Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Regular School Programs


Stanley L. Swartz, Ph.D.

California State University





An agenda for reform in special education and the research that supports the need for these changes are reviewed.  An argument for the inclusion of children with disabilities in regular school programs is made using data on the efficacy of current special education practices and on the philosophy of integration of children with special needs.


Educators and psychologists in the United States look with great pride, on what should be called the modern era of education for the children with disabilities, on the achievements that were precipitated by the passage of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act in 1975.  This law was the first time that school districts were required to provide special education and related services, at public expense, to all children with disabilities.  Since this law was passed much has been accomplished on behalf of children with disabilities. Before this mandate many children with disabilities had never seen the inside of a public school.  Any services that were available probably were organized and financed by concerned parents.  Many children had been warehoused in institutions and had received little or no appropriate service.  Children with disabilities who did manage to attend the public schools were often ill-treated, excluded from a variety of learning opportunities,  provided inferior instructional materials and facilities, and were taught by unqualified teachers.  Into this situation came a piece of legislation that required service for all children with disabilities.  The operational word was obviously all.  No child, regardless of the severity of their disability, could be excluded from a free, appropriate public education (Swartz, 1978). 


This law came on the heels of a larger civil rights movement and can be said to have helped define the political climate that exists in the U.S. today.  Individuals with disabilities joined the ranks of other groups who enjoyed special legal protections (e.g., ethnic and racial minorities, women).  To suggest that we develop special education for this large and diverse group of children was almost impossible to contemplate.  Yet here we are approximately twenty years later with an extensive array of programs and services and one of the most sophisticated delivery systems ever devised for the public schools.  Every day millions of children with disabilities are transported to school, where they receive individualized programs, using specially designed instructional materials, in specially designed or modified facilities, all provided by a highly qualified corps of professional educators and related personnel. 


These accomplishments are very important and special educators should take a measure of pride for the role that they played.  Even so, and in the face of these very real accomplishments, there has been a gathering storm.  We are all aware, and have been for some time, that there are a number of fundamental issues about this system of special education that we have designed and how effective it has ultimately proven to be.  There should be no surprise in the fact that a system this complex would need to undergo revisions as we gained experience and had the opportunity to evaluate the various outcomes.  What has come as a surprise is that it has taken so long to begin the change process and that there is so much resistance to the needed change.  It is not as though we donŐt have some compelling evidence.  We do.  The body of research literature suggesting the need to reevaluate some of the basic premises of special education, its structure and practices, has been accumulating for a number of years.  


The call for reform of special education did not begin in a vacuum.  It was based on various perceptions, some accurate and some not so accurate, that something was wrong with how the public schools provided service to children with disabilities.  There are a variety of issues that have suggested the need for the reform of special education, something we originally began to call the regular education initiative (Will, 1986) but has now come to be called the restructuring of special education. The efforts to include special needs children in regular education have also been variously called mainstreaming, inclusion and full inclusion, and integration.


A number of important reports have provided a variety of perspectives about the ills that have befallen special education (Lipsky & Gartner, 1987; Reynolds, Wang & Walberg, 1987; Stainback & Stainback, 1984).  However all of the analyses are centered on what the problems are, not on whether there are problems.  The debate at hand is clearly what, not whether.  The summary of these issues are designed to illustrate, they are meant to be representative, and hopefully can help identify the major issues that will need our attention.


1.  We have demonstrated that our system of evaluation produces results hardly better than the flip of a coin (Ysseldyke et al., 1983).  We continue to identify children as handicapped using tests and procedures in which professional examiners have no confidence and these various tests are unable to predict educational need, the only legitimate purpose that this kind of testing could have.  Students with seemingly identical characteristics qualify for different programs, depending on where they reside and how individuals on school staffs evaluate them (Gartner & Lipsky, 1987).  You can literally change your disability by moving from one school district to another.


2.  Growth in certain categories of disability has clearly become more a function of political pressure and professional fad than the characteristics and needs of students  (Algozzine & Korinek, 1985).  By some counts the learning disability category grew more than 119% over a period of one decade (Edgar & Hayden, 1984-1985).  This is added to research that suggests that over 80% of all of normal children could be classified as LD (learning disabled) using the variety of definitions currently in use (Ysseldyke, 1987).  Many of the children emerging as special needs children and who are literally crying for our attention, the so-called at risk populations, donŐt fit any of our categories. In some cases we try to force these children into existing categories, and many unfortunately, go unserved entirely.


