Research at the UW shows that children with and without disabilities do better in inclusive classrooms. The fear that some kids will be slowed down by kids with disabilities is just not true.

Share story

Starting in a little over a week, the Special Olympics USA games arrive in Seattle. We will be celebrating the accomplishments of more than 4,000 people with intellectual disabilities as they demonstrate their skills in gymnastics, swimming, track and field, and a variety of other events.

Although these athletes will be in the limelight July 1-6, many will return home to lives of segregation, exclusion and lack of opportunity. That can change, and we as educators, employers and citizens can be the agents of that change.

Inclusive education — providing children with disabilities the opportunities to learn alongside their typically developing peers — is the first step.

At the Haring Center at the University of Washington, we run an inclusive early childhood learning center for children of all abilities and backgrounds, from birth through kindergarten. Every day more than 225 children attend early intervention, preschool and kindergarten classes. Some of these children have intellectual disabilities, some are gifted and some are learning to speak English. All of these children and their teachers work together to create an inclusive school.

Researchers at the UW have been studying inclusive education for more than 50 years. We have research evidence that shows children with and without disabilities do better in inclusive classrooms. The big fear is that typically developing children in inclusive settings are going to be slowed down by children with disabilities, but considerable research shows that’s not true. Individualization helps all.

In 1975, a revolutionary federal law, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), was passed. This law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate public education” to be provided in the least restrictive environment possible.

Despite this law, we in Washington state (and across the country) are breaking our promise to students with disabilities and their families. The number of children with disabilities who complete high school is abysmal: Only 58 percent of students in Washington state who have an identified disability complete high school. The employment numbers for these young adults after high school is even worse: Currently only 36.8 percent of adults with disabilities in Washington state are employed.

In many schools in Washington, children with disabilities are segregated from their typically developing peers. This means that because of a diagnosis and the need for extra assistance, they are removed from classrooms with their typically developing peers and placed in classrooms where, despite the best efforts of dedicated teachers, the expectations are often low and the instruction is subpar.

In many special-education classrooms, children and teachers do not have access to the same types of curriculum as their general education peers, and instructional assistants teach the lessons. In other words, students with the most significant learning needs frequently receive the majority of their instruction from people with the least training.

We can do better. The Washington state constitution says the paramount duty of the state is to educate all children. Let’s begin now, by providing educators with the training and coaching they need to teach all of the children in their classrooms. This is not easy and does not happen in a weekend workshop. It is a commitment to rethinking what success in school means. It is recognizing that special education is a service, not a place. There is nothing special about being required to leave your classroom to receive the instruction to which you are entitled.

Let’s start by remembering that every student with a disability is a general-education student first. In an attempt to harness the Olympic spirit and dream big, what if every school district in Washington started the 2018-19 school year by placing all kindergarten students, regardless of ability or background, in general-education classrooms? Special-education services would follow those students and help them and their teachers meet their needs, and make meaningful progress toward important educational outcomes.

By identifying children by their strengths, rather than their labels, we can create schools that make everyone feel like champions.