Special education should be fully funded. First it needs to be desegregated.
The National Education Association has long supported legislation to fully fund special education services. While increased funding is important, it does not address the systemic barriers that students with disabilities face in our schools.
Special education classrooms are often isolated from general education classrooms, and both physical and social barriers stand in the way of full participation. When students with disabilities are “integrated” into general education classrooms, teachers do not know how to accommodate them and instead excessively lower their standards. General education teachers do not feel equipped to support youth with disabilities and do not know how to create physical and digital accessibility.
Many disability rights advocates are pushing for a new special education model: inclusive education.
Inclusive education means eliminating self-contained special education classrooms and instead teaching all students side-by-side. In this model, general and special education teachers work together, and resources (assistive technology, instructional assistants, etc.) are moved from isolated to inclusive classrooms.
Students with and without disabilities perform better in school when classrooms are integrated. They earn higher test scores, have better attendance and are less likely to have behavioral problems. This is because teachers in inclusive classrooms adapt to each student’s needs. They use visual, auditory, and kinesthetic teaching methods. Students with and without disabilities benefit from having information presented in multiple ways.
Inclusive classrooms also promote social development. Included students with disabilities have better social relationships, are less lonely, and exhibit fewer behavioral problems than similar students in segregated classrooms. These social skills are important for finding employment after graduation, as most jobs require positive interactions with coworkers and customers. Included students with disabilities are more likely to find employment and to be living independently than students with disabilities who were not included.
Most importantly, inclusive education addresses a moral dilemma. Segregation is a system of oppression. It furthers misconceptions and enforces oversimplified and often degrading labels. Integration normalizes difference. Research shows that students without disabilities in inclusive classrooms are more accepting of others and comfortable with differences.
People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States, and the shortcomings in our nation’s special education system desperately need to be addressed. We have a moral obligation to do something about the exclusion of youth with disabilities. Implementing inclusive education demonstrates that we are committed to providing both academic success and moral justice to all students, including those with disabilities.
Abigail Alvarez is the President of the Board of Directors of Oregon Student Voice. She is a sophomore at Santa Clara University and both an advocate and activist for disability justice.