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Audio Transcript

Zachary Fenell: Hi, I’m Zach and you are listening to the Think Inclusive Podcast.

Tim Villegas: Recording from my office in beautiful Marietta, Georgia, you are listening to the Think Inclusive Podcast, episode 17.

Tim Villegas: Today we have speaker, marathoner, and author of two books, Zachary Fenell. The first, Off Balanced, is a memoir about what it was like growing up and living with cerebral palsy. As well as Rock Realities, a compilation of 13 interviews he did with Indie and Alternative Rock musicians.

Tim Villegas: We discuss his most recent endeavor, completing a marathon and all of the challenges that came up for him, being a person with cerebral palsy. After the podcast, please visit patrion.com/thinkinclusivepodcast where you can support our goal to bring you in depth interviews with inclusive education and community advocacy thought leaders.

Tim Villegas: Also, you can help other people find us by giving us a five star review on Apple Podcast, or wherever you listen to the Think Inclusive Podcast. So without further ado, here is the interview.

Tim Villegas: Alright, I’d like to welcome Zachary Fenell to the Think Inclusive Podcast. He is also known as the cerebral palsy vigilante. He is a disability advocate who uses multiple platforms to send messages to dispelling misconceptions and encourages everyone to examine the possible.

Tim Villegas: He recently completed a marathon. That is why I wanted to have Zach on to talk about his experience, his training and I guess how that informs what we know about disability, or disability rights. So thanks for being on the podcast Zach.

Zachary Fenell: My pleasure. I’m excited to be here.

Tim Villegas: Now, if you’ve been either a long-time reader, or a long-time listener, to Think Inclusive, you know that Zachary has been a contributor for since practically the beginning of Think Inclusive. So Zach and I go way back.

Tim Villegas: But this is the first time we’ve actually had a chance to record an interview. So I’m really excited about this. We actually haven’t caught up in a while, so why don’t I ask you, Zach, so what have you been up to for the last six months to a year?

Zachary Fenell: Six months to a year, let’s see. Where to start. I basically, since the summer, you mentioned the marathon. Since the early summer I’ve been training heavily for that. Back in, what was is? May I started working part time at the Beachwood Public, at our local library as a page. So I’ve been do that part time and then keeping my purpose with, I have my own blog in addition to contributing to Think Inclusive’s website.

Zachary Fenell: I have my own blog at zacharyfenell.com and as actually it’s been recent, a couple of recent honors. One was I was named among 100 of the … I’m trying to remember the exact title. Is it like 100 best disability blogs by Stairlifts UK. And then recently also HealthUnlocked, I was short-listed out of the 100 of blogs nominated, I was one of 30 short-listed in the running for one of their health blogger awards.

Zachary Fenell: What is really neat about that was that it wasn’t just cerebral palsy, which is the disability I focus on a lot. Or just any disability. It was a health blogger thing, and not just blogging or disability blog. So the two fields are very have a lot of commonality, but at the same time there is a lot of that … It’s you know when you open it up from disability to health blogger, you are opening it up to a larger field and to be even short-listed among the blogs considered was an honor.

Tim Villegas: Wow, that’s amazing. Congratulations on that.

Zachary Fenell: Thank you.

Tim Villegas: So it sounds like you’ve been pretty busy.

Zachary Fenell: Yeah.

Tim Villegas: Let’s talk about, let’s talk specifically about the marathon. ‘Cause I know that that is something that you just finished. That was last week, correct?

Zachary Fenell: Yeah.

Tim Villegas: Go ahead, go ahead.

Zachary Fenell: I was just going to, actually at the time of us recording this podcast, I would have been in the final two and a half miles on the way to the finish line. So the timing of it, there’s parallel timing there.

Tim Villegas: Yeah, so you’d be in the home stretch.

Zachary Fenell: Yes.

Tim Villegas: So let’s talk a little bit about how you trained. And then after that, maybe just the experience of running the marathon. Because this isn’t actually your first marathon. You did a half marathon previously. Is that correct?

Zachary Fenell: Correct. In 2016, the Towpath Marathon is the name of the event. 2016, they have a 10k, a half marathon and marathon in October. I did the half marathon last year, 13.1 miles. And then after I completed that, my friend who did the marathon with me this year, challenged me. “What are you going to do now?” I was just kind of like, “Well my goal was to do half.” So I didn’t really have an answer. And he kept pushing me to do the marathon, encouraging me to do the marathon.

Zachary Fenell: I finally said, “I’ll do the marathon if you do it with me.” And he’s like, “Okay.” So one day I got a text from him in the morning, early morning, showing me that he had registered for the Towpath full marathon and I was like, “Okay, this is real now.” I got with my training and started with my training in moving forward with that.

Tim Villegas: That’s so awesome. So in case you don’t know how hard it is to prepare for something like that, just for your body to be used to be in motion for that long. I had the privilege of running a half marathon in 2015, and trained, I mean I trained.

Zachary Fenell: Yep.

Tim Villegas: But it was definitely time consuming. It took a lot of wear and tear on your body. But it was a great experience. So I want to hear from you, what and I guess what inspired you, or what prompted you to even go down the road of doing these marathons, from the half marathon to the full marathon?

Zachary Fenell: So it really all starts back in the spring of 2011. I was hanging out with a couple of friends weekly, and they were training for a triathlon. At the same time I was reading a book, Unlikely Story of Challenge and Triumph Over Cerebral Palsy. Someone like me, by John W. Quinn. John has cerebral palsy like me. He spent 20 years, he had to hide his CP from the Navy, but he spent 20 years in the Navy, reaching the second highest rank.

Zachary Fenell: Reading his story really made me feel like, “Wow, I want to do something physically challenging.” Just reading what John had wrote. How much of a physical challenge what he went through was. It motivated me to want to go to do something physically challenging.

Zachary Fenell:                     The friends I was hanging out with at the time were doing triathlon. Don’t ride a bike. So my thought was, “Well I’ll do a marathon.” And I asked, “Well how long’s a marathon?” They’re like, “26.2 miles.” So I’m like, “Well I’ll do a half a marathon.” Because in my mind it was unreasonable like, “Oh that’s a lot. I can’t do a marathon.” So I was just like, “I’ll do a half marathon.”

Zachary Fenell: Fast forward a couple years and I really wasn’t making too much progress on the goal. It was something I kept saying I was going to do, but didn’t do. And then I did a one mile. Tim knows, and those of you who know me, know I’m a huge Cleveland Indians fan. They had an event at their Progressive Field, their home field where the last mile was going through … It was a 5k and then a one mile fun walk. You end up on the field. During the one mile fun walk that year, this was 2014. That gave me that taste of what I needed to motivate myself to get serious about doing, about going after a half marathon.

Zachary Fenell: I started training. It took me two years to get to the point where I can do the half marathon. ‘Cause when I first started training, the most I could do was 4 1/3 miles, and then was just completely wiped out. Completely exhausted. When I … Like I said, towards the end of that goal, a month before that half marathon, my friend James, who I did the marathon with had me come in to speak to … He coaches cross country at a local high school. He had me come in to speak to them, give a quick five minute pep talk.

Zachary Fenell: Afterwards, him and his other coaches were asking me what’s next, and hinted like, “What’s next?” And I’m like, “The goal is the half.” It was still in my mind I considered unreasonable to do a marathon. In my head I was telling myself, “It’s unreasonable to do a marathon. I have CP.” I exert extra energy just with each step than usual. So I’m just going to get exhausted faster. I want to be able to do a marathon, but like I said, James kept persisting, and finally I said, “I’ll do it if you do it.”

Zachary Fenell: That led us to June this year, 2017. James had said, “I did this.” And I’m like, “Okay.” He registers and I’m like, “Okay. No excuses. I told him if he did it I would do it.” So is started training in the … First thing I did in training was I just started getting out regularly where three times a week I would be going out and walking about six miles. Just to get out, do the six.

Zachary Fenell: After the half marathon, I actually, admittedly, I fell off my training, and I fell out of half marathon shape. So I had to really re pick back up. So I would do a six mile walk three times a week, just to get my body used to, I guess being tired. So that by the time I would do the actual full marathon, and I’d get tired instead of letting myself shut down, I’d be like, “Okay, I’m used to this. I can persevere through any fatigue I’m feeling.”

Tim Villegas: Now-

Zachary Fenell: And I started doing that and at the same time I started reaching out to anyone who had the marathon experience that I knew of, that I could get advice from them. John actually, John Quinn, the author of that book that I mentioned was somebody who had done a marathon, so I reached out to him. I have a friend, Michael Minozzi, who is,  represented United States in race walking. So he has done a lot of long distances. So I asked him for advice.

Zachary Fenell: James had a friend, Shawn who has done marathons and I asked them for advice about, “Okay, what do I need to do? What else do I need to do for training? What do I need to eat?” ‘Cause that’s one of the things to me that woke me up about training for a marathon. It isn’t just putting on some miles and getting ready for building up your endurance. It really is a lifestyle change. You have to be eating more calories to be able to have the fuel in your body. You want to make sure that … One of the pieces of advice they gave me was, “Train when you’re going to do the race.”

Zachary Fenell: No, I actually started, the Towpath marathon, their course runs from, they have a walker and runners registration. I registered to walk it. I was the walkers can start at seven and then the course technically closes at two. That’s when their permit goes to, and then the course opens back up to the public.

Zachary Fenell: I had contacted Towpath saying that I thought it was going to take me longer than that. So if I could start at 5:30, if that would be possible. They worked with me to set that up. So I was training early morning to get out and putting on. I increased my miles from doing six to doing, basically doing a half marathon distance a couple times a week and just continuing with increasing miles and building up endurance and basically simulating what the environment was going to be.

Zachary Fenell: Early on in my training, I used canes to complete the marathon. Early on in my training, I knew that, that might be an option, but I was going to train without it first, just to make sure. Just to see if I could do it. In my mind I worried that if I use my cane, that I’d be cheating myself out of some of the workout. And it just came and I had to realize that when you choose to do a marathon, you’re not cheating yourself out of anything. My legs are still getting the workout. The cane is just there to help me with my balance.

