Pervasive myths about inclusive practice and people with disability have been absorbed into education, creating barriers to inclusion through stereotypical views of students with disability. This blog outlines ten myths which perpetuate myths and stereotypes about students with disability.
- Special schools and classes can be inclusive
A few years ago, a special school received an award for inclusion. The fact that a school segregating students with disability from their non-disabled peers was considered inclusive, and received an award for inclusion, demonstrates the lack of consistency with the definition of inclusion. The international and most authoritative definition of inclusive education is within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Australia ratified the UNCRPD in 2008. A key factor of inclusive education is that students with disability learn alongside their non-disabled peers. While placement within the mainstream system without socially-just transformative changes is not inclusion, but rather is integration, placement is an important aspect. Integration is a process of placing students with disabilities in existing mainstream educational institutions, as long as the former can adjust to the standardised requirements of schools. Hence, placement within mainstream education is only a starting point for inclusion. However, segregated settings such as special schools are not inclusive. Expanding the definition of inclusion is disingenuous as it obscures the practice of exclusion.
2. Offering a continuum of placements, including special schools, is part of parental choice
The notion of school choice is regularly offered as a rationale for maintaining segregated settings (segregated refers to special schools, special classes, disability units and Flexible Learning Options). But do parents of children with disability really have a choice in school placement for their child? At the moment, the ‘choice’ is between support in a segregated setting or little to no support in a mainstream setting. Consequently, demand for segregated settings by parents of children with disability has increased exponentially due to the dilemma that students with disability often do not receive effective support within mainstream settings. Consequently, special schools and classes currently have long waitlists. Yet, research is unequivocal that inclusive education results in improved academic and social outcomes for all students, including those with disability. However, the evidence on the benefits of inclusion has not filtered through to our society. Complicating this issue is that very few schools offer inclusive education. Inclusive education requires adequate resourcing, capacity development of staff and a cultural shift in expectations, language and beliefs. Parents will continue to advocate for their child to be enrolled and funding to be directed to segregated settings until they have some degree of certainty that their child will be valued in inclusive settings. While parents push for segregated education, it will continue to be offered, perpetuating the dual system of education by reducing funding and impetus for inclusive education. Should we prevent parental choice for segregated education by phasing out special schools and classes? No, not until a robust system of inclusive education is established where parents of children with disability can enrol their child in school with the assurance they will receive high-quality instruction, interventions and supports that enable them to be successful.
3. Inclusive education costs more than the current system
An inclusive education system is not more expensive than our current parallel system of mainstream and special education. Research indicates that there are cost benefits with an inclusive model (Anderson & Boyle 2020). Also, there are long term cost savings as students with disability educated in inclusive schools are more likely to engage in further education, live independently and obtain post-school employment (Haber et al., 2016). While inclusive education requires investment in a range of areas such as teacher and assistant professional development and accessible classrooms and learning materials, the specialist knowledge, skills and resources currently in segregated settings would be deployed toward inclusive education, thus saving considerable money. This streamlined approach would eliminate the high costs of running parallel systems and is a much more efficient and effective use of funds. Simultaneously, this redirection of funding would improve academic and social outcomes for all students as everyone benefits from inclusive education. According to Professor Suzanne Carrington in her submission to the Disability Royal Commission in 2020, the cost of building a special school for 80 students is approximately 27 million. Imagine if that amount of money was made available for education in mainstream schools!
4. The inclusion of students with disability negatively impacts non-disabled students
The misconception that students without disability are negatively impacted by the presence of students with disability is incorrect. All students, both those with disability and those without, have improved academic and social outcomes in inclusive settings. There are also significant benefits for schools, teachers, assistants, families and the community. It is important to add that these benefits only exist when schools are genuinely inclusive. There is little to no benefit for non-disabled students when practices are labelled ‘inclusive’, but in reality, they are not. These practices include placing students with disability in general education and expecting them to adapt to the standard practices within the classroom (this is called integration), or when the proportion of students with disability within one class is greater than the proportion of people with disability within the wider population.
5. Students with disability are bullied in mainstream schools
While many parents favour inclusive education, some, particularly those of children with severe disabilities, prefer segregation as they believe it to be a protective setting that is better placed to meet their child’s needs. Yet, bullying of children with disabilities, particularly those with autism, occurs not only in mainstream settings but also in those that are segregated (Glumbi & Zunic-Pavlovic 2010). Hence bullying is a problem in all schools rather than an isolated problem within mainstream schools. It is vital that bullying be addressed regardless of the location where it occurs.