3.  Our so-called mainstreaming efforts affect only about 5% of the mild to moderate category,  an attempt that could hardly be called extensive (Sansone & Zigmond, 1986). Though this number continues to increase, in part because of the changes in the law contained in the updated version (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), the effort is woefully inadequate.  Now we know that mainstreaming without the regular teacherŐs support is doomed, but at the same time, this effort was not supposed to be voluntary either.  Regular teachers should be asked to do what is appropriate, we shouldnŐt have to go to them with hat in hand and ask or plead with them to take children with disabilities in their room.  An article completed in 1978 called the Case Against Mainstreaming, wasnŐt a statement of opposition to integration but rather spoke to the concern of beginning this process without the adequate preparation of regular teachers (Swartz, 1978). Work completed since suggests that we have made little progress with our efforts to provide training to the regular teacher for work with special needs children (Swartz & Hidalgo, 1991). Still,  it was never envisioned at that time what has become a literal refusal by many regular teachers to participate in this process.  But we donŐt need a new rule here.  I think the one we have is more than adequate.  The requirement to provide education in the least restrictive environment principle means children be removed from regular classes only when their need cannot be served in this environment.  Now certainly none of us believe that we are in any way applying this principle.  Many of the placement decisions that we make have very little to do with the educational need of children.  We know it, we put up with it, in many ways it makes our lives simpler.    


4.   Funding of special education is also an area of concern.  It is almost a universal position that public schools are underfunded.  The belief that special education encroaches on this funding has considerable evidence.  It is likely that an increase in the integration of children with disabilities will tax this funding system even further.  However this situation does not represent a legitimate reason to exclude children with disabilities from publicly supported programs and services.  The issue of fairness and equal access is an overriding factor in the decision to develop equity for children with disabilities.  A second major funding issue is that much of special education funding is tied to placing children in categories. Overidentification of some disabilities appears to be directly related to how funding is provided.  A third funding problem is that very little money is allocated for programs of prevention. We are restricted providing intervention and remedial services after the disability becomes apparent.  This can, in some cases, put us in the position of waiting for a child to show more delay.  Much of our research in early intervention suggests that this cost effectiveness is an issue in this decision (Swartz, 1995; Swartz & Klein, 1997).


 5.  The kind of  parental involvement that we have with the education system both misleads parents (Guess, Benson, & Siegel-Causey, 1985) and ignores their capabilities (Turnbull & Turnbull, 1985).  Though we talk about the fact that we want parental involvement and that much of our ultimate success rests on their willingness to support our efforts, it is not always clear that our attempts to involve parents are genuine.  What we want are parents that will show up to our program planning meetings. What we want are parents that will respond to our needs.  Lack of parental support is one of the easy excuses for a childŐs lack of success. An involved parent that wants to sit in on the class and see what the teacher is doing, a parent who has real suggestions to offer at planning meeting, one that is aggressive and perhaps even hostile is another matter.  This is a level of involvement that professionals are not sure they want.


6. The most critical situation comes from our data on student outcomes.  We have evidence that strongly suggests that much of what we do in special education is no more helpful than if we were to leave handicapped children in the regular class and provide no services at all (Carlberg & Kavale, 1980).  These data arenŐt even new.  What is astounding is that we are so slow to act on this evidence.  It is hard for professionals to say that after more than twenty years that much of what we have been doing might not be very useful.  This is a rather disturbing thought.  At the same time it would be even more disturbing to think that we are going to continue to make these mistakes over and over again rather than beginning the process of making the necessary changes and restructuring how we deliver services to children with disabilities.  We have very little to suggest that we should continue to do what we do, how we do it,  even one more day.  We are not certain at this point that we are operating on that standard that physicians have set for themselves, and that is, to first, do no harm.


Our success stories in special education are few and far between (Gartner & Lipsky, 1992).  We donŐt even use student outcomes as a measure of our success.  Rather, we judge our efforts on issues of compliance.  Are we adhering to the various laws and the rules and regulations that govern our service delivery?  How convenient that we can avoid scrutiny on the results of what we do and how our programs affect the lives of children. The basic premise of special education is that students with deficits will benefit from a unique body of knowledge and from smaller classes staffed by specially trained teachers using special materials. However, there is no compelling evidence that segregated special education programs have significant benefits for students.  On the contrary, there is substantial and growing evidence that goes in the opposite direction (Lipsky & Gartner, 1987).