Tim Villegas: Right.

Zachary Fenell: So John was the one who told me, he’s like, “Train in what you’re going to wear. Train with what equipment you’re going to use.” So I started using the cane after a couple months. Eventually I had … I had a couple of falls as I was training. I just decided that I noticed that they were coming, the falls were coming when I was hitting the 9, 10 mile mark.

Zachary Fenell: So I realized that it was just this level of exhaustion that I should really, I should take my cane and start training with my cane. That’s what I did and just gradually increased the miles I was doing a number of times a week. Is there anymore specifics about my training regimen that you would like me to go into?

Tim Villegas: Yeah. Well you kind of answered a few of the questions I had, like how many times a week did you train? I think that was three times per week.

Zachary Fenell: Yep.

Tim Villegas: And then typically I guess here’s my question is, because of the CP, was there anything that you did that was different or unique than any other, I guess how any other person would train? Like if you reached out to certain people and they said, “Well you should do this specifically because you have CP.” Or was there nothing like that?

Zachary Fenell:  There was a couple things. One of the biggest obstacles you mentioned this when you were talking about training for the half marathon is it is really time consuming. When I do … I basically was expecting to do three miles each hour as my pace. So to find the time to continuing to increase the training, it was difficult to find the time. I talked about how I increased, I started with doing six miles three times a week and then I increased it to where was doing a half marathon twice a week and going from there.

Zachary Fenell: The last month of training, especially the latter two weeks, I was told that, John was actually the one who told me and my friend Mike, who Team USA race walker, agreed with him that you should be shooting to be able to do 20 miles before you do the marathon. Because if you can do 20, you can do 26.2. I started … I never actually got to that 20 because of finding the time to do it. I ended up eventually going back to doing 9, 10 miles three times a week and again, it was just a lot of it just do to finding that much time to train with, or to have to train.

Tim Villegas: Right.

Zachary Fenell: So I knew, I felt going in, I felt like my legs were strong enough. If I’m doing this consistently, week after week, my legs feel strong. I felt strong that I was going to be able to do the marathon. Part of me, there was a little doubt because I’ve never actually done a marathon.

Zachary Fenell: It’s hard to know 100% for sure whether or not I’m ready. But I felt ready and I was like … So that was one aspect of the training where I didn’t get exactly to where I was told to get. A lot of the reason just dealt with finding the time and the fact that it … To train to that level, I would have had … To train to that milestone of 20 miles, I would have had to find seven hours worth of time to train and around seven hours of time to train.

Zachary Fenell: It was very … Having a part time … Talking about earlier, what I’ve been doing the previous six months and how busy I am. It was hard to find. It’s hard to find that time.

Tim Villegas: Right. So how long did it take you to finish the marathon on Sunday?

Zachary Fenell: It took me 11 hours 40 minutes and 31 seconds. I went in there with the expectance of finishing in eight and a half hours. Obviously that was blown out of proportion. I basically was walking for nearly half a day, almost half a day to complete it.

Tim Villegas: Right.

Zachary Fenell: But I think a lot of that, I think the three hour difference from what I expected and what I achieved it in, a lot of it dealt with listening to my body. It was around the 10 mile mark, my right ankle started bothering me a little bit and I stopped for a minute, cleared out. I had some debris get in my shoe, so I cleared out my shoe and then I worked my ankle a little bit with my hand and then continued on.

Zachary Fenell: But I didn’t try to overdo it. I respected what my body was telling me. I think that’s where the difference in time, what I expected and what I did it in was. But at the same time, there were, we were seeing other people being carted off the course who were unable to finish because of injuries. So it’s one of the things you have to do, respect what your body was telling you.

Tim Villegas: Yeah.

Zachary Fenell: I did end up finishing.

Tim Villegas: Now did you have any … You talked about your cane. But is there anything in particular, any other unique gear that you had? I saw some of the Facebook videos that you posted, or that the Facebook live videos where … So I saw some of the stuff that you were wearing but was there anything unique about what you used?

Zachary Fenell: One of the things that wouldn’t be obvious from the Facebook live videos, this is just for my regular, day-to-day walking too. I have a half-inch leg discrepancy between my left leg is a half inch longer than my right. So I have foot orthotics in my right shoe. It has a lift to compensate for that.

Zachary Fenell: That’s something I use on a daily basis, just walking. That was something that was … That I was using to help relieve the height discrepancy. But outside of that, I can’t really think of anything that I used special that would have been, that you would have been able to see in the video.

Tim Villegas: Yeah. I also saw people cheering you on and calling you an inspiration, just overall sense … Were there people that knew that you were doing this, and were there for you to specifically cheer you on? Or was it just people who saw you while you were in the race?

Zachary Fenell: It’s a combination. There was a combination. Actually that day, our area paper, The Plain Dealer, they had the metro columnist did a story on me, about my training for the marathon. That ran the day of the paper. So we had some passersby who were like, “I saw you in the paper this morning.” And knew about it, knew about me from that.

Zachary Fenell: Then there were friends I invited out to basically cheer me to the finish, ’cause that was one of my things, ’cause mentally was, if I have people at the finish line waiting for me, it’s going to be that extra motivation to get to the finish line, instead of giving into whatever physical pain I might be feeling.

Zachary Fenell: Two of my friends who I had told family and friends to show up between 1:30 and 2, as I expected to finish around 2. But once a couple of friends of mine, once they got word that I was a lot farther behind than I had expected, they had actually, the permit, I mentioned earlier, the permit the Towpath people had ended at 2 o’clock so the Cuyahoga Valley National Park opened back up to the public.

Zachary Fenell: A couple of friends I had, they decided, you know what, let’s go find him. They knew I was around the 19. I think they started walking towards our way. I was on the 19th or 20th mile. So they had walked out with about four miles left, they had caught up with us and they walked with James and I, the final four miles. Those are two of the individuals seen in the Facebook live video of my finish.

Zachary Fenell: So they had actually, so they had showed up for me and they made that decision, “You know what. We’re going to walk out. We’re going to find Zach and we’re going to go the rest of the way with him.” At that point, I knew four miles left, I was getting it done. But it made the last four miles a lot funner than they would have been otherwise.

Tim Villegas: Yeah, I bet. I wanted to ask you too, with people calling you an inspiration. Certain disability advocates and disability rights advocates are not comfortable with what they’ve done or their life being an inspiration. But I wanted to get your take on that, as far as how you feel about being called that.

Zachary Fenell: I used to have that mindset where it was just like, “Why am I … It’s that attitude of, I set a goal and I wanted to complete my goal. Just because I have a disability doesn’t make me an inspiration. I understand that mindset. But what really took me back was it going back three years, I have an aunt who lives out in Tucson, Arizona. Or had an aunt who lived out in Tucson, Arizona. She had been diagnosed with leukemia and given two months to live. She had always been one of my biggest supporters.

Zachary Fenell: I went out there with my uncle, her brother, to visit her and just be there to be a support for her. One night, me and her, we were having a conversation, and she called me … And I mentioned that, she basically called me an inspiration, and I called her an inspiration. I called her an inspiration because she wasn’t letting … Despite the bad hand that she was dealt with her leukemia, she didn’t let that change who she was, and she kept fighting. To me, that was inspiring.

Zachary Fenell: She called me an inspiration. It was just in … The dialog, it was just like, “Well I don’t consider myself an inspiration.” She didn’t consider herself an inspiration. But so when … That’s where I realized, that is in the idea. Being inspiration really it’s the eye of the beholder, if you’re inspirational.

Zachary Fenell: My whole thing with I would ask is, if someone says you’re an inspiration, is it just blind compliment because you have a disability? Or my question always is, “What makes me an inspiration to you?” So that’s like, I’m okay with being called an inspiration for especially for doing the marathon if  …

Zachary Fenell: There was a, I had one biker who passed us after the course opened back up to the public. She wrote me later on. She got my name off the results page and found my website and she wrote me later on to tell me that she at first thought I was an injured runner. Then where she was at the point where the finish line was and she ended up talking with my mother, who both my parents were there to also support me.

Zachary Fenell: In talking to my mother she found out I had cerebral palsy, I was doing the marathon. She had done four marathons herself before. She said, “As a perfectly able-bodied person, I know how difficult it is to do a marathon.” So she found me inspirational for the reason of even trying to attempt what I even once consider unreasonable for myself. I’m okay with that. I think that’s great.

Zachary Fenell: So I think really my opinion on the inspirational comment really weighs in is asking, “Well why do you say that? Are you … I think sometimes people mistake, certain situations people might mistake inspirational for in awe. I..

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Audio Transcipt

John Spencer: Hi, I’m John. This is the Think Inclusive Podcast.

Tim Villegas: Recording from my office in beautiful Marietta, Georgia, you are listening to the Think Inclusive Podcast, episode 16. Today, we have John Spencer, speaker and author of Empower and Launch, entertaining and practical books that help us to rethink how we deliver content and engage students in the learning process. We talk about what it looks like to help students own their learning, including students with disabilities.

Tim Villegas: After the podcast, please stop by our Patreon page, where you can support our goal to bring you in-depth interviews with inclusive education and community advocacy thought leaders. In order to cover our hosting, transcription, and production costs, we need to meet our goal of $100 per month. Please help us keep this vital resource available to everyone by pledging your support of $1, $5, $10, or $20 per month. When you pledge as little as $1 per month, you get access to our patron-only feed for blog posts, special edition podcasts, and picture updates along the way.

Tim Villegas: I’d also like to thank our sponsor, Physical Attraction, the podcast that tries to explain physics one pickup line at a time. From the laws of nature to the end of the world, you can find the show on Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts, and on Twitter @PhysicsPod. So, without further ado, here is the interview.

