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Phil Hatlen, Superintendent
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

What is it that I would like to share with you about full inclusion of students with disabilities? Is it my frustration that a movement is sweeping the country that does not take into consideration the individual needs of children? Is it my fear that some students with disabilities will be tragically "mis-served"?Is it my concern that a philosophical position that sounds so humanitarily "correct" has depersonalized services to children with disabilities?

No, what I want to share with you today is my enthusiastic support for an addition to the array of service delivery options available for students with disabilities. Responsible inclusion is an appropriate and effective service for some students with disabilities. If its momentum continues, and it is carefully defined, responsible inclusion has the potential to move literally thousands of children with disabilities out of inappropriate facilities and services and into educational settings offering dignity and opportunities to truly learn. I applaud the leaders in the "inclusion" movement and offer my services in order to assure that this new educational option is appropriately used by students who can truly benefit from it.

But, alas, my colleagues who are the leaders in the full inclusion movement have made a serious, but correctable, error. They use terms such as "...all means all...", and "...just do it!!...".Their position is that we no longer must seriously consider the needs of each individual child when making a decision about educational placement. They believe that placement transcends needs. They have generalized successes with some students with disabilities to all students with all disabilities. They make no distinction between the educational needs of a child who is deaf, a child with cerebral palsy, a child who is learning disabled, or a child who is blind. It is as though the type of disability has no effect on educational needs and services. They tell us that disability labels are only appropriate for medical reasons. They believe that all educational planning and delivery of service can ignore the type of disability and concentrate on needs. 

Let me dispel that myth immediately. Some of my colleagues in special education are proud to point out that disability labels are almost a thing of the past. They argue that labels stigmatize children, that they are simply medical labels and have no relationship to educational need. This is not true. To avoid the label "blind" or "deaf" is to seriously stigmatize children who have an obvious disability, and who need to learn to live proudly and with dignity with the disability. Avoidance of using the label is to make children wonder if there is something terribly wrong with being blind or being deaf. If people won't even use the word, what message is delivered? Secondly, I contend, as do all of my colleagues, that blindness and visual impairment are not only medical labels, they are educational labels. All children with visual impairments share similar needs because of their disability. Loss of vision has a direct and often profound effect on learning, and this impact can be generalized across all children with visual impairments. Use of the label is fundamental to delivering appropriate educational services.

Educators of students who are deaf have made a strong case for the communication needs of the students whom they serve. These needs are so intensive that any decision about inclusion of students who are deaf must be made with extreme caution. For many years, I have thought about the equivalent for children with visual impairments to that of children who are deaf with regard to communication. I am convinced that the answer is "experiential". How much fundamental knowledge does the child with a visual impairment have regarding her world? Often, the world of the child with a visual impairment is the length of her arms. Think about this fact. Consider the effect on casual, incidental learning. Consider the profound effect that a visual impairment has on growth and learning. Think about the capability of a full inclusion setting to offer experiential learning.

Educators of students with visual impairments pioneered inclusive education. In a small scale, we began early in the 20th century, then expanded rapidly and dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s.This is long before other areas of special education began exploring ways in which children with disabilities could be included more fully and appropriately in regular classrooms. Many years ago we learned some vital lessons about inclusion. Some students benefited from inclusive education from the outset of their education; others needed various amounts of preparation before they could benefit from inclusion; still others were best served in non-inclusive settings for educational purposes so that they would have the best possible chance for inclusion as adults.

I know with no doubt, with no hesitation, that full inclusion will not appropriately serve all students with visual impairments. I know this because I know a great deal about the educational needs of children who are blind or visual impaired. My colleagues who are most actively promoting full inclusion know, just as surely, that inclusion works for students with retardation, with students with severe and profound disabilities, and with some children with other disabilities. I acknowledge and admire their understanding and expertise with children who have disabilities that they are knowledgeable about. I do not question their findings and their positions. However, I fail to understand how these good, well-meaning people can take their findings on certain populations of students with disabilities and generalize them to all populations. If any of you are present today, I ask that you stop doing this, and that you grant me my expertise as I acknowledge yours.

Having established this difference of opinion within the ranks of special education, let me emphasize to you that full inclusion is not for all students with disabilities. And beware of those who say it is. They do not have the knowledge or expertise to hold this belief.

Let me share with you some things about the educational needs of students who are visually impaired, and I suggest to you that you consider the application of what I say to other populations.

The population of blind and visually impaired students is very heterogeneous. Some are totally blind; others have good, useful vision. Some are only visually impaired; others have additional complex, challenging disabilities. Some are visually impaired from birth; other lose vision later in their school years. Some live in urban areas; others live in rural parts of the country. Some live in school districts that have extensive resources for education of students with visual impairments; others live in school districts with no resources. The differences go on and on...

How would you propose to meet the educational needs of this population with one placement option?  It cannot be done. 

I mentioned earlier that we pioneered inclusive education.  We were placing children who were blind or visually impaired in regular classrooms in large numbers as early as 1955.  We naively began this process by assuming that if we provided adaptations for academic learning, and if we spent a short time preparing students to use these adaptations, then students with visual impairments could have all of their educational needs met in the regular classroom.  We were wrong, and we paid the price for that error as we watched helplessly as hundreds of the products of our early efforts in inclusion became unemployed social isolates as young adults.

Among the lessons we learned about inclusion were:

  1. Even though we were good at adapting the academic curriculum for accessibility by students with visual impairments, the use of that curriculum in the regular classroom needed careful introduction and orchestration by us.
  2. Social interaction skills are not learned by imitation or by proximity to students who are not disabled.  Most of the students we placed in inclusive settings were social isolates.   
  3. Beginning Braille reading did not lend itself well to curriculum adaptation.
  4. Many students with visual impairments could learn academic subjects in inclusion settings.  If prepared for using adapted curriculum, there is no reason why the child with a visual impairment cannot learn academic subjects in a regular classroom along-side sighted peers.
  5. Students with visual impairments have a second set of educational needs.  These are now referred to as "disability-specific needs".  It is inappropriate and impossible to provide instruction for meeting these needs in the regular classroom. Therefore, significant amounts of time must be spent meeting these needs outside the regular classroom.

From these findings, my profession has developed the following positions:

  1. "Inclusive education" is a new label to define a particular educational placement for students with disabilities.  The profession of education for students with visual impairments is pleased that this placement option has been added to the list of options.  Some students with visual impairments, at some times in their lives, will benefit significantly from placement in an inclusive setting.
  2. In order to meet the complex, diverse educational needs of students who are visually impaired, a full array of placement and service delivery options must be available.
  3. There is no best educational program for students with visual impairments.  There is a best program for an individual student at a particular time in her life.

So, let's accept "full inclusion" for what it is: one more viable option in a full array of placement options for students with disabilities.