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No one likes to be left out of what’s happening around them. The concept of inclusion is one that might prevent hurt feelings, but more than that, it’s one that ensures people with special needs can participate in the processes of education, government, employment and society. Inclusion is part of what ensures everyone’s equality.

Being a part of the group

Children often interact as individual components of a singular unit; children in a classroom, players on a sports team, or members of a family.

Most of us can’t conceive of a situation where one member of the unit is singled out, but this scenario is what often occurred to children with disabilities at school, in public and private recreation programs, and at home, until a pivotal concept was embraced: Inclusion.

Inclusion is a model typically seen in education settings that involve special needs children – without regard to their specific disability – in activities and programs designed for all young people. It sets up reasonable accommodations to ensure children with special needs can participate in the learning process.

But the approaches used in inclusion apply to other aspects of life outside of school. Experts in disability have proven that children with special needs learn more, develop positive self-esteem, and make more social connections when they are part of the group with able-bodied children.

Statistics about the inclusion of students with disabilities is difficult to find. The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas, estimates that 43 percent of students in special education classes did not graduate from high school in the 1990s.

By 1999, USA Today reported that 57.4 percent of special education students did not graduate, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Today, more forethought has been given to discovering and developing new ways for children with special needs to participate in everyday activities. Assistive technology has evolved to help nonverbal children to speak and immobile children to participate. Individuals with specific physical challenges can compensate, adapt or modify.

The changes have radically improved the landscape for children with disabilities, allowing for more inclusion than ever before in school, during recreational activities, and while out within the community.

A child’s right to participate

At school, inclusion means that, at every step of the educational process, every effort be made to ensure that students with special needs spend the majority of their time in a conventional classroom.

The level of inclusion at school is either wholly, or partly, reliant on a student’s unique situation. Specific issues may be addressed within a special education classroom; this is especially true if a young person has a severe disability. It’s not uncommon for a student to spend more than half a day in a regular classroom, after which he or she moves to a separate room for supplementary instruction.

There are some students who have mild to moderate Cerebral Palsy – or another condition – that spend the entire day in a regular classroom with able-bodied students. In this situation, the student who may need assistance on a case-by-case basis may receive help from a paraprofessional.

The goal of inclusion is to provide young people with disabilities with the same educational and social opportunities that other children have, and to integrate them into all school activities. In most states, educators will meet with parents and create an individualized education program, or IEP, that will detail the child’s special education plan for the school year.

Another goal is to eliminate the negative connotation from the “special education” label, which may affect how a child sees his or her abilities. The term “special” which was intended to mean “supplementary” has evolved in popular culture into a negative connotation, sending the message that children with special needs may not be smart enough, or good enough, to be in a regular classroom.

Most schools have some level of inclusion because educators have generally embraced the concept, but often, those levels aren’t as far advanced as parents would like them to be.

Also, there is still a debate among educators regarding the effectiveness of full inclusion. One criticism about inclusion is the fact that it does not reduce the cost of education. Some educators also believe that the needs of children with severe disabilities are better served in a special education setting with fewer children and more one-on-one time with a teacher. Some are concerned with the levels of distraction that might ensue in some cases within the classroom.

Students have expressed their disappointment with being placed in a segregated special education room with the same group of children, year-after-year, especially if children of all disabilities and ages are taught the same material without a systemized standard for progression as is expected with their able-bodied peers. In particular, children with severe physical disabilities and those that are non-verbal are often mistaken for lacking intelligence.

Inclusion advocates, however, believe that access is a crucial factor in empowering children with disabilities because it sends the message that they are not only capable of performing the work of able-bodied students, that’s exactly of what is expected. In addition, able-bodied students garner a greater awareness and acceptance of others. This learning will carry acceptance and understanding in everyday settings well into adulthood.

Society’s duty to accept

The concept of inclusion, for every child with a disability, is about more than what happens at school.

It’s about inclusion at all levels and in all places, from home during his or her grade school years to college, to the workplace later in life. It’s about accommodation in the event individuals need provisions to take part in an activity, but more often, it’s about acknowledgement and acceptance from those in the able-bodied community.

Sometimes, exclusion occurs at home without intention.

For example, exclusion occurs when the child with a disability is fed before or after a family meal, instead of with the family. If a child eats their dinner at a different time and at a different table because of their disability, the child is excluded from the traditional family unit.

When a mom or dad takes their children out to play a game of baseball in the backyard, and a child with a disability is left on the sidelines; that is exclusion.

Exclusion often occurs when an overprotective parent believes a child would be safer by not participating in an activity. And although there are wonderful programs and activities designed specifically for children with disabilities, a parent should ask themselves, is it fair that a child be relegated to only those activities? Is there a way to adapt, modify or compensate?

It’s not about whether a child can actually play a traditional game of baseball, or whether he or she performs tasks in the way other children do. For children with disabilities, it’s about being noticed, accepted, accomplished, and feeling they are a vital part of the group.

Outside of the home, the approval of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 went a long way in terms of allowing people with disabilities to participate in activities in a meaningful way. For the first time, people with special needs could enter and exit many public buildings easily, essential facilities such as bathrooms were modified, and Universal Design standards were developed.

Accessibility and usability standards paved the way for greater opportunity for inclusion by breaking down the barriers to inclusion and participation.

There are still some aspects of inclusion that need to improve for individuals with disabilities; college attendance isn’t anywhere near the levels that it should be, and employment levels for disabilities remain dismal.

A parent’s ability to advocate

For parents, the home environment is easily managed. At home, before spending time on a certain activity, ask whether your child with disabilities is being included fully. If not, what opportunities are available to modify, adapt or compensate.

Family members should envision role reversal whereby they place themselves in the situation of the child with a disability. How would they feel? How would they want to be included?

Parents can also facilitate change at school and within the community. Insisting that a child can participate means being an advocate. If a child’s school wants to segregate a child exclusively to a special education room, ask why, and suggest other accommodations. If the educators at the school can’t provide valid reasons, contact the school board or actively seek available dispute resolution or mediation measures.

Remember, children with disabilities are first and foremost children and valuable members of their own family. They are also valuable members of society that given the opportunity for inclusion can be contributing and productive members, an integral aspect of quality of life. They have every right to expect to belong.


two friends hugging


When a child with a disability reaches adulthood, feelings about acceptance by others may linger. If young people learn to accept themselves during their formative years, explore interests, form friendships, accomplish, interact, and socialize at age-appropriate stages, it can help empower a sense of belonging when they’ve grown.

Learn more

For more helpful tips, visit
Managing Cerebral Palsy and
Maximizing Potential.