6. Inclusive education makes unrealistic demands on teachers
The greatest demand in moving to an inclusive education model is making the paradigm shift from the current education system to an inclusive one, but this is not an unrealistic demand. While the paradigm shift is challenging because we are all socially conditioned to view segregated education as the norm, once an inclusive model is embraced and supported within a whole school approach, the teaching demands are the same. Hence inclusive education is not harder; it is just different.
7. There are some students with disability who cannot be included within general education
This myth is founded on the belief that students with disability, particularly those with intellectual disabilities, cannot learn or should be restricted to a life skills curriculum. However, research indicates that students with disability have greater academic and social outcomes in inclusive settings (De Bruin 2020). Every student should be provided with the chance to learn alongside their peers without requiring proof they can learn. Unfortunately, many students with disabilities often need to prove their competence to receive a placement within general education. Thus, placement decisions are usually made on assessments and presumptions, which are flawed. It is impossible to accurately assess the intelligence of someone unable to communicate what they know, which is often the case for students with intellectual disability or autism. With appropriate adjustments, supported decision-making and access to a robust communication system, students with disability, including students with severe intellectual disability, can flourish in inclusive settings.
8. Students with complex communication needs require functional communication skills taught in a separate classroom
All students need the opportunity to access, participate, and progress in the general education curriculum. Yet, many people have minimal expectations regarding the communication competence and academic ability of students with complex communication needs. Some teachers believe that students with complex communication needs require a functional communication program taught by special educators in a segregated setting. Functional communication programs often focus on a restricted vocabulary that is limited to requests for wants and needs. Students with complex communication needs who do not speak tend to be congregated together in segregated settings, thus limiting exposure to rich and vibrant language. A much better approach is to provide a robust communication system within a dynamic classroom where the student with disability can interact with their non-disabled peers. A robust communication system is one that presumes competence and provides access to a rich vocabulary that can be used long-term rather than a restrictive vocabulary now. Inclusive settings provide students with complex communication needs the best chance to learn and thrive.
9. Many teachers do not have the skills to teach students with disability
Some people believe that special educators are the only ones with the skills and knowledge to teach students with disability. This false belief is further complicated by an overwhelming 63% of regular teachers feeling unprepared to teach students with disability (Sharma 2018). These beliefs stem from our current dual system of special and regular education. Special education is based on the medical model of disability, where disability is viewed as a deficit that needs to be remediated. This approach is in opposition to inclusive education, which is informed by the social model where disability is created by barriers within society. The beliefs, practices and attitudes within special education reinforce the systemic barriers and social exclusion of students with disability, along with the idea that ‘special’ students require special educators. However, teachers do not need qualifications in special education to teach students with disability as all teachers are qualified to teach all students through the completion of an undergraduate degree in education. The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers are very clear that all teachers are expected to cater for students of all abilities. University teacher education courses are expected to address four key areas:
(i) differentiating teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities,
(ii) supporting the learning of students with disability,
(iii) supporting student participation and engagement, and
(iv) managing challenging behaviour
Hence, as schools move away from identifying problems within their students and towards identifying barriers to learning, they will be more inclusive. The specialist knowledge, skills and resources currently in segregated ‘special’ education schools also need to be mobilised to support regular teachers to implement inclusive practices in their classrooms.
10. Students with disability are inspirational
Sometimes students with disability are represented as inspirational characters with superpowers to counter deficit ideas about disability. However, representing students as heroic or extraordinary just because of their disability is ‘othering’; they are treated intrinsically different from everyone else. The superpower approach erases differences amongst individuals and can lead to unhelpful stereotypes, such as all students with autism hold savant mathematics skills. In reality, many students with autism have an average ability with mathematics, just like other students. If teachers believe the superpower myth, they may be less likely to provide the support and accommodations that students require. A better approach is to consider students with disability as ordinary students.
Anderson, J., & Boyle, C. (2020). “Good” education in a neoliberal paradigm: Challenges, contradictions, and consternations. In C. Boyle, J. Anderson, A. Page, & S. Mavropoulou (Eds.), Inclusive education: Global issues and controversies (pp. 35–57). Leiden: Brill Publishing
De Bruin, K. (2020) Does inclusion work? in Inclusive Education for the 21st Century: Theory, Policy and Practice Crows Nest NSW: Allen & Unwin
Glumbic, N. & Zunic-Pavlovic, V. (2010) Bullying Behaviour in Children with Intellectual Disability in Procedia-Social and Behavioural Sciences Vol. 2 No. 2
Haber, M.G., Mazotti, V.L., Mustian, A.L., Rowe, D.A., Bartholomew, A.L., Test, D.W. & Fowler, C.H. (2016) What works, when, for whom, and with whom: A meta-analytic review of predictors of postsecondary success for students with disabilities’ in Review of Educational Research Vol. 86 No. 1
Sharma, U. (2018). Preparing to teach in inclusive classrooms in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education.