Tim Villegas: I’d like to welcome John Spencer to the Think Inclusive Podcast. John is a professor and author in Oregon. He is the author of Empower and Launch, which is part of what we’re going to talk about today, and also he is passionate about seeing every child embrace a maker mindset. Thank you for being on the Think Inclusive Podcast.

John Spencer: Thanks for having me.

Tim Villegas: Fantastic. Okay, so number one, I don’t know a whole lot about you other than I think we have mutual friends from way back when, and you lived in Arizona, which is what we talked about before we started recording. So how long have you been an educator?

John Spencer: So I started, gosh, this would have been like maybe 14 years ago, I started teaching middle school. I had worked for an inner city faith-based nonprofit, and from there I decided, “You know, I really want to be a teacher in the same community,” and so I taught middle school for 12 years, and then now for the last two years I have been teaching at the university level.

Tim Villegas: Fantastic. So your middle school experience … Then that’s interesting that you stayed with middle school. I guess, what drew you to middle school aged students?

John Spencer: I think for me there were a lot of things about middle school that were significant. I think I had my best teacher was in the eighth grade. She was a teacher who for the first time ever I got to truly own learning in her class, and I did a year-long project. It was this really cool history day project, and I think it had a huge impact on my life. I think that particular year was interesting for other reasons, difficult for other reasons. That year I had a friend in the eighth grade who committed suicide, and so it was a really emotional year as well, and so I think when I majored in education, I really thought I would be in high school, and then I did student teaching in the middle school and thought, “You know what? This is where I belong. This is what I love doing.” I just kind of ended up in there. I really thought I would be a high school teacher, but from the first day I started student teaching in middle school I kind of realized this is my place.

Tim Villegas: So after working so many years in middle school, I guess, what helped you make the transition to teaching at the university level?

John Spencer: You know, I think for me the ease of the transition was that I had done a lot of professional development for teachers. I’ve done conferences and keynotes and things like that, workshops, a lot of professional development at my district, so I was really comfortable working with current teachers, new teachers, preservice teachers, that kind of stuff, so it was kind of an easy transition there, and I think I was just ready for something different. I had loved teaching middle school, but I was ready to … I just started to, I guess, develop a passion for helping preservice teachers become teachers and reach their potential.

Tim Villegas: Yeah, absolutely. So let’s talk a little bit about your book. So Launch, which was written a couple years ago? Is that right? Or is it more recent than that?

John Spencer: Let’s see. About a year and a half ago, yeah.

Tim Villegas: Okay. Okay, and could you tell me, because that’s, I read Empower but I did not read Launch, so maybe you could tell me and our listeners what Launch is about.

John Spencer: Yeah. So Launch is basically about the design thinking process, and there’s a lot of different frameworks out there, but A.J. Juliani and I had developed kind of a K-12 one, and so the gist of it is there’s, it’s an acronym, and I know people hate acronyms, but it’s an acronym. So it stands for LAUNCH, the L stands for look, listen, and learn, and that’s kind of where you start with awareness. It could be awareness of a problem. It could be awareness of a social issue. It could be empathy that you have toward an audience, and then from there you kind of move into inquiry, and that’s the A, and that’s ask tons of questions. Then the U is understand the process or problem, and that’s when kids are engaged in some kind of research, and it could be interviews, needs assessments. It could be online research. It could be books, whatever, and then they begin to ideate and plan and kind of brainstorm, and that’s the navigate ideas, so that’s the N of the LAUNCH.

John Spencer: And then a big portion of it is C, which is create a prototype. So they’re creating something that they’re going to actively iterate and improve and change, and that’s the next piece, H, which is where they highlight what’s working and fix what’s failing. And then when that’s finished, they launch it to an audience, and that last piece is really significant. I think it’s important that students share their work with an authentic audience.

Tim Villegas: So I’m assuming that this is something that you developed while you were in middle school and teaching middle school students, and-

John Spencer: Yes.

Tim Villegas: And so I want to kind of bring it, that idea of the design process, and then also when we talk about Empower, about students and your … the design thinking can be applicable for all students, including students with special needs or students with disabilities, however you want to say it, and I wanted to see if you could talk a little bit about how you can still do this type of design thinking with students with disabilities.

John Spencer: Yeah, absolutely. So first of all, it really is like any subject. I taught self-contained so I taught all subjects, and it fits every subject, and it fits every type of learner, and you will have to provide supports still and that piece is important. When I taught self-contained, I had the students who were yellow and I had students who were gifted, and then I had a good portion in the class who were classified as special ed, and so basically nobody in my class didn’t have some kind of a label attached to it, right? And they all needed different types of support. So it is important that accommodations are still happening and things like that, but what I’ll say is I definitely think it works with students who qualify as special ed or, like you said, whatever terminology you want to use, special needs. There’s a lot of great examples of that.

John Spencer: So I had students who were labeled as nonverbal autistic, and they thrived in the design process. When we did things like the design a roller coaster project or building a city, these were some moments where they really, really shined. It was powerful to see them share their work with the world.

John Spencer: I give the example of we used the design process for student blogging, and I had a student who didn’t really say anything at all who really struggled with certain areas of articulation, but by going through this process and having the time to iterate and improve and revise, it was really cool to watch him develop this video game blog, and it was so cool to watch kind of the power of the LAUNCH where he was sharing his work with the world.

John Spencer: In this case, he published it on a blogging platform, and I still remember the day where, you know, it was maybe the second week of school and he wasn’t, I mean because he was nonverbal there weren’t a lot of conversations and he kind of had in many ways been excluded as much as I was trying to create an inclusive community. It was early on in the year, and I was still trying to figure out how to make this work, and I still remember suddenly there’s 10 comments on his blog and so many kids are into his blog, and I remember just the power of for him to have an audience was really cool. So I don’t know if I answered your question. I just think the process can be applicable to all students I guess is what I would say.

Tim Villegas: Yeah, and I think one of the things is that is you actually have to believe that all students can do this. I think one of the barriers is that when you think about projects-based learning or design thinking or, I don’t know how to say all that stuff, but students who are nonverbal, who have limited speech, who have particular disabilities, they’re just not even thought of in the process of like, that they would even get anything out of it. So number one, for an educator to be like, “Well, of course they’re going to be included in this, and we are going to whatever they’re able, however they are able to access the curriculum or access letting us know what they prefer or choose is the way that we can get them to buy into their own learning.” So I think that’s like number one really is actually believing that our students can do this no matter who they are or what label they have, so that’s, I mean, I’m just excited to hear that that’s something that was even on your mind.

John Spencer: Well, and I want to point something out also. One of the valuable things, in the navigate ideas phase they have to engage in project management, and so there’s a big metacognition piece and there’s a big like project planning piece, and because of the need for accommodations, I had several students who had issues with executive function, and so the strategies of helping them through executive function in project planning turned out to be strategies that every student benefited from. And it’s a little bit like this whole idea that universal access isn’t just for people with a label. Universal access helps everyone. It’s the same kind of idea. Every student benefited from the structured aspect of learning how to plan or learning how to break down tasks or … Does that make sense?

Tim Villegas: Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Why don’t we talk a little bit about what that looks like? And I know that you talk about it in Empower about what it actually looks like in the classroom for this to happen, and I guess maybe the fear of that you’re losing control of the classroom, that there’s going to be too many people doing too many different things, that it’s going to be too loud. There’s all of these different, I guess, perceived barriers to doing something like this, including like, “Well, you know, John, I’ve got a curriculum that I need to teach. I have standards that I need to teach. When am I going to have time to do this?” Maybe you can address some of those fears or concerns.

John Spencer: Oh, definitely. So I think I’ll just give the example of what am I going to do having so many kids doing so many different things at the same time, and I think that piece is significant in terms of you already have kids doing so many different things at the same time. Like if you’re teaching one lesson and assuming that you’re teaching it to all kids, there’s a whole group of your classroom that’s already off task doing something different. So like already that’s already happening that some of them are not doing the same thing as others. They’re already not working at the same pace. We know that in every lesson that we teach, and so the question is: What happens if they are doing something different that’s productive? What happens if they’re doing something that is actually connected to their learning? And it is tough. You do have to let go of a little bit of control as a teacher, but if there’s high motivation, then you end up with higher engagement.

John Spencer: I mean, I realize that it’s not always going to work perfectly, but I think it’s important to remember ahead of time that it’s not working perfectly already. The status quo is not, in many cases, not working. But with that said, some of the big questions, the curriculum map question or the time question or even the assessment question that comes up all the time, I think those really come down to the idea that design thinking or empowering your students, either of those two ideas, they’re not about adding something new to your plate. It’s about a different way of organizing your plate, right? It’s about structuring your classroom in a different way, and it is a little bit rocky at first. I can’t promise it’s going to work perfectly. I can’t promise it’s always going to be this utopia. But when the engagement goes up and students are empowered, when they own their learning, that kind of stuff happens, you do find that it works.

John Spencer: I mean, in terms of how it actually works, I think there are some strategies that we know can help out. So if you take the curriculum map example, the curriculum map tells you everything you have to learn at a given time, right? So you have to teach this standard on this day, this standard on that day, but it doesn’t tell you what you can’t teach, and so if you have all students hitting one particular standard but you’re empowering all of your students to hit other different types of standards, you’re not breaking with the curriculum map. You’re just teaching to all of your students.

John Spencer: And sometimes you have to kind of use a language that principals use or the leaders. I always said if we did a design thinking process and it was in language arts, I’ll give that as an example, I was making sure that the standard and objective on the board fit the curriculum map, and they were in my lesson plans. But we’re also hitting several other standards that are significant, and if a principal asked me, “Why are you doing these standards?” I could say, “Well, we’re just spiraling back to standards,” or, “Those are review standards.” If a principal said, “Why do you have 10 kids who are all learning different objectives right now?” I would say, “This is embedded intervention and enrichment,” and those types of things were really helpful. I don’t know if I answered your question. It’s just such a big question-

Tim Villegas: Oh, yeah.

