I recently spoke with a school leader who shared how excited she was that her district’s efforts around cultural responsiveness were met with enthusiasm by staff. “We are crushing it with equity!” she commented. Yet, a moment later, she continued regretfully, “Unfortunately we don’t have the same buy-in for students with disabilities and inclusion.”
Pause for a moment and let that sink in.
Now let’s play a little game of substitution:
“We are crushing it with equity! Unfortunately, we don’t have the same buy-in for Black and Hispanic students.”
“We are crushing it with equity! Unfortunately, we don’t have the same buy-in for LGBTQ students.”
“We are crushing it with equity! Unfortunately, we don’t have the same buy-in for English as a Second Language (ESL) students.”
“We are crushing it with equity! Unfortunately, we don’t have the same buy-in for poor students.”
Would anyone dare to claim success in achieving equity while so boldly declaring it a failure for any of these historically marginalized groups? Of course not. Few would advocate for excluding a child based on a sole characteristic such as race, language, culture, economic status, gender, or sexuality. Yet, it remains commonplace to label and stratify based on disability.
Despite decades of research highlighting the positive academic, social, and behavioral outcomes associated with inclusive education practices, only about 65% of students with disabilities in the United States spend the majority of their school day in general education classrooms. I have frequently heard the justification that students with disabilities will “get what they need” in self-contained classrooms. The data reveals otherwise.
Students with disabilities educated in separate settings receive less rigorous instruction and are subject to lower expectations than their peers (Harry & Klingner, 2014; National Resource Council on Education, 2011). They are more likely to be retained in a grade and to be suspended or expelled as compared to peers without IEPs (Liu et al., 2018). Additionally, upon exiting K-12 education, students with disabilities are less likely to be engaged in post-secondary education or employment (Sanford et al., 2011).
If we know that these systems of exclusion are ineffective, and even harmful, why do we continue to implement them? If equity in education is a priority, why are individuals with disabilities the “asterisk” in the discussion?
A system that excludes any one of its members is not equitable. The concepts of equity and segregation are paradoxical, while equity and inclusion live hand in hand.
If we aren’t comfortable with separate classrooms for children based on race, gender, class, or other traits, we should not be at ease with the idea of segregating students based on ability. Further, with the well-documented overrepresentation of Black and Hispanic students in special education, our reliance on separate programming disproportionately impacts students of color who have already been marginalized in the educational system.
Equity cannot occur when exclusion is present. It is time to make disability part of the equity conversation.
Until the subtle biases against disability are addressed, and the systemic structures that segregate are dismantled, we will not be “crushing it with equity.” Not even close.