is always in the context of positive relations with peers and adults that students with significant disabilities emerge as assertive, joyous, curious, naughty, purposeful, caring, and determined.
As educators we need to presume that all our students, including those with the most significant disabilities, are capable of learning and growing. We need to move away from the notion that our students' abilities are innate and fixed. Such a shift will permit teachers to focus less on the presumed problems that students bring and redirect their attention to the kinds of supports that can be made available to them within the classroom. My own research and that of many others has shown that when teachers offer a range of instructional and curricular options, they meet the needs of all learners most effectively. This approach also ensures that students with significant disabilities have maximum opportunities to participate. Instructional approaches that are premised on collaborative learning and the notion of multiple intelligences, for example, offer many points of entry for students with different learning profiles.
The successful inclusion of students with significant disabilities in schools and classrooms, it is clear, is never independent of the institutional context. When we hear educators warn us that inclusion may be possible in elementary classrooms, but will not work at the secondary level, once again it is the severity of a student's disability that is being blamed. What is rarely addressed is the extent to which the structures within secondary schools constrain many students, such as students from immigrant families and ethnic minority groups, as well as students with significant disabilities. Research has shown increasingly that traditional forms of instruction reach a very narrow band of students. In fact, many students respond with disengagement from their entire school experience. New models offer improved ways for all students to access content and demonstrate learning. Such approaches hold much promise for developing more inclusive schools. The extent to which they can be meaningful for students with significant disabilities, however, depends on the recognition that they are important members of the school community and that their presence and participation enriches everyone.
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