John Spencer: -I don’t know if I-

Tim Villegas: Yeah, it is a big question, and I don’t think there is one particular answer as far as how you’re going to do that, but I think the biggest thing is that you have to be creative. As the teacher, you have to be creative and say, “How am I going to make this work and be committed to making it work?” And I like, I think it’s in Empower that you talk about if this is kind of a new concept or you just want to kind of put your toe into the water a little bit to try out just one project with this thinking, and one of the best ways to do it, and I think this is brilliant, is to do it during kind of the lame duck season, which would be like testing. Like you have, you know, your whole morning is shot because you’re doing the state test, but you have all afternoon, and rather than just kind of plotting along like you normally would, you use that as a way to introduce this project. So you can really keep the-

John Spencer: Yes. Yeah, or the week before winter break.

Tim Villegas: Right.

John Spencer: Yeah, I mean, those types of things.

Tim Villegas: Right, right.

John Spencer: For sure.

Tim Villegas: Yeah, I think that’s a great idea.

John Spencer: Thank you.

Tim Villegas: In fact, I even tried that with my class last year. I’m no longer a classroom teacher, I’m more of a consultant now with my district, but when I did have my classroom, we did audio interviews towards the end of the year where we would interview each other, and that was a really fun example of just something different. We are not writing a story, we’re not … like not everyone is doing the same thing, but everyone is getting access to something a little bit different, so that was really fun, and I encourage teachers to take those times where you’re like, “Oh, you know, we don’t have enough time to really go through the rest of this particular curriculum, so let’s mix it up a little bit.”

Tim Villegas: So I want to talk about this idea of compliance in education, which was in the forward in Empower, and it really struck me that compliance should not be the end goal of education. And it kind of goes to this idea that the classroom should be well organized and ordered and just so and students are doing exactly what the teacher is telling them to do. If there’s any deviation, then the class is out of control, and it reflects against the teacher. I wanted to know if you would talk about that a little bit, and I guess give me your take on why compliance isn’t enough.

John Spencer: Yeah. So I kind of view it as a, like this was in the, right, it was in the forward. I put together kind of this spectrum and you start out at one side where students have no real agency at all. They’re just following the rules, and that’s compliance, and then they move into a place of engagement where they have some agency but it’s still about what the teacher wants, right? So they’re following a teacher, but at least things are interesting to them, right? But then when you move out of just student interest into like true ownership, then you’re in that place where students are empowered.

John Spencer: I think it’s significant for a couple different reasons. I go to the heart of what we want from our kids, right? So if I’m a dad who’s got three kids, I know a lot of parents, and if you ask parents, you know, “What do you want for your kid in life?” they’ll say, “I want my kid to be a lifelong learner. I want my kid to be successful in a job. I want my kid to be a critical thinking democratic citizen.” Those are the types of answers you get, and none of those answers ever include compliance.

John Spencer: If you’re a really great democratic critical thinking citizen who’s engaged with your world, then compliance is not your goal. If you are going to aim for the creative economy and think like an entrepreneur and be different and push the envelope and be innovative, then you’re probably not going to be aiming for compliance. If you’re going to be a lifelong learner who pursues your interest and passion and studies things on your own, then you’re probably not going to be compliant because that would mean you’re waiting to be told what to do. So I kind of think like compliance is really in many ways the opposite of what we want from kids, what we truly want them to become as they grow up.

Tim Villegas: Right, so, I guess, as a followup question about compliance, did you see, I guess, the behavior of your students change when you implement this design thinking? Like behavior as in difficult or challenging behavior.

John Spencer: Yeah, so I would say this: The worst behaviors that I had in the class or those kind of cringe-worthy as a teacher, those moments where I shamed a kid or yelled at a class, those were always times where I was demanding compliance and I was trying to get students to follow me for the sake of following me rather than thinking about how to help them become self directed and self regulated and whatnot. They were also always the times when we were doing an assignment that was totally teacher directed, right? So they were the worst moments of teaching, but they were also very compliance driven.

John Spencer: On the other hand, when students were designing things or when they were even doing choice-driven silent reading or when they were doing blogging or whatever, so not just design thinking but in general just the other types of things that we were doing where they felt empowered, they weren’t a lot of discipline issues. I’m not saying it was perfect. There were still moments where kids would get upset or emotional, frustrated. I had groups where kids would have conflict with each other, but it was so much easier in those moments to handle it as a learning opportunity whereas when it was in the midst of compliance it was almost always you jump to this overbearing discipline style.

John Spencer: And so I really think like when students are truly empowered, behavior is less of an issue, and I know there are students on behavior plans. I’m not pretending that things are perfect. I think of those groups I had that I mentioned before when I taught self-contained or later when I taught an elective. I had students who were labeled as ED who, like I said, were on behavior plans, and things weren’t perfect. You never knew completely what might cause a student to struggle and lose control and whatever, but I can tell you that the sense of control they felt, the sense of agency that they felt in owning their learning, actually like allowed them to thrive a lot more than when they were in a compliance-driven environment.

Tim Villegas: That’s really interesting. I’d love to hear more stories about that, especially from other educators too who have tried to implement the project-based learning design thinking, and I know in my own experience giving students choice and allowing them to follow their passions and interests really does help with engagement, but it also does help with behavior because if you have obsessive interests in your class and they’re following through with that, they’re less likely to really think or do anything else except that.

John Spencer: Exactly. I had in my STEM class I remember because in the last couple years I taught STEM and photojournalism. This is after I taught the self-contained group, and we had students who had the biggest behavioral needs in our school, and they all were kind of in their own self-contained classroom, and then the only class they got to be mainstreamed into was their elective, and that meant I had them for STEM as a group. I remember hearing people are going to throw chairs and this is going to be this, this is going to be that, and you have some runners so just be cognizant of that, and they gave me a special walkie-talkie, and the truth is I didn’t see those behaviors.

John Spencer: I did have moments where, you know, there was a moment where a kid got upset with me. Not upset with me. He was upset because he was working on something he cared about and he was frustrated and he threw his folder down onto the table and was angry, but they all, you know, despite that one moment, like I said, I didn’t have the..

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Autistic people often face comments or questions that range from clueless to offensive. Although the folks who say such things may not intend to be insulting, their words can prevent meaningful conversation, and even be hurtful. Here’s a list of ten things not to say to someone with autism, along with suggestions for other things to say.

1. “I bet you’re really good at math/science/computers.”

The truth is that autistic people have the same breadth of interests and talents as the broader population. Nobody likes to be pigeonholed.

What to say instead: “What are your favorite subjects?”

2. “What medication are you on?”

This probing question implies that the autistic person doesn’t want or deserve the same level of privacy as everyone else. If you wouldn’t ask your coworker, neighbor, or other acquaintance about their medical status, don’t ask an autistic person, either.

What to say instead: “How are you feeling today?”

3. “You don’t look autistic.”

First of all, autistic people look and act in lots of different ways, same as anyone. Also, to say an autistic person doesn’t look like it implies that their condition isn’t real or that it doesn’t impact them. Remember that you can’t see all of a person’s challenges just by looking at them.

What to say instead: “You look great.”

4. “You must be high functioning.”

This term is currently receiving a lot of criticism from autistic people and advocates. Its very existence implies that there are also low functioning people, when in fact every human—autistic or not—has areas of strengths and challenges.

What to say instead: “What are your favorite things to do?”

5. “But you have a job/degree/relationship!”

This is a typical remark that betrays the speaker’s assumption that autistic people are limited in their abilities and choices. While not everyone with autism goes to college, works, and gets married, it’s narrow-minded to assume that no autistic person can do those things.

What to say instead: “Tell me more about your job/degree/partner.”

6. “You’re not like my friend/child/sibling with autism.”

Keep in mind the famous saying, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” A shared diagnosis provides only a glimpse at commonality, as people with autism have a vast range of abilities, interests, and challenges.

What to say instead: “My friend/child/sibling has autism, too.”

7. “Stop flapping/rocking/jumping. It’s annoying and embarrassing.”

Many autistic people engage in self-stimulatory behavior or “stimming”, to self-regulate sensory information and emotions. Instead of feeling embarrassed, work on your empathy by noticing the ways you self-soothe, such as biting your nails or tapping your foot.

What to say instead: “We’re both doing what makes us feel better.”

8. “I’m sorry you have autism.”

Autism has its challenges, but a lot of people on the spectrum view their autism not as a tragedy, but as an integral part of who they are. In fact, autistic people often relish the strengths and advantages they have over neurotypical people.

What to say instead: “Can I help with anything?”

9. “What’s it like to have autism?”

This question might be well-intentioned, but it can be off-putting. If you wouldn’t ask someone what it’s like to be a member of a race or other marginalized group, then you shouldn’t put an autistic person on the spot this way, either.

What to say instead: “What are you into?”

10. Nothing.

Ignoring an autistic person and speaking only to their parent, friend, or aide is insulting and unnecessary. One tip that helps is to remember to be patient. Some autistic people need a little more time to answer or may use a communication device. They might not answer at all, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them.

What to say instead: “Hello.”

Caryl Anne Crowne is a contributing writer and media relations specialist for Aveanna Healthcare.

The post 10 Things Not to Say to an Autistic Person appeared first on Think Inclusive.

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Inclusion in Schools, Theater, and Everywhere

“Inclusion is not just a program, policy, or idea… Inclusion is a way of life.” But what is inclusion? What does it mean to “include everyone,” especially in consideration of children and youth with disabilities that require adaptation to participate in the many opportunities of life?

As a person with a disability and as an instructor for an inclusive theater program, I have learned through experience what inclusion can be and what it often is not. With questions mounting about how to support an inclusive mindset, I am encouraged by the increasing number of people who stand beside me in the goal of increasing inclusion for people with disabilities everywhere: at schools, in the arts, and in our communities.

Including the Disability Perspective

I was honored last December to speak at my old high school‘s “Diversity Day.” Diversity Day at this school has existed for almost three years but has never before included the disability perspective. I was excited to find, upon taking my panel seat that inclusion, particularly for this segment of the population, was already on the minds of the students who walk the halls that I once rolled through.

