This month, we want to talk about why inclusive education is important, and why ensuring that special education support is provided in a student’s least restrictive environment matters not only in the short term, but also in the long run.

DREDF is founded on the idea that disability rights are civil and human rights. In the Parent Training and Information Center (PTI), we work to train, support and empower parents and community partners to keep children with disabilities in their most inclusive, least restrictive educational settings, and to ensure that if children need a different kind of setting for some or all of their day, the long term goal is always to help them return to a program where they interact with children without disabilities. There are no special day classes in real life—we want all children to participate in and contribute to their communities, and to avoid institutionalization and isolation.

We know that sometimes the general education environment does not offer enough support to help a child reach their IEP goals. IEP goals are at the center of the special education process—once evaluation establishes a starting point, goals for one year later determine the types of services (speech, social skills, academic, motor, behavior, etc.) needed and how much specialized instruction, support and accommodations/modifications a student requires to receive a FAPE (free, appropriate, public education). We help parents understand their options, including the option to advocate to pull children out of their regular classrooms at times, because critical learning needs can’t be addressed there.

We also know that many families worry that special education eligibility might mean exclusion and segregation—especially for children of color, or children from marginalized communities. When children are placed in more segregated settings, we rarely see goals in the IEP to decrease time in those settings or to move into general education—driving a perception that special education is a place rather than a program, and albeit a place where children are “sent out” instead of included.

One of the reasons that “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE) is so important as a guiding principle in special education is that teaching children to participate and engage in community has significant impacts on all children and their families. When parents learn how to advocate for their children, and help their children learn to advocate for themselves, doors of opportunity open. When a child does not have the skills necessary to function in the community, the consequences can be dire. Families tell us that they risk losing housing, recreational activities or access to public benefits when a child’s behavior, access or disability related needs are not considered or are misunderstood.

Inclusive education is not about “allowing” our children with disabilities in the school house door—it is ensuring that they have access to a meaningful life, to sharing their gifts, to maximum independence and self–determination. Schools are often the first place that children experience a community outside their immediate family or neighborhood, and encounter people different than themselves. In inclusive settings, they learn that teachers and staff work in support of everyone, that every student matters, and see these values modeled. Inclusive schools and classrooms encourage open and frank dialogue about differences as well as a respect for those with different abilities, cultural backgrounds, and needs. Field trips, celebrations, and extracurricular activities are accessible to all children so that informal learning includes everybody

PTIs around the country can help you develop skills to advocate for better access, inclusion, and meaningful participation of children with disabilities in your local schools and communities. If you are concerned that your child is not in their least restrictive, most inclusive educational setting, contact your local PTI.

DREDF – Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Berkeley, CA , 11/28/16 newsletter