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Opinion: Nearly 50 years since schools opened to developmentally disabled children, segregation persists

Inclusion and integration in our schools means we must invest in training our teachers

There is a sentiment that I believe we can all agree on: Children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities should be included in all aspects of society. It’s simple. It’s direct. And, frankly, it’s hard to argue with.

Lloyd Lewis

The Arc, all 15 Arc chapters here in Colorado, and arc Thrift Stores live and breathe this sentiment every day. It applies to how we serve, how we employ, how we engage with our partners, and how we believe business should be run.

It also applies to education. And, now that a new school year is underway, education is on my mind.

The U.S. has a long and conflicted history with its approach to segregated vs. inclusive education for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. For most of our history, children with these disabilities have been completely excluded from the public education system and placed in special education programs or entirely separate schools.

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It wasn’t until 1975 — not even 50 years ago — that the Education for All Handicapped Children Act  was passed. The act opened schoolhouse doors and mandated free and appropriate public education for children with disabilities, and the provision of special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.

But it wasn’t enough.

Then, in 1990, the act was modified and became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The new act went further than its predecessor, with the goal being “to provide children with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students who do not have a disability” and required that public schools create an Individualized Education Program “for each student who is found to be eligible under both the federal and state eligibility/disability standards.” 

Better. But still it wasn’t, and isn’t, enough.

The fact is that the specifics of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have remained essentially unchanged for more than three decades. Segregation of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the classroom remains a major issue in our country, and in Colorado. Most children with these disabilities  in our state are taught in segregated classrooms.

We must continue the fight that started back in the 1960s and ‘70s and move beyond what are essentially merely modest accommodations to true and holistic inclusion and complete integration.

UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children gives us this description of true inclusive education:

An education system that includes all students, and welcomes and supports them to learn, whoever they are and whatever their abilities or requirements. This means making sure that teaching and the curriculum, school buildings, classrooms, play areas, transport and toilets are appropriate for all children at all levels. Inclusive education means all children learn together in the same schools. No-one should be excluded. Every child has a right to inclusive education, including children with disabilities.

Perhaps that is a tall order, but it was one we must fulfill.

I have a 17-year-old son with Down syndrome who is now being taught in many mainstream classrooms in a highly regarded public school. He has benefited greatly from the kind teachers, the supportive staff, and the educational provisions afforded him through his IEP. His schools, in turn, benefitted from him, from his presence and his unique contributions.

Here are the facts:

  • With lesson modifications, kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities benefit greatly from being in an integrated and inclusive classroom.
  • They can learn and thrive in mainstream classrooms.
  • They can contribute to their mainstream peers when integrated into the classroom.

And that is the point. Every child has contributions to make — in the classroom and out. Why would we want to deny ourselves of those contributions — whether they come from a child without these disabilities or someone with them?

The fact is, there is no typical, is there? None of us are typical, and no person with a disability is typical.

We have more than 300 people with  intellectual and developmental disabilities working in our stores across Colorado. We call them our Ambassadors and their abilities (rather than disabilities) are as varied as you can imagine. But they all have the ability to learn. Many of them take part in our Arc University, a program we established several years ago that is devoted to the enhancement of the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities through promotion, enrichment, growth, recognition, and exposure to learning, fellowship, challenges, and new experiences.

From a practical standpoint, inclusion and integration in our schools means we must invest in training our teachers so they can understand and adapt to different learning styles, and it means we need to respond to diversity with a zero-rejection policy, which, as defined by Inclusion International, means “schools cannot deny access to students based on disability and there are clear consequences or accountabilities in place if they do so.”

To be sure, integration is a commitment. But we must stand strong and protect the legal mandate of all individuals to this fundamental right to education. All children’s gifts and contributions should be honored without discrimination or prejudice. Every school — from the teachers to the administrators to the board — should strive for inclusion. No child — regardless of their abilities — should be segregated. Education creates increased self-esteem, social interactions, acceptance, and connection. Education is what prepares us for the world, it’s what enriches our souls. 

In the end, we must remember that inclusion should be our goal.

Lloyd Lewis, of Denver,  is president and CEO of Arc Thrift Stores

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The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to

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