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Inclusive Post-Secondary Education: The time for action is now

National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #11

By Bruce Uditsky

11.BruceUditsky1Inclusive education in Canada has been a reality for over 45 years. And while issues of quality abound, from universal access to quality of practice, there is continuing action on many fronts throughout the country. The same cannot be said for inclusive post-secondary education.

There is no question, given the research and almost a half-century of experience, that inclusive education results in improved learning outcomes for students with intellectual disabilities. Yet by itself, inclusive schooling lacks the power to enable an inclusive life over the course of adulthood. At the end of high school parents often find themselves unclear as to what life holds. The adult world suddenly looms large and sometimes uninviting. Educators seem as uncertain about post-school life.

The result: too many young people without employment and a limited future. Given the positive learning outcomes of inclusive education, the question must be asked as to why parents and their allies have not substantively taken up inclusion at colleges, universities and technical institutes.

The first efforts to fully include students with intellectual disabilities within a university, including those with severe and multiple disabilities, began close to 30 years ago. I had come to the conclusion that waiting for quality inclusive education to be universally available meant it would be decades before students would have the opportunity for an inclusive post-secondary education and a better means to a promising future.

A radical step into an untested concept was necessary.

Just as the term inclusive education today does not necessarily mean quality and full inclusion, it is the same for inclusive post-secondary education. In some places it is little more than a segregated class on a post-secondary campus. The approach used by myself and colleagues is one of full inclusion with quality assured.

Students are fully and individually included in regular courses and programs of studies; participate in all aspects of learning, including assignments, group projects, labs and field studies; supported in class by their non-disabled peers; participate in extra-curricular life; have inclusive employment during the spring/summer (many work part-time during the year); have access to on campus inclusion facilitators; and participate in graduation ceremonies.

This past year over 80% of the students who completed their studies, while supported on campuses by Inclusion Alberta, secured inclusive employment. Consistently between 70-80% of students these past 30 years have found inclusive employment; an outcome almost 3X the average employment rate for in Canada. This is just one of the many benefits. Overall, colleges and universities have been far more receptive to inclusion than schools.

Fast forward 30 years and today there are 20 universities, colleges and technical institutes in Alberta offering inclusive post-secondary education; more than any other jurisdiction in the world. Yet although this endeavour has gained international recognition, demonstrated unparalleled success, and is a logical pathway and natural transition to adulthood, fully inclusive post-secondary education remains virtually non-existent in much of Canada.

After Alberta, British Columbia has the next largest number of inclusive post-secondary institutions (7), thanks almost exclusively to the unparalleled leadership of two parents and a few allies. In the remaining provinces/territories there is often no more than one inclusive post-secondary institution. The very real consequences are lost possibilities for a great number of young people who deserve the same opportunities to continue their education as their siblings and friends.

The question remains as to why this is the case. Is it too difficult to picture inclusion in universities and colleges, particularly for those with significant disabilities? Is it a belief before inclusive post-secondary education can exist, there needs to be quality high school inclusion? Is it a lack of belief in the capacity of students with intellectual disabilities? Is it a failure to understand the demonstrated value of inclusive post-secondary education?

Whether it is one of these questions or another, the answers lie in the proven experiences and outcomes of the students who have benefited from inclusive post-secondary education for over 3 decades. Now the question of action remains. “If not you, then who? If not now, then when?” Continuing to fail to act limits the promise of a good life for far too many adults with intellectual disabilities.

Bruce Uditsky, M.Ed. is Chief Executive Officer, Inclusion Alberta; Adjunct Professor, Community Rehabilitation & Disability Studies (CRDS), Community Health Sciences, Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary; Co-Chair, Alberta FASD Family Advisory Committee; Member, Alberta Education Advisory Committee on Building an Inclusive Education System.

Bruce has been teaching, consulting and writing on inclusive education for more than 35 years from early education to post-secondary across Canada and internationally. He was instrumental in developing Alberta’s education standards on the placement of students with disabilities, which mandates the regular classroom as the first placement option. Bruce was a co-developer of the CRDS Summer Institute on Inclusive Education and continues to teach at the Institute.