The five people on the panel were asked to share their perspectives on the culture they represent; how had it affected their inclusion in society and access to opportunities. To be honest, I thought these teenagers wouldn’t ask me much. As anyone with a disability can attest to, typical teenagers aren’t usually the best at communicating with someone they see as functionally “different.” When questions began, the floodgates opened (in my direction).

Student A: “How were you treated when you went to school here?”

My Answer: “Well, I had to learn how to advocate for myself because the system was not set up for me to be able to pursue opportunities and be successful. I had to find my ways to be a part of classes, events, and programs because of inaccessibility.

It is an everyday reality among people with all types of disabilities and differences that the barriers in society are those that are set up by the culture: they’re in the mindsets and assumptions— therefore in the actions—of what someone who moves differently or thinks differently can or cannot do, can or cannot be.”

Student B: “How were things set up for special education and students with disabilities when you were here?”

My Answer: “When I attended school, I was one of only two general education students with a severe disability. The majority of special education students were in the POHI Rooms (a pair of self-contained classrooms along the darkest hall towards the back of the building, frequented by very few other students). These students did not:

  • Walk the halls with their general education peers
  • Join after-school clubs or teams
  • Enjoy lunch with their peers, but instead stayed at one table in the corner of the general lunchroom

Student C: “It is still just like that! It sounds like it really bothers you; why isn’t there more integration?”

My Answer: “That is what advocating is all about! Speaking up for yourselves and for the way you want your school to be! Speak up for how everyone has value. As for integration, I’ve heard someone describe integration as “people with disabilities having a table in the corner of the lunchroom; but inclusion is having accommodations available and having the opportunity to sit wherever the heck someone wants!”

Inclusion is a Mindset

As the idea that “inclusion is a mindset” spreads, the opportunities offered to young people with disabilities will also. For example, the inclusive theater program that I work for is constantly finding new ways to create success in the arts for young people of all abilities. I never know quite what to expect when rolling into the first session of a “4th Wall” workshop. No matter the specifics, what I always find is a unique variety of abilities that may call for adaptations to ensure success for every student.

For example, the current class I am teaching is filled with talent and differences that exist in every inclusive class. Some students are gifted speakers, while others are more comfortable expressing themselves through movement. Every song is performed with accompanying sign language gestures so that students can sing according to their abilities. Also, every student chooses what their character will be in every play we have; and scripts are written by the instructors, with the unique talents of each student in mind. The best part of every class, in my opinion, is when the students share fun and laughter with their peers, across abilities. The way I see it, theater is an excellent equalizer-it is King Inclusive!

Inclusive Communities

Inclusivity belongs in schools, programs, and activities, and most importantly, in the community. Creating an inclusive view in every form of public life will continue to demonstrate that individuals with disabilities of all types make up part of the tapestry of what society should be. Disability, in all its forms, is part of the norm! As that mindset continues to develop, so will the laws and practices that dictate opportunity, access, and acceptance.

Robin Bennett

4th Wall Theatre Company

Robin Bennett is always learning and advocating, both as an individual with a disability and as an inclusive theater instructor with 4th Wall Theater Company. She also is the blogger extraordinaire for 4th Wall and has served on Michigan’s Statewide Independent Living Council since 2013.

The post How I See Inclusion: In Schools, Theater, and Everywhere appeared first on Think Inclusive.

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The educational career of my son with Down syndrome is only in its infancy, but already I’ve learned that if you want inclusion with proper supports, you can’t wait for school personnel to offer it. Often you have to negotiate for it. Many schools offer the fast food version of the IEP process. It’s convenient and cheap for schools to offer a one-size-fits-all approach to education, and too many parents don’t question this approach.

Have you accepted the fast food version of your child’s IEP?

I did, before I learned special education law and how to advocate for my son at the IEP table. Recently I realized my twin sons (one with Down syndrome and one neuro-typical) were receiving the same exact amount of speech therapy time at school. Both are in an IEP, but my typical son has an easily fixable articulation problem with s-blends. My son with Down syndrome, on the other hand, has been diagnosed with Childhood Apraxia of Speech and his functional language is just starting to emerge at age 5. I started talking to friends with children on IEPs in the same district and found out everyone got the same amount of therapy time.

“Have it your way!”—Nope. And I wasn’t “Lovin’ it!”

I have a good relationship with my son’s IEP team, but other than coming up with goals for my son I had never questioned their system. How would they respond when I asked for more than double the speech therapy time pushed into the general education classroom for my son with Down syndrome?

In the end, I got exactly what I asked for with no push back. How, you might ask? Through the power of negotiation! I don’t expect to get everything I dream for my son’s education, but I do plan on dreaming and negotiating and asking questions. And you should too. Here’s how I plan to get the 5-course fancy meal version of my son’s education. I hope you find tips useful for your next IEP meeting:

  1. Keep your request clear and simple: We’ve all been in those IEP marathon meetings that seem never-ending. There’s so much to cover and decide. I recommend going in with a plan; a clear and simple plan. Better yet, give the IEP team your plan in writing before the IEP meeting. It saves time and emotional energy. Get a draft of the IEP at least a week ahead of time, so everyone knows where everyone else stands. There’s no big surprise when you arrive. I had been emailing my son’s IEP team concerns about the lack of progress on a functional language goal. As email discussions continued I realized the fix was more speech time in the general education classroom. When I called for an IEP meeting to amend the IEP the team knew what I was going to ask for because I had given them prior notice. The ask was clear and simple: I want double the amount of speech therapy time pushed into the general education classroom.
  2. Provide evidence to back up your request: If your child’s school is used to offering a fast food version of education, and you want more, you’re going to have to speak their language. Read that procedural safeguards booklet they give you at the end of each IEP meeting, and read up on research that supports inclusion. Also, look for evidence that supports your specific ask, and ask experts to weigh in. I brought in official guidance from the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association that recommended short, frequent therapy sessions for children with Apraxia in a functional setting. I also got my son’s private SLP to write a letter stating that he would benefit from more speech time at school. I made all of this evidence part of my son’s official educational record. They couldn’t say the evidence for my request wasn’t presented to them.
  3. Decide what you’re willing to compromise: I went into the IEP meeting wanting double the speech time for my son, but I may have taken less if they were willing to give more. Our children’s education shouldn’t be negotiable, but the reality is we are all working in an imperfect system. If you have a good relationship with your child’s IEP team and they’re willing to work with you and meet you halfway, consider yourself lucky. Realize you may not always get everything you want, but make sure you make your position clear. After learning about special education advocacy, I’ve realized I want to avoid conflict when I can. Reserve confrontation for the issues that matter, and even then remain professional and respectful. I once threw around the “due process” threat a lot with friends…” if the school does XYZ, I’ll just take them to due process.” I’ve learned that it’s not that easy, and even if you win at due process, you often lose in other ways. It’s better to get what your child needs through the power of negotiation.
Courtney Hansen

Disability Advocate & Blogger

Proud military wife and mother of 3; one who happens to rock an extra chromosome. Disability advocate and blogger at http://www.inclusionevolution.com

The post Don’t Settle for a Fast Food Version of your Child’s IEP appeared first on Think Inclusive.

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Inclusion in Catholic School

What is incredible about this story of inclusion in a small Catholic school in Ohio is that it was not born out of a legal dispute or political pressure. This story begins with a family going to their faith community and requesting that their child with down syndrome attend St. Joseph’s Consolidated Catholic School. The school didn’t have any special education teachers and never had included a student with Down syndrome, but they were committed to making it work.

Sometimes, that is all you need.

This story is about a small Catholic school, and all of the people in it. From the principal, to the cafeteria helpers, to the families who send their children to St. Joseph’s Consolidated Catholic School, this is a place that should be listed on Hamilton, Ohio’s “Top Destinations to Visit.” Every person I interviewed proved at their core to be people filled with the faith and conviction that all people, especially those students with disabilities, be included. The Meehan family wanted to make this video so that they could share this story with other parents, school administrators, and teachers who may have doubts about including someone in their school. Ther hope is to inspire each person with the story that inclusion is not only possible – but transformative for both the school and the child. Please join me in sharing this with people you know, and help pass along their message. – Katie Bachmeyer

National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion

If you haven’t heard about the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion, let us acquaint you with them.

Our mission is to inspire schools to begin the process of becoming inclusive, to educate teachers, parents, principals and priests on what it takes to be an inclusive school and to provide the educational research and real life experiences that support it.

Perhaps you are in a situation like the family in the video. You have a child with Down syndrome and want them to be included in your local Catholic school. Where do you start? The first step is to ask. All your school can say is “no.” Then you can take the steps necessary to advocate for your child.

We encourage you to take a look at the National Catholic Board’s resources on inclusion research, information on the harmful effects of segregation, and map of inclusive schools and dioceses.

Video Transcript

In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, a small elementary school found a way to include students of all abilities.

“Every person has a purpose. And a school’s job and a family’s job and a church’s job is to help them find that purpose.”

“We kind of courted the principal. Introduced him to Mike, sent him a book, and described Down syndrome. I think he was looking for a way for it work, but initially said no.”

“Our principal came to us in a staff meeting and said Mr. Meehan has asked that Mike be included, and none of us are special ed teachers, so that was a legitimate concern.”

“We didn’t have all the answers starting out. We felt at times like we were inventing things.”

“It’s not easy to include students of different ranges. It can be frustrating.”

“Would it have been easier to just let Mike be in a special education classroom? Would it have been easier? Probably. Maybe. But it wouldn’t be Mike Meehan as we know him today. This school would not be the same.”

“And it’s important for those children that have disabilities to be accepted so that they have dignity.”

Mike was the first student with Down syndrome to be included at the school.

Now the school serves many students with broad-ranging abilities.

“We truly believe there is a space and a place for all kinds of different people.”

“We don’t live in a perfect world, and so it’s very important I think that all of our kids learn that there is diversity, and everybody’s not the same, and thank goodness.”

