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It’s been nearly a half-century since President Gerald Ford signed into law a bill that would forever change education in the United States. The groundbreaking law, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), guarantees that every child with a disability in the country has access to a “free, appropriate, public education.”
In the decades since, accumulated research, experience, and advocacy have continued to shape the ways in which educators ensure that students of all abilities claim these rights.
Recent years have seen a push toward “mainstreaming” students with cognitive and physical differences, which means including them in general classrooms rather than separating them into full-time “special education” classrooms. Numbers illustrate the impact this push has had: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1989, 32 percent of students with disabilities spent 80 percent or more of the school day in a general education class; by 2013, that figure had risen to nearly 62 percent of students with disabilities.
This significant change means more and more classrooms include a diverse array of students with various neurological and physical strengths and challenges, which has forced general education teachers to adjust their classrooms.
As cumbersome as this adjustment can be for some educators, many of them are galvanized by the research indicating that these changes present opportunities for all students to grow. One report has found that between 80 and 85 percent of special education students can meet the achievement standards of their general-classroom counterparts as long as they are offered the accommodations required by IDEA.
What’s more is that research also finds no negative impact—neither academic nor otherwise—on students without a disability in an inclusive classroom. Instead, those students reap social benefits by forming relationships with a wider variety of people.
In other words, building a high-quality classroom that includes students of all abilities is well worth the effort. In this guide, we offer practical, specific tips for educators working to build such a learning environment.
Identifying Students with Special Needs
Students are said to have a special need in the educational setting when they have a specific physical or cognitive challenge that impacts learning. Examples may include:
- Hearing loss
- Vision loss
- Mobility impairments
- Down syndrome
- Traumatic brain injury
- Attention deficit disorder
- Dyslexia (difficulty reading)
- Dyscalculia (difficulty with math)
- Other learning disabilities
While physical conditions that impact learning usually manifest in straightforward ways, cognitive conditions can cause discomfort and frustration for years without being identified. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, of the 1 in 5 children with cognitive learning and attention challenges, many are currently not diagnosed or receiving special attention.
The typical process to identify students with learning disabilities consists of the following steps:
- Screening to determine if the subsequent steps are required and, if so, in what areas.
- Examination for risk indicators, because early-life experiences, such as low birth weight, difficulty suckling or swallowing as an infant, and family history of learning disabilities, can indicate a higher likelihood of cognitive challenges as a student.
- Observation in systematic ways over time, and in a range of contexts, is crucial to confidently reaching a diagnosis—and the child’s family should be fully involved in this step.
- Comprehensive evaluation, if the previous steps indicate that it’s necessary, to determine a specific child’s range of abilities and needs.
Lesson Planning with Inclusion in Mind
Many educators seeking to build classrooms that are inclusive of all combinations of abilities have benefited from the specific framework of “Universal Instructional Design.”
The concept of “universal design” first emerged in architecture to describe flexible and accessible design for the physical world. It has since been appropriated for classrooms.
According to the Universal Instructional Design Implementation Guide, UID centers on seven main principles:
- Be accessible and fair.
- Provide flexibility in use, participation, and presentation.
- Be straightforward and consistent.
- Be explicitly presented and readily perceived.
- Provide a supportive learning environment.
- Minimize unnecessary physical effort or requirements.
- Ensure learning spaces that accommodate both students and instructional methods.
The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center builds on these principles and offers specific ways to apply them in the classroom:
- Welcome everyone.
- Avoid stereotyping.
- Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any student.
- Make interactions accessible to all participants.
- Ensure physical access to facilities.
- Arrange instructional spaces to maximize inclusion and comfort.
- Make content relevant.
- Provide multiple ways to gain knowledge.
- Use large visual and tactile aids.
Finally, educators should consider enlisting the help of apps and other technologies to help implement UID:
- Speech-to-text transcribing programs, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking https://www.nuance.com/dragon.html
- Communication devices that let a student ask an iPad or other device to speak for her with the push of a few buttons, such as Proloquo2Go https://www.talktometechnologies.com/pages/proloquo2go
- Game-like platforms, such as Kahoot, that keep students’ attention on quizzes and other assignments https://kahoot.com/
Talking About Different Abilities in the Classroom
When students with special needs are included in general classrooms, teachers must take care to ensure that those students never see themselves as lesser, shameful, or bad.
There are things that teachers can do to make sure students don’t come to this conclusion. Below are a few ways to help students with different abilities banish shame:
- Help students find and linger on their strengths.
- Ask students to keep a “wins” journal so they can return to their successes.
- Share leadership roles in the classroom.
- Guide students to think of their abilities as always in development.
Another concrete action educators can take is developing a lesson in which the whole class learns about successful and accomplished individuals with disabilities. Here are a few individuals teachers might include:
- Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Carol Greider, who lives with learning disabilities
- Animal scientist Temple Grandin, who is on the autism spectrum