National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #18
By Bendina Miller
When I began my career as a teacher in 1969 the conversation about including students with disabilities in regular classrooms was just beginning. We were considering integration which often meant that students were included in specialized classrooms in a neighborhood school. Social integration, whereby students had recess together or attended assemblies together, was often the only times that students with disabilities were actually included together. At that point in time, this would have been considered to be good educational practice because the students were, at least, attending the same school.
As researchers and practitioners gained increased knowledge of how children learn and how educators can best support learning for all students we gained both the academic and practical knowledge that all students have increased learning outcomes in an inclusive environment. I had the professional and personal pleasure of teaching students who, with the provision of appropriate supports and interventions, were successful in an inclusive setting.
We continued to learn so much more about how our students learned and we learned about instructional strategies that were effective in supporting student success. We saw and continue to see the powerful outcomes of strategies such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Differentiated Instruction and grading for success. We witness the extraordinary outcomes of professionals, parents and students working together as a team to plan for success and realize success.
I’ve had the personal experience, as a Superintendent of Schools, of witnessing teachers, administrators, support professionals, parents and students, and School District Trustees, working with highly skilled professionals in cycles of staff development and learning rounds resulting in significant improvement of learning for all students. I have observed students with disabilities being academically, emotionally and socially engaged with their peers who have not been identified as having a disability.
The bottom-line is that I have seen individual teachers and support staff working together to build teams that have the capacity to truly make a difference in learning for their students. We have provinces and school districts/divisions that have developed policies designed to engage inclusive education as an expectation, not an option. Ten provinces, 3 territories and the Government of Canada came together resulting in the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on March 11, 2010. Article 24 of that Convention clearly identifies the expectation that all students will learn in an inclusive setting with appropriate supports, which include the professional preparation and on-going staff development that will enable students with disabilities to be successful.
My comments are certainly not news. As educators we are definitely well-aware of the history and knowledge about student learning that I have briefly outlined. Retired from 44 years in public education, I have to admit that I’m deeply saddened that ALL students are not benefitting from the best education possible. Absolutely, there are classrooms and schools right across this country where exemplary practice is evident.
There are numerous examples where there is the culture of optimism and the moral courage to make a learning difference for all their students. There are examples where school districts/divisions commit the resources to build the capacity resulting in student academic, emotional and social success. There are examples where leaders ensure that students are included, are attending school in a long-term full-time program, where educators and support staff are working as a team to meet the learning needs of students within their regular class. So, what do we need to do in our communities, provinces/territories and in our country to address the fact that students are still excluded because of a disability? In fact, this exclusion is truly discrimination. What can we do to address the right that all students have to be engaged in the most appropriate, the most successful learning environment with the instructional strategies that we have observed to be successful — to have their needs met in an inclusive environment? What can we do to eliminate the ‘knowing-doing’ gap?
Bendina Miller is a Past-President of the Canadian Association for Community Living. She is chair of the Advisory Committee for Inclusive Education Canada. Having worked as a teacher, board coordinator and superintendent of schools, she has worked to support inclusive education throughout her career. Since retirement she has worked on special projects with the Ministry of Education in B.C. Bendina lives in Fairmont Hot Springs British Columbia.