“There’s nothing miraculous about St. Joe’s. There’s great principals and great teachers all over the place. St. Joe’s could be duplicated just about at any school in the Archdiocese. You just have to be willing.”

Mike will be applying to high schools in the coming year.

The family has found one high school in the Archdiocese that has an inclusive culture like St. Joe’s.

“This is worth the effort because if you do keep working with this kind of culture it an have very, very long-term effects on kids. I want kids to do well academically. I want kids to go as far as they can academically. But I want them to be good people, and when I hear that they are both. It’s like, okay. Now I know why I do this.”

The post How This Catholic School Included a Young Man with Down Syndrome appeared first on Think Inclusive.

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Audio Transcript

Arielle Hobbs: This is Arielle and you are listening to The Think Inclusive Podcast.

Tim Villegas: Recording from my office in beautiful Marietta, Georgia, you are listening to The Think Inclusive Podcast, episode 15. Today we have Arielle Hobbes, founder of The Lion League, a fantastic organization that is changing how we build inclusive schools around the United States. We talk about what inclusion looks like in her family and how The Lion League is different from other social inclusion organizations. After the podcast, please stop by our Patreon page, where you can support our goal to bring you in depth interviews with inclusive education and community advocacy thought leaders.

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All right. Welcome to The Think Inclusive Podcast. I have Arielle Hobbes with us today. She is the founder of a nonprofit called The Lion League. She has been a thinker and writer her whole life, but found her passion when she had to rise up and fight for her son to have the same opportunities as everyone else. Through her nonprofit, Arielle has curated a curriculum that teaches students how to be more inclusive with their disabled peers. Thank you for being on The Think Inclusive Podcast, Arielle.

Arielle Hobbs: I’m happy to be here.

Tim Villegas: Now I’m saying that, right? Arielle or Ariel?

Arielle Hobbes: Arielle. You are saying it right.

Tim Villegas: Arielle. Okay.

Arielle Hobbs: Yeah.

Tim Villegas: Perfect. We had talked a few months ago now about The Lion League and I was just really excited about what The Lion League was and is and can be. I wanted you to come on the podcast to explain to our listeners what it is and how it relates to thinking inclusive and inclusion in general. Why don’t we start off with what is The Lion League?

Arielle Hobbs: Well, thank you for being interested. That always gets me more excited about what I do, when I meet people that are excited about what I do. I’m super happy to be here and explain what The Lion League is. The Lion League simply is a free school-based program that engages students to be more intentional about including their peers with disabilities.

Tim Villegas: Oh, okay. How is it more intentional as opposed to…

Arielle Hobbs: I…

Tim Villegas: Yeah. I’ll go ahead and let you explain that.

Arielle Hobbs: Yeah. For me, there is a lot of programs out there that pair children up or they have mentors or buddies, but that is a … It might not end up that way, but it starts as a forced relationship, where you’re paired with this person. It’s not a natural friendship forming. It’s not natural interests of one another. It can be that, of course, and I think it has been. I’m not saying a lot of those programs are not successful. I think that they are, but for me, I just wanted something that really focused on teaching typically developing students more about what is inclusion? What is disability? How can we be more understanding and accepting? The natural stuff comes after that because if you’re more aware of what inclusion is, of what disability is, of the people around you, then you’re going to just … The friendships and the interest level is just going to be more of a natural occurrence rather than a forced one.

Tim Villegas: Okay. Help me understand how this would look in maybe just a typical elementary school.

Arielle Hobbs: Sure.

Tim Villegas: Let me just go back and say this isn’t just for elementary school. Correct? This is for K-12. Correct?

Arielle Hobbs: Correct. We have an elementary school curriculum. We have a middle school curriculum and we have a high school curriculum. Of course, they teach the same basic concepts, but we break it down differently for the age groups.

Tim Villegas: Okay. Is this something that’s done during the school day or is it like an after school club? I guess it could be both.

Arielle Hobbs: Yeah, it can be either. I really don’t put any restrictions on the school. My focus is really just to get everyone talking about inclusion. I don’t care how you do it. That’s one of the things that I say right away whenever I speak to somebody or somebody has interest in The Lion League. “We’re thinking about an after school club.” Great. That sounds perfect. “We’re thinking about something during the day.” Great. That sounds fantastic. I have one school that’s doing it … They’re hitting every student in the school. The counselor goes around and does a social and emotional curriculum. In that elementary school, four times a year, she teaches The Lion League curriculum. Every single student in that school is getting The Lion League curriculum. I think that is really, really cool. School’s believe in it so much that they make sure that this isn’t just a group of 10 students that are going to hear this. We’re going to teach this to everybody.

That just makes me feel good about what we’re doing over here at The Lion League. It looks totally different for every school. I think initially, I started it with the thought that it would be after school programs and students would really get together and have maybe … Obviously the teacher has to oversee and all that, but really student-run. We’re still at the beginning stages and learning so much, but counselors and the administrative staff are really grabbing ahold of the idea and the concept and the mission of The Lion League. They’re really wanting to teach it to a more broad group than just 15 students that gets together after school. I’m really happy about that.

Tim Villegas: Fantastic. I have a couple more questions about the curriculum. The curriculum that is developed, is that something that you wrote or that you adapted?

Arielle Hobbs: Yeah. I wrote it just from some personal experience, from some basic research. Each year, we want the curriculum to be different because we hope that we’re maintaining some of the same students and eventually, our elementary students will be middle schoolers. We still want them to be in The Lion League. The concepts will be the same, but we hope to come at it from a different perspective every year. I have a spot on my website where you can actually volunteer to help me write the curriculum for that year. It’s just a little committee that we put together. It’s annual because we want it changing every year. It’s only a one-year volunteer position. It’s very low-key. I’m pretty low-key. I just really want other perspectives when writing this curriculum. Not just mine at all.

This year, I worked with two really fabulous special education teachers. We just approached it from their point of view and mine. That’s where the curriculum came from this year. I write the bulk of it, for sure. Just like I said, a little bit of research and personal experience. I really would love for the committee to transform into something really beautiful that everyone’s excited about every year. Like, “Who’s going to write it this year?” I want that piece to become really exciting. That’s a new facet for us within The Lion League.

Tim Villegas: Okay. For instance, let’s talk about this year’s curriculum.

Arielle Hobbs: Sure.

Tim Villegas: I know that each school is going to implement the curriculum differently, but as far as … Let’s just talk about content because as far as for people who are not familiar with what an inclusion-driven curriculum … What the content looks like. Let’s say we’re in our first lesson or unit. Can you give us some specific content examples of what would be in that unit?

Arielle Hobbs: Yeah. There’s four for elementary school and there’s eight lessons for middle and high school. Middle and high school meet monthly. Elementary, we didn’t want to put that on the elementary teachers or students. They meet four times a year.

Tim Villegas: Okay.

Arielle Hobbs: The first one is inclusion. Just what is inclusion? Then if you’re in middle or high school, that second piece of the curriculum is going to break down, “Okay. Well now how do we actually apply what we learned last month?” In elementary school, again, it’s more of just a basic overview. What is inclusion and a little bit of how can we … There’s always actions on the curriculum for every single curriculum that comes out, whether you’re in elementary, middle or high school. Four or eight. At the end of your session, when these students are learning the curriculum, they have a takeaway. They have a piece of paper that’s a printout and they put their own action items in there. How am I going to apply what I’ve learned for the next 30, 60 days?

We really want them to come back to that next session and say, “I challenged myself to talk to three new students that I didn’t know much about and ask them questions,” or whatever their personal challenges were. Then we hope that they report those challenges. Then throughout the year, we’re hoping that every single meeting gets more rich because the students are doing and understanding and just having greater awareness as we go along throughout the year.

Tim Villegas: Oh, I like that. I like that a lot. I know that you probably don’t dictate this, but what are some examples of how schools are implementing this as far as getting kids involved in recruiting, I guess, students? Is it a school-wide announcement? Have you heard of schools doing school-wide announcements or school-wide flyers? Or do teachers have their eye on certain students and they go and they ask them individually? How does that work?

Arielle Hobbs: Very different across the board. I think some really feel like, “Oh, we’ll do this as a leadership … I already have a leadership group formed. Why don’t we just add it to what they do?” That’s great, too. Then like I said, that one school really took it another step further and they’re teaching it to everybody. There’s no option there. There’s nothing going home. Every kid is hearing our curriculum, which I think is amazing. That’s an elementary school here in Texas. I have another school here in Texas that has … It’s an elementary school, but they have some afternoon after school clubs. That’s an optional sign up. The club list goes home and then students can decide if they want to join.

I have a school in Florida who just sends out … In this specific elementary school, they do 2nd through 5th graders just because of understanding. I think everyone can understand it, K-5, but they decided to do second through 5th. They sent home the option. I think they made a little presentation at school and then they asked kids if they were interested. If they were, they sent home just a little bit of information for the parents to let them know their parents wanted to participate in this. Everyone’s doing it so different, but that’s what … I love that. I have a middle school here in Texas where it’s a leadership group and a middle school in Arkansas. They have a specific group that they get together. It’s actually a reverse inclusion situation. They use some of their special education students and then some of the reverse inclusion students that come. Then they’re all working on it together. That’s been a really, really fun one to watch as well.

Tim Villegas: Yeah. That actually was my next question as far as how students with disabilities or that are labeled as special education students … How they are really included in this process. Is that also up to the school or is it something that you are on the front end telling schools that if you’re going to form a Lion League, you should also be having students with disabilities in the group as far as learning these skills as well?

Arielle Hobbs: Yeah. It’s suggested and it’s pushed on my end. I can’t make anybody do anything on their end.

Tim Villegas: Right.

Arielle Hobbs: For us, we definitely, definitely want full inclusion, even in a Lion League because it’s so much more rich when we do have students with all different types of differences, whether it’s disability or it’s race or it’s background. I think that that becomes really, really cool because they can all speak from different places. It is more than suggested that they have students with disabilities in The Lion League groups.

