Ever since I took an entire month to focus on promoting independence I have been told by many how much they have appreciated hearing about getting learners to do more on their own. It’s not that promoting independence is a new concept, but it is a topic that everyone is thinking about though few are actually discussing in special education. There is, by far, more conversation focused on meaningful access to the general education curriculum and inclusion. While these are significant components in our field, a conflict arises I think we all need to address: inclusion vs. independence. Are we building indpendence in our learners so that they can be more included, or are we including our learners with our general education students so that they can become more independent? Which is more important? Which takes priority? Or in other words, what is bigger when it comes to IDEA?
After many restless nights, hours of contemplation, back-and-forth dialogue with colleagues and experts, I can now offer you practical advice: good luck picking a side. Yes, there are sides, many sides within IDEA, and they all need to be working together so as to make a difference for special learners. IDEA’s primary purpose is to assure that students with disabilities receive sufficient services to enable them to lead productive adult lives. M.M. v. School Bd. of Miami Dade County, 437 F.3d 1085 (11th Cir. 2006); 20 U.S.C. 1401(d)(1)(B); Bd. of Educ. of the Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982). Every action, every moment, every goal we put forth for a student in special education needs to be directed towards maximizing their potential outcomes beyond public education. Inclusion is a means by which we can help support this, but we must remember that it is a means and not the end. We are doing wrong by kids if we are promoting inclusion just for the sake of promoting inclusion. If we are going to incorporate our special learners more with their general education peers then they have to be given the proper supports or prerequisite skills to learn in those precious moments. Learning does not happen through osmosis, it happens through experiences. In special education we must nurture those experiences so our learners may grow in their skill set of being able to navigate the world.
The great news is that we have more information today than ever on how to make the most out of inclusion. If you want the best resource on this matter, I recommend you look no further than Paula Kluth’s website. Her blogs and books on how to create inclusive schools and classrooms are overflowing with great ideas. I have particularly enjoyed her training DVD. It speaks from the heart while also showing many real life examples of effective inclusion. Professionals such as Paula remind us that we can do so much more to create meaningful experiences around the schoolhouse for our special learners.
However, we can’t fall into the trap of being so passionate about inclusion that it blinds us from being able to see situations where inclusion may not be the best option at the given time. It may be more appropriate for a student to be learning social skills or job skills in a self-contained setting, learning skills that they will eventually generalize to other settings rather than being placed in a history class where they are completely lost. We can’t be blind to what is more appropriate for the learner! That is what puts the A in FAPE!!
So to take a side on which is the bigger component of IDEA, inclusion or independence, the right side is both! We are teaching independent skills to our learners in more isolated settings where they can be mastered before they are generalized to the rest of the schoolhouse and, eventually, the world. The more skills they possess, the more doors will be open for them beyond public education. We are building independence now in our learners so that they will be included more with the rest of the world as an adult. Simultaneously, when and where appropriate, we are focusing on inclusion because it opens the door for more learning while providing the real world platform in which our kids will experience adulthood. And because of that inclusive experience, their peers and their generation will be that much more prepared to accept them as adults. Promoting inclusion or independence should never come at the cost of the other. Rather, each must be enacted, together, such that promoting inclusion leads to greater independence, and promoting independence leads to the greatest inclusion experience of all – one navigating the world as a fully empowered adult.