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What is Disability in Education?

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
May 11, 2019

According to data in the U.S. Department of Education’s 40th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2018, pg 52), 63% of students with disabilities are spending at least 80% of their school day in an inclusive setting. This percentage is a huge improvement over decades past – when students with disabilities were most often segregated from their peers – but we can still do better.

Moving to a more inclusive and equitable education system requires a thorough review of our existing structures, practices, and views to ensure it is done successfully. Educating students with disabilities in general education classrooms requires special considerations and an overhaul in how we teach. It requires that we remove barriers to learning and provide appropriate supports for both our students and our educators.

Research has shown that students with disabilities are much more successful when they are educated in an inclusive classroom setting and that students with the highest aptitudes are not negatively impacted by being in the same classroom with their peers who also receive special education or who have disabilities. In fact, studies show that even the most advanced students also benefit from an inclusive classroom. For a thorough review of the research, review pages 37-40 of this report from the National Council on Disability.

It isn’t surprising that there are some fierce opponents to inclusive classrooms. While some of this opposition comes from families of students with disabilities showing genuine concern for their child’s wellbeing, or from parents who worry their advanced or gifted children won’t excel in these circumstances, much comes from fear resulting from ableist views of disabilities.

“Ableism” is defined as discrimination (often from well-meaning people) against those with disabilities, regardless of whether that disability is physical, mental, emotional, etc. Ableist views often look at disability as a weakness, lack of ability, something to be ashamed of, or helplessness.

While some people with disabilities want for their peers and members of the community to look beyond their disability to see who they are outside of the label, other people with disabilities believe their disability helps define who they are as individuals and helps empower them to better understand themselves. Nina G, a comedian and active member of the disability community, stated, “Disability is community and power. Disability definitely isn’t a bad word.”

Ableist views are often associated with anti-inclusion or exclusionist sentiments. We hope to shed some light on disability and inclusion in education through the below infographic to help us get a step closer to full inclusion in education because all students deserve the opportunity to be supported and challenged while developing meaningful relationships with their peers and building community.

Inclusion for All: What is Disability in Education?

Description of Infographic

Disability and Education

  • 63% of students with disabilities are spending at least 80% of their school day in an inclusive setting, according to data in the U.S. Department of Education’s 40th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2018, pg 52).
  • Disability is something we all experience in certain contexts. Visit a foreign country where you don’t know the language or play a game you’ve never played and you may experience disability.
  • Research shows that students with disabilities benefit most from being in an inclusive learning environment.
  • Our systems and curriculum are often disabling to students, even those that don’t identify with having a diagnosed disability.

Inclusionist Views of Disability

  • Students with disabilities should be included with their peers and our systems and curriculum should be designed to work for all learners
  • We should do our best to pro-actively remove barriers to learning so that students with disabilities have equal access to challenging and rigorous education and are active members of the community
  • A learning environment suffers when a person with a disability is absent and their talent is lost
  • There isn’t something “wrong” with those who have a disability; there are just differences

Exclusionist Views of Disability

  • Students with disabilities need extra support they can’t get in a general education classroom so they are better off in exclusive special education settings
  • Students with disabilities could be disruptive and/or distracting to other students so they should be educated separately
  • Students with disabilities could negatively impact the highest performing students
  • Students with disabilities can be a drain on limited resources in an educational environment

Let’s break down the barriers to learning by teaching for all students.


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