Tim Villegas: Yeah, that’s awesome. I love it. I guess let’s talk about your personal experience in the why of … Why you started The Lion League. In our introduction, we talked about you rising up and fighting for your son. Maybe tell us specifically what happened and why did you start The Lion League?

Arielle Hobbs: Absolutely. It was an unfortunate experience, but turned into me really finding my passion, so I’m grateful. I have three kids. My middle son is eight and he has an intellectual disability and he is nonverbal. We signed him up when he was in first grade for a kinder-first basketball thing. Kinder-first grade basketball. Very chill. It’s supposed to be just super fun. We thought, “This would be perfect for him. He loves basketball.” I called the local sports league in our area and just said, “Hey, are you inclusive?” They said, “Yeah, we’re totally inclusive.” I said, “That’s fantastic. Let me tell you a little bit about my son. I think he’s going to need a person to maybe come alongside him a little bit because he doesn’t understand basic directions sometimes.” I just gave him a little overview of him.

They said, “Yeah, this is great. We would love to have him.” I paid my money. We brought him that first time and nobody even said hello to us. I thought, “Well, that’s a little odd,” because all the other parents just threw their kids into the gym and they sat on the bleachers. I stayed with Sullivan on the gym floor and we found that they started and nobody still spoke to us. I tried to worm my way over to the coach and introduce myself and she didn’t seem very interested in speaking to me. Sully ended up playing a little bit of basketball. Then the coach was walking around, checking on all the kids. I’m the only parent on the court. It’s very obvious that Sullivan needs a little more assistance than all of the other children. She looked at me and started to walk over and then decided against it. Just turned around and walked away.

I thought, “Oh my goodness. What is happening right now?” I didn’t want to upset my son, but I couldn’t stay. I was getting really fired up. I was getting really emotional and I decided to leave. We pulled out. I called them. You know, I told them that I need my money back and how I felt about them a little bit. I was just gravely disappointed in their lack of welcoming us, not including Sullivan and just trying to accommodate I’m in a very minimal way that he needs accommodation. Sully is very, very friendly, very social. I thought that they really just dropped the ball. I found that after that, I just stayed angry. I’m a very, very happy, positive person. This was not normal for me.

Instead of letting that eat me up, after a couple weeks of being angry, I decided that this was something that I had to do something about. I created initially what was called Pride Inclusive Sports. Pride Inclusive Sports was created to try and push this idea of inclusive recreation activity. There’s a lot of things out there for typically developing children, there’s a lot of things out there for children with disabilities, but there’s nothing that’s meshing the two. Why aren’t our kids playing together? For me, all kids should be playing together. That doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

In the world of competitive sports, it’s a very, very difficult thing and I don’t look at it the way that a lot of people do. I completely failed with my first mission of trying to include people in recreation. Really, truly just totally bombed. The sports went really well, actually. For two and a half years, we had wonderful special needs disability programming for … It was fantastic. We had soccer. We had swimming. We had all of these different things, but in the end, there was no parents of typically developing children that would sign up their kids for our activities.

After two years, I decided to take a step back and just say, “What am I missing? I’m obviously missing something. I’m segregating the community that I’m trying to include, so I’m failing miserably at doing what I intended to do.” Through this, I took a break. I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue what I was doing. In this time is when I decided, “No, I’m not going to stop what I’m doing. I’m going to change what I’m doing and I’m going to educate people on inclusion and disability because obviously they don’t understand.” I was in a place of passion and that’s where The Lion League was created, specifically with my son in mind, but obviously with the benefit of hopefully affecting the lives of all people and the disability community in general.

Tim Villegas: Right. Now in seeing all of that about the segregation that happens with just sports in general, because you have sports that are so competitive, it’s such a competitive world, the sports world, especially for kids. You sign your kid up for Little League and it’s just a … It’s very intense.

Arielle Hobbs: Very.

Tim Villegas: You saw that when you created The Pride Inclusive Sports, that model, that it was attractive to families who have children with special needs or disabilities. Do you think though that there’s a place for special needs or disabilities-specific events or organizations? I know that that wasn’t … It didn’t line up with what you were thinking of what you wanted to do, but I guess in general. Right? For instance, Special Olympics. Or I know there are other organizations that are disability-specific.

Arielle Hobbs: Right.

Tim Villegas: Do you feel like there’s a place for that?

Arielle Hobbs: I’m a realist. I’m a dreamer, too, which is cool. I’m proud that I’m both of those things, but I have to live now and I have to hope for better. I think having a child with disabilities, I have found that spot. Right? I have to live in this space of, “This is what this looks like today, but I’m going to hope that this looks like X, Y and Z in the coming weeks and months and years.” For me right now, there is a place for the Special Olympics because I see firsthand how much joy it brings to the disability community. Last weekend, we participated in a Special Olympics swimming event and my son had the best time and just felt like a superstar. We had a wonderful experience and we met amazing people and everyone was having a great time.

There is space for that. Do I wish that sports were not as hyper competitive at this age? Do I wish that the world looked different and we could have kids playing with one another all on the same swim team? Absolutely I do, but I also feel like I have to look at right now. I dream about there not being a need for the Special Olympics, but I don’t think that we’re there yet.

Tim Villegas: I think that’s a really good point because you know part of my background as far as in the education world and what classrooms look like in special education. I feel very similar in that. I’m about to ask you I guess your opinion about the self-contained versus the inclusive model in special education.

Arielle Hobbs: Okay. Yeah.

Tim Villegas: I find myself thinking the same thing as in I have a dream and I have a vision that we can have inclusive schools. Those inclusive schools will look a certain way, where they’re … Like you said, there’s no need for the Special Olympics. There’s no need for self-contained classrooms, but we’re not there yet. Right?

Arielle Hobbs: Yeah. Just that.

Tim Villegas: We’re not. I used to feel really sick and bad about that because being in education for so long and seeing this disconnect that I felt like I was betraying my ideals because I’m still working in this system that does have these self-contained classrooms. I think what it comes down to for me is that I’m really in it for the kids. The kids aren’t the problem. They’re not what is holding us back, right?

Arielle Hobbs: Right.

Tim Villegas: As long as I have that in mind and just try to do what’s best for kids … Just like you. You’re trying to do what’s best for your son and kids like your son who need a little bit of extra help. You are trying to push people into what could be, but at the same time, you’re participating in Special Olympics. You’re participating in what’s right now available.

Arielle Hobbs: Absolutely. I would not deprive him of that. Yeah.

Tim Villegas: Exactly. Yeah. I just talked a lot, so I apologize. I didn’t mean to step all over your stuff.

Arielle Hobbs: No. Oh my god. No, no, no. I love it. This is the fun part.

Tim Villegas: Let me ask you, do you feel that same kind of tension as far as education for your son and what that looks like?

Arielle Hobbs: Yeah. It’s going to be a similar answer. Personally, I am all for full inclusion in schools, but in doing what I do, I’m so fortunate to meet amazing parents of children with disabilities, meeting individuals that have disabilities, young and old. I welcome this conversation always because I always want to hear both sides and I have heard both sides. I think when I first started this inclusion journey, I thought that everyone felt like me, especially parents. I felt like, “Of course they all want their kids to be..

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Rural communities are widely underserved in myriad ways. From a lack of educational resources to inaccessible medical care, rural populations are challenged to maintain what many of us consider a normal standard of living. When you factor in groups with disabilities, the obstacles to creating a stimulating, fulfilling environment mount even higher.

For students with disabilities, the lack of opportunity in rural environments can cause frustration and isolation. With limited resources, it is difficult to create opportunities tailored to the needs of children and teens with disabilities.

However, difficulty does not mean that efforts can be lackluster. It is imperative that students with disabilities be given as many opportunities as possible, whether physically, emotionally, or academically.

In the face of limited resources, inclusive programs may be the answer. As Ohio University notes, “Athletics can reflect the American civil equality progress … Athletic officials and administrators have the privilege and responsibility of upholding opportunity.” Inclusive athletic programs can create these opportunities for students regardless of their ability, which stands to benefit more than just the players.

Benefits of Inclusive Athletic Programs For Students With Disabilities

When students are segregated for activities, it limits the people they can form relationships with and creates friendships based on differences. Social skills will not develop as easily or readily when friendships are dictated. In rural communities where population density is lower, inclusivity allows organic relationships to form where students may otherwise be isolated.

Research also suggests that when given a chance to rise to the occasion, students with disabilities can accomplish more when working in an inclusive environment. For schools with limited resources, creating an inclusive classroom benefits both teachers and students.

The research study was academically focused, but concepts such as strategy and game play introduce an intellectual component to physical tasks and suggest that sports may have a similar effect.

Participating in inclusive athletic programs will raise the confidence of students with disabilities. It offers the students a forum to challenge themselves physically, and for students with autism, physical exercise can improve both mental and physical health. When students with disabilities stand to benefit so much from inclusive sports, the idea of denying or segregating their activities is illogical.

For Students Without Disabilities

Typically-developing students will benefit from participating in inclusive athletic programs by teaching empathy and improving a student’s sense of community. Students will also gain perspective by working with peers who have different limitations than they do. Patience and the ability to help peer coach with empathy will impart students with valuable life skills for future social environments.

Beyond perspective and patience, however, inclusive athletic programs model what inclusion should look like across a lifetime. Schools must invest into the character of the students and make inclusion a normal, obligatory part of education creates an expectation that inclusion will also be a priority in the workforce or other future ventures.

As students prepare to leave rural communities, the benefits of inclusive athletics travel with them, both preparing them for potentially more liberal populations in bigger cities, or creating expectations for the future of their community if they return.

Implementing Inclusive Athletic Opportunities

It’s all well and good to discuss providing inclusive athletics, but creating the programs is a completely different challenge. In the face of limited resources and the low population density typical of rural communities, it will require teamwork and determination to create inclusive programs that would be a benefit to all. Regardless of challenges, however, the community has a responsibility to provide equal opportunities to all of its youth.

