The philosophy of inclusion promotes students with disabilities attending their neighborhood schools, as well as being an equally active part of the overall school environment, with students being placed in classrooms based on their age and grade level, rather than on their current academic level of functioning. The inclusion movement has been a primary focus of controversy among educators and administrators and our current society has conflicting views of inclusive education depending on their previous experiences in this area. For many years, students with significant support needs were not given the opportunity to be a part of the regular education community. They have been segregated into other types of educational settings, causing isolation from their non-disabled peers (Khalsa, 1999). In 2003, Lipton stated that segregation of students with disabilities in the educational system is the equivalent of institutionalization, which has been found to have a profoundly negative effect on the academic progress of these students. Inclusion can be defined as the process of overcoming the segregation of students who learn in non-traditional ways, while assisting teachers in helping these students become accepted in the mainstream school environment.
In 1954, in the case of Brown vs. The Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place in public education. This decision was a major contributing factor in the integration of the "least restrictive environment" provision into current law. The right of children with disabilities to a free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive environment, was ensured by the passing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Public Law 94-142 in 1975 (Sax, 1999). Prior to 1997, IDEA did not specifically address the involvement of students with disabilities in the general education system. The 1997 amendments to IDEA created a more specific focus on the Individual Education Plan (IEP) as the primary tool for enhancing student involvement and progress in the general education curriculum. Under the 1997 amendments to IDEA, the IEP team for each student must include at least one of the student’s regular education teachers, who must participate in the development, review, and revision of the IEP. Since IDEA was passed in 1975, there have been numerous court cases that have upheld the right of students with disabilities to be included in the general education classrooms of their neighborhood schools with appropriate supplemental aids and services. Despite the clear mandate in the law to increase the inclusion of students with disabilities, recent statistics reveal that there is slow movement in this direction (Davis, 1992).
Wehman (1992) found that people with significant support needs who are segregated during their school years will most likely be socially isolated and dependent on someone for their daily functioning as adults. Further research indicates that segregation of students with significant support needs results in a severe lack of knowledge acquisition in the areas of all general education subjects, as well as problems with social isolation and inappropriate behavior (Castagnera, Fisher, Rodifer & Sax, 1998). When compared with students in more segregated settings, students who are included in the general education classrooms have been found to do better on academic assignments and in their interactions with others (Baker, Wang & Walberg, 1994/1995). Although students with disabilities may seem to require more support when placed in a general education classroom, research shows that these students gain more from an inclusive setting than they could possibly receive in a segregated setting (Downing, 2002).
To successfully promote the value of inclusion, there must be effective collaboration among special educators, families, regular educators, administrators, peers and the students themselves. Many conditions are necessary to support the implementation of the inclusion of students with significant support needs into general education classrooms. According to Putnam (1998, p. 14), "in order to blend students with challenging learning and social needs into general education classrooms a teacher must create climates that avoid isolation, rejection, and stereotyping." The method by which the idea of inclusion is presented to general education teachers can make the difference between future successful practice or an ineffective and frustrating process. Classroom teachers are not only vital members of the collaborative team, but they must also utilize their skills and knowledge to create a positive and successful classroom environment. These teachers have the responsibility to plan for and provide meaningful and relevant learning and to encourage and support all students within the classroom in order for all to become successful learners. "They can provide opportunities for students to build self-esteem and to feel intrinsic rewards; the teacher facilitates learning (Heimburge & Reif, 1996, p. 20)." "Collaboration has become a key concept in education (Buswell, Schaffner, Thousand & Villa, 1999, p. 9)," with partnership with the general education teachers being essential to achieving the educational goals of students with disabilities.
Close collaboration with the families of students with disabilities is another effective means of promoting successful inclusive education. Both schools and families could benefit from working together to reach the common goals of all students. By using the family’s experiences and focusing on their post-school outlook for their student, the teacher and other IEP team members can work with the family to develop a program that will allow the student to achieve those future hopes and dreams. The earlier that families are introduced to the practice of inclusion and its benefits, the more they will understand and advocate for services within the general education classroom setting.
Research has also shown that students without disabilities benefit from the inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education classroom (Evan, Salisbury, Palombaro & Goldberg, 1994; Hunt, Staub, Alwell & Goetz, 1994). When students with disabilities transfer from a self-contained program into a general education classroom where full inclusion in practiced, they may initially feel uncomfortable. However, if students with disabilities remain segregated throughout school, they will most likely be secluded from the general community when they become adults. Students with disabilities may not know how to act outside of a self-contained, segregated setting, leading to difficulties in their interactions with non-disabled individuals, who may not have had experience conversing and working with people with disabilities. As noted by Flynn and Kowalczyk-McPhee, "to be excluded from an ordinary educational career and placed in a special education system probably means the person is destined for a special life style and special employment (Ayres, Stainback & Stainback, 1996, p. 32)."