Often I’m asked about the history of inclusive education and how we arrived where we are today, where UDL is best practice for all students. In a series of blogs, I’ll attempt to share the history of inclusion so all educators can have a better understanding of the collective struggle to provide an education that meets the needs of all students.
Our journey to understand education today begins in 1975. Captain and Tennille ruled the Billboard Charts and the big invention of the year was the push-through tab on a beer can. Although it’s easy to be nostalgic about singers and songwriters and the good ole’ pull tab, what was happening in schools was far from idyllic.
The country was coming off a wave of Civil Rights wins that ensured that all American citizens were provided with the same rights. Schools and restaurants could not exclude or separate people because of their race, race-based restrictions on marriage were lifted, women and men were guaranteed equal pay under the Equal Pay Act, free healthcare was provided to the elderly and disabled through Medicare and Medicaid, and the Architectural Barriers Act prohibited architectural barriers that prevented individuals with disabilities from getting into federal buildings.
Although people with disabilities were provided with entry to federal buildings, it wasn’t until two years later, that districts were required to welcome all students into schools. Before that time, public schools were under no obligation to provide an education for students with disabilities. Twenty-years prior, Brown vs. the Board of Education declared racial segregation unconstitutional, yet students with disabilities were still segregated from their non-disabled peers when it came to education.
That was, until the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) was passed in 1975. EAHCA assured that students with disabilities receive a free public education emphasizing special education and related services designed to meet their needs. Although the intent of EAHCA was to move toward a model of inclusion, where students with disabilities were included with their peers in the same classes, the law also ensured that states had a plan to meet the needs of special education students in that inclusive environment.
From a school’s perspective, this likely resulted in a tug of war. On one side, the school wanted to ensure that all students were educated together, but the reality was that students had varying levels of variability and teachers did not have the strategies to meet the needs of all students in the same classroom. This often meant that special education students were given a separate education to “meet their needs.” If we look back, it’s easy to argue that the civil rights of students with disabilities were ignored, but it may have been more complex than that.
Here’s the thing: Teachers want students to succeed. In fact, I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t want that for his or her students. Sometimes, teachers may not be prepared to meet the needs of all their students because of systematic or instructional barriers. Teaching in an inclusive learning environment is challenging as specific strategies must be implemented to help to personalize learning and challenge every student. If teachers don’t learn how to do this, and aren’t supported throughout the journey, they may say they can’t meet the needs of all students. But that’s not true. All teachers are capable of meeting the needs of all students when they receive professional development on inclusive strategies like UDL.
The problem? In 1975, there wasn’t an educational framework that provided guidance to teachers about how to meet the needs of all students because before this time, teachers didn’t have such variability in their classrooms. In the 1970’s teachers were subject matter experts and, in a typical class, students were often expected to “sit and get.” They were vessels and teachers, who were knowledgeable about the content, imparted the knowledge to students. When students with disabilities could not “sit and get,” schools moved those students in different settings to provide them with a different experience in an effort to meet their needs.
The practice seemed to be a success because students were receiving a free education in the same school, until we learned more about the outcomes of these students who were placed in separate settings. Many teachers simply could not meet their needs, not for a lack of passion or compassion, but a lack of preparation and support.
In the next blog in this series, you’ll learn how IDEA helped to improve inclusive models of teaching and learning.
1. Jones, S. K. (2015). Teaching students with disabilities: A review of music education research as it relates to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Update: Applications Of Research In Music Education, 34(1), 13-23.