Inclusive Today, Independent Tomorrow
By Robert Schroeder
The nationwide unemployment hovering around nine percent is bad news for working Americans. For Americans with disabilities, it's old news.
Unemployment rates for American adults with disabilities tops 75 percent, and more than 90 percent of autistic American adults are unemployed. National Louis University's Patrick Schwarz, Ph.D., professor in the National College of Education, says those figures are a result of a culture of exclusion bred in both general and special education populations in American schools. His advocacy for inclusion is the topic of a Dec. 6 speech on "From Disability to Possibility: The Power of Inclusion" as part of Inclusive Schools Week in Bloomington, Minn.
"I've never heard in Illinois that there's a self-contained Walmart," Schwarz said. "If everyone is going to make it in the real world together, they have to learn together."
Schwarz says educators have an obligation to immerse students with special education needs in as many facets of general education as possible. Rather than simply meeting compliance, Schwarz says schools should push to promote best practices. His research indicates schools can employ a number of methods to differentiate instruction successfully for students with special education needs in a general education setting. Teachers can give students with special education needs options in how they finish their work; students with special education needs may work best alone, with a partner, in conversation with a peer, or even sitting on the floor. Schwarz's research shows that students with special education needs can be assessed differently; rather than a standard written response or multiple choice tests, students with special education needs may thrive interviewing a subject field expert, creating a poster or completing a creative project. The presence of a teacher's assistant grows capacity for a general education teacher to differentiate instruction for students with special education needs.
"We have to start out early and promote practices like differentiation and universal design for learning," Schwarz said. "We have to think how we can make curriculum accessible to all people."
Teachers may find additional challenges in engaging students with special education needs, even with a differentiated curriculum. Schwarz's research shows teachers should use a student's passions and interests to nudge them towards subject-matter content. Schwarz shared an example conversation of how this could work, using a real student named Pedro with fascination for whales:
-"Pedro, tell us what you know about blue whales."
-Pedro responds with a number of examples
-"Pedro, tell us how whales help you do your work."
-Pedro describes how he uses blocks in math to count, and those blocks have pictures of whales on them.
-"Pedro, tell us examples of other work that you do."
Using whales as the hook, this fictional teacher now has channeled Pedro towards discussing the subject material of the day.
Sound like pure common sense? Maybe, but many experts disagree with the method. Schwarz says a number of leaders in the special education field guided teachers away from talking about students' over focused interests.
"I found the exact opposite of that working with students," Schwarz said. "When I'm consulting in a school and people are asking me to observe a new student, the first thing I want to know is what interests them, and what makes their learning work."
Differentiated instruction is a key start to promoting inclusion, but Schwarz notes that a school's culture needs to be geared towards an inclusive approach. Teachers can develop these curriculum skills, but the process of changing attitudes of the general education student body is a different type of challenge. Upon graduation from high school, students with special education needs lose public school special education services mandated by law and for all intents and purposes are expected to step into the "real" world and function as adults. Schwarz questions how students with special education needs are supposed to successfully make that transition when they have been largely segregated in schools for more than a decade of their life.
"I may see a group of students who have obvious disabilities all together at a table, and I also see students who did not have a disability walk by the table and say, 'That's the sped (special ed) table, I don't want to sit there,'" Schwarz said. "[Students with special education needs] learn this in schools and they think this is the way the world should be arranged."
Post high school, when general education students are the potential employers, co-workers, neighbors and friends of students with special education needs, the contrasts with that learned arrangement in school rears its head. Schwarz emphasizes the special education world is not all doom and gloom. Yes, there is significant work needed to create inclusive school environments, but Schwarz sees individual examples that give him hope.
"I feel that every single week I meet someone who is transcending or surpassing these types of horrible stats," Schwarz said. "How people are making successes happen, how they are making them work, that gives us information for how we should proceed in educational practice."