Call on the Community

Inclusive athletic opportunities are not projects that can be easily spearheaded by one person. It will require the time and energy of many people to implement an effective program. By engaging the community, it becomes easier to determine what best suits the needs of the students, as well as what resources are available.

Volunteers, parents, coaches, and students will have to come together to create an inclusive, welcoming environment. The program will require the use of facilities for practicing and competing (if the program is competitive) as well as equipment and, optionally, uniforms for students. Community members may have the ability to provide, donate, or share supplies if the district is not well-funded.

Utilize Your Resources

To create a program that is beneficial to all involved, research and outside information will be necessary. Engaging with a community social worker is a solid strategy for addressing the needs of all students involved. In a rural area, social workers are called on to be “all-arounders” who understand and can cater to the needs of a variety of different community facets.

Coaches or parents who have had previous experience with similar programs will be an invaluable resource, as will the success stories of other programs. Of course, engaging students with disabilities in the decision-making process will also be beneficial to the students and the program — it creates an investment in the outcome and ensures students that their needs and wants are being considered.

Creating Opportunities

Setting up a program that fits the needs of a specific group will be a process of trial, error, and collaboration. Utilizing local resources is only the first step, and as programs become viable, constantly checking in and evaluating the program will allow it to grow and be successful for its participants.

If you’re looking for inspiration for starting a program in your rural area, consider looking at programs that are already in place in different areas of the country. Special needs programs, as well as inclusive programs, are available in various formats. Reaching out to one of these organizations for guidance, helpful information, or mentorship may prove to be just what’s needed to kick-start a program.

Reaping the Rewards

Creating an inclusive program will create a palpable psychological effect within the community. Students with disabilities will be afforded opportunities that they deserve and may not have had otherwise. In the same turn, typically-developing students will be immersed in a model for inclusion, fostering expectations for the future of their community.

Avery Phillips

Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.

The post Benefits of Inclusion in Athletics for Students With Disabilities appeared first on Think Inclusive.

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Segregated public schools have been ruled unconstitutional, and now, we live in a world where integration and diversity should be a hallmark of the school system. As borders come crashing down, societies and the global economy are becoming characterized by differences. The diversity agenda is being pursued by university officials, employers and parents who want to prepare students to live in a globalized world.

Fosters Better Collaboration

Diverse classrooms prepare students for careers in job markets with less and less concern for national or community boundaries. Through integrated classroom environments, students learn to communicate and collaborate with people from other backgrounds and cultures.

Diversity prepares students for success and citizenship in the global economy with its dynamic multicultural makeup.

Creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving are all fostered in integrated classroom settings. Being among people who are different also helps students confront and combat stereotypes, understanding the complexities that are found in the human race.

If children are educated and live in racially isolated environments, they can develop discriminatory prejudices and attitudes.

Academic Achievement

It’s not just racial/ethnic diversity that is required in the classroom whether at school or home tuition. As Brown v. Board of Education held that separate schools for black and white students are inherently unequal, the Coleman Report suggests that socioeconomic school integration could increase academic achievement even more.

Many sources show that diversity in the classroom benefits all students. Research has shown that racial and socioeconomic diversity in the classroom yields social and cognitive benefits. Yes, evidence has shown that diversity makes us smarter and students in integrated schools have higher average test scores.

Patrick Kelly, a teacher at Blythewood High School in South Carolina, has said that “both research and my experience show the link between quality and diversity in schools.”

Creativity and Confidence

Studies show that students can go further and concentrate better with people of different backgrounds working in the same environment. People with differing viewpoints have unique things to bring to the table, enabling more creative solutions. Contrary to feelings of danger or discomfort, a study in the journal “Child Development” has illustrated that students feel safer in life and school when they are educated in a diverse environment.

Due to learning about different types of people from different backgrounds and cultures, they become more comfortable with these differences and with themselves.

Integrated classrooms can improve students’ intellectual self-confidence. Research on diversity at the college level shows that when students have positive experiences interacting with students of other backgrounds and view the racial and cultural climate on-campus as affirming, they emerge with greater confidence in their academic abilities.

Organize a cultural fair. Sound out when you notice educators biased towards different student groups. Check in on whether there is a racial bias at the school staff and faculty level. When we help our students begin to understand how diversity is important and to celebrate our differences, we’ll see them slowly excel and achieve so much more.


The Benefits of Socioeconomically and Racially Integrated Schools and Classrooms (n.d.). Retrieved from https://tcf.org/content/facts/the-benefits-of-socioeconomically-and-racially-integrated-schools-and-classrooms/

Geraldine Lee

Geraldine is an education writer, currently serving on the content team at Yodaa, a Singapore ed-tech startup. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Business and Literary Studies. In her free time, she researches on parenting issues, education tips and technological trends.

The post The Benefits of Racial Diversity in the Classroom appeared first on Think Inclusive.

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“Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible.”

Most parents of students with Down syndrome have heard a variation of the quote above, especially if you’ve tried fighting for inclusion. I assumed this statement was just hyperbole. I figured there was some truth in it, but that there was probably just as much research showing self-contained classes were more beneficial than inclusion. At least that’s what most school districts and even many parents would have you believe.

Imagine my surprise then, when I read the EXACT quote above in the introduction to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (read it for yourself right here). The actual law, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, states that a regular classroom with proper supports is best for ALL students with disabilities. I was a bit taken back, and wanted to know more about this research the law touted.

What I found was even more surprising. Did you know there’s not one quantitative research study, since research began on the topic, that shows an academic advantage for students with intellectual disabilities in separate settings? None! Zip! Nada! Here’s the research study citation to prove it: Falvey, Mary A. (Spring 2004) Toward realization of the least restrictive educational environments for severely handicapped students. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities. 29 (1), 9-10. 

Luckily, I’ve learned a lot more about the research that supports proper inclusion for students with even the most severe disabilities as part of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates Special Education Training. It’s a year-long course I’m taking to prepare for my own son’s entry into public education, as well as to fulfill my goal to help other families advocate for inclusion for their child. The information below is credited to the amazing Selene Almazan, special education lawyer who specializes in the least restrictive environment.

In the area of IEP quality, time of engagement, and individual supports:

1. In a 1992 quantitative study, Hunt and Farron-Davis found a significant increase in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) quality in measures of age appropriateness, functionality, and generalizations when students were moved from a self-contained classroom to a general education classroom. This was true even when the special educator stayed the same and moved with the child into the least restrictive environment. Experts interpret this to mean that there’s nothing going on within the four walls of a self-contained classroom that provides value and quality when stacked up against general education classroom settings.

  • Citation: Hunt, P., & Farron-Davis, F. (1992). A preliminary investigation of IEP quality and content associated with placement in general education versus special education. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicapps, 17 (4), 247-253.

2. Two years later, the same researchers looked at engagement of students with severe disabilities within general education. They found that there was an increase in the amount of instruction for functional activities for students with severe disabilities within general education compared to self-contained classrooms. Students in self-contained classrooms were less engaged and more isolated.

  • Citation: Hunt, P., Farron-Davis, F., Beckstead, S., Curtis, D., & Goetz, L. (1994). Evaluating the effects of placement of students with severe disabilities in general education versus special education. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 19 (3), 200-214.

3. Similar results were found in a study of a small group of students with severe disabilities. Some of the students were placed in general education and some were in a self-contained classroom. The study found the general education setting provided more instruction time, a comparable about of one-on-one time, addressed content curriculum more, and engaged in peer-modeling more.

  • Citation: Helmstetter, Curry, Brennan, & Sampson-Saul, (1998). Comparison of general and special education classrooms of students with severe disaitatebilities. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 33, 216-227.
In the area of non-academic time and individualizing supports:

4. A 2000 quantitative study found 58% of time spent in a self-contained classroom was classified as “non-instructional,” compared to 35% of the time in a general education classroom. The students with severe disabilities in general education classroom were also 13 times more likely than their typical peers to receive direct instruction during whole-class time, and 23 times more likely to receive one-on-one support. This challenges the common argument that students with disabilities cannot receive individualized instruction in a general education setting.

  • Citation: McDonnell, J., Thorson, N., & McQuivey, C. (2000). Comparison of teh instructional contexts of students with severe disabilities and their peers in general education classes. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 25, 54-58.
In the area of student outcomes and impact on typical peers: 

5. A 2001 study out of Indiana looked at academic progress for students with disabilities in general education and self-contained classrooms over two years. 47.1% of students with disabilities in general education made progress in math, compared to 34% in self-contained classes. Reading progress was comparable in both settings. Interestingly, the study found typical peers made higher gains in math when students with disability were present. Researchers hypothesized that extra help and supports in these classes created gains for all students.

  • Citation: Waldron, N., Cole, C., & Majd, M. (2001). The academic progress of students across inclusive and traditional settings: a two year study Indiana inclusion study. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Institute on Disability & Community

6. A study looking at the outcome of 11,000 students with all types of disabilities found that more time in a general education classroom correlated to less absences from school, fewer referrals for misbehavior, and more post-secondary education and employment options.

  • Citation: Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., and Levine, P. (2006). The Academic Achievement and Functional Performance of Youth with Disabilities: A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). (NCSER 2006-3000). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International

7. Many schools and parents make the argument that typical peers may be negatively impacted by the presence of students with disabilities. Especially those students with behavior problems. But a 1998 study out of Montana found that inclusion does NOT compromise a typical students academic or social outcome. The Indiana study above shows they actually make more progress because of inclusionary practices.

  • Citation: McGregor, G., & Vogelsberg, R.T. (1998). Inclusive schooling practices: Pedagogical and Research Foundations. A synthesis of the literature that informs best practices about inclusive schooling. University of Montana, Rural Institute on Disabilities.

This article was originally published at Inclusion Evolution.

Courtney Hansen

Disability Advocate & Blogger

Proud military wife and mother of 3; one who happens to rock an extra chromosome. Disability advocate and blogger at http://www.inclusionevolution.com

The post 7 Essential Research Studies on Inclusive Education appeared first on Think Inclusive.

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