We find that more than forty-seven percent of children with mild disabilities drop out of school by age sixteen (Tenth Annual Report, 1988).    Of those who remain, less than half receive a regular diploma (Wagner, 1989).  In terms of life after school, studies indicate that a substantial percentage of students labeled handicapped are unemployed, live at home, and have few friends.  Fewer than half of the students who had been out of school for one year or more had found paid employment, and among those employed, less than thirty per cent had full-time jobs.  Even more disturbing is the report that less than one-third of the youth with disabilities who had been out of school for more than a year had not engaged in Ňany productive activity in that year.Ó (Shaver & Wagner, 1989).  This sounds bad but it is even worse when you find that the definition of productive activity included: not taking any courses from a postsecondary educational institution; not working for pay, full- or part-time, either competitively or in a sheltered environment; not engaging in a volunteer job or unpaid work; not receiving job skills training, or if a female, not being married or reported to be involved in child rearing.  In summary, we find that not engaged in productive activity translates into doing nothing.  An extremely large number of youth with disabilities who have completed our special education programs are doing just plain nothing.  This is not a rousing report of our success.  These kind of data do not support the status quo.  Quite the contrary, it is ample evidence of needed reform.  If we cannot demonstrate the efficacy of our present structure than it is clear to me that we need to revamp the system and restructure how we deliver services to a wide variety of special needs children.


It might be helpful to look at various aspects of the push for school reform and what they might mean to special education. It has been suggested that the modern school reform movement has come in waves (Lipsky & Gartner, 1992).  Each of these waves has been part of the political landscape of the time. They might better be called generations of reform because they have evolved one from the other and are never fully completed and that elements of each generation can be found in the next.  There is always some residual from each reform effort that is left behind and continues to influence what we do long after the larger reform has been abandoned.


The first generation of school reform focused on a variety of external factors.  Suggestions were made for higher standards that included minimal competency testing, or a required achievement level for each grade. These are examples of external factors that were frequently called for by parents and invariably found their way into the media.  The external focus implied that whatever was wrong could be fixed by setting a new standard or developing a policy or requirement.


The second generation of reform was one that had the roles of adults as its specific focus.  Efforts centered on issues like teacher empowerment, site-based management, and even the issue of parental choice, where parents choose the school they attend.  To be fair, it must be acknowledged that these reforms have resulted in considerable gains in student achievement, at least for regular students, and have positively impacted public attitude.   Still something is left undone by all of this.  The major deficit in these reforms, efforts that were set off by A Nation At Risk (1983) was that none of these reports addressed the needs of children with disabilities. They were either ignored or their importance in the overall scheme of things was considered minimal.  Many disagree with this perspective and believe that this generation of reform will fail for this very reason, all children and their needs are not given sufficient importance.


Most of us would reject health care reform that focused exclusively on the roles of doctors and hospitals.  We expect that the focus will ultimately be on the patient or those of us who will need medical care.  Likewise reform of our justice system that focused on judges and lawyers would also be very likely rejected by the public.  The problem with both of these is that we expect concern or focus on those who will receive benefits from the various systems.  The same, of course, will be expected from school reform.  We cannot focus on the roles of teachers or other adults, we must make children central to any reform efforts.


The fundamental error in what we are doing is that special education is based on the premise that there are two major kinds of children or learners (Stainback, Stainback, & Bunch, 1989).  Those that are normal learners and will require regular education, and those that are abnormal or handicapped and will require special education.  This dichotomy is false and has lead to our present system of segregated education where the normal and so-called abnormal are only together under special and very controlled circumstances.  This dual system of education has proven to be inappropriate and doing away with this exclusionary practice is the only solution to our problem that is reasonable and likely to succeed.  We must develop one single system of education that is designed to accommodate all learners.  Even though these learners represent a continuum of strengths and weaknesses, they can be served in a unified way that provides for the full inclusion of all children and one where every child is assured success.


What is clearly called for, and one that is already underway, is a third generation of reform where the child, as student, is at the center of reform, rather than a variety of external factors or where adults and their roles are central.  We will restructure education generally and special education specifically to shift focus from adult providers, or the various debates of how to balance responsibility among, national, state and local authority, to a focus that recognizes that the student is the producer of educational outcomes. 


The basic premises of special education will be reconsidered and rejected in this generation of reform.  These premises include, first,  the premise that instructional needs warrant a dual system of education.  Handicapped children and so-called normal children are sufficiently different as to need separate programs, separate classes, and even special schools.  This we have come to believe to be an error in conceptualization (Sarason, 1982).  There are not two distinct types of children. Needs of children fall on a continuum and there is no useful purpose for the present dichotomy.  Now this is going to be very hard.  We have spent many years developing this system where we persuaded regular teachers that the needs of the handicapped were so unique as to require the very special brand of education only we as special educators could provide.  Now we are going to come back and say no, we changed our mind, these children will be best served by you in your classroom with my help and support.  We should anticipate an attitude of suspicion from our colleagues.  This suggestion of a new role for the regular teacher will, of course, be added to someone already beleaguered and faced with problems that range from overcrowded classrooms to gangs and violence in the schools.


Premise 2 is that the dual system is efficient (Stainback, Stainback, & Bunch, 1989).  We have come to believe that this is not the case.  The system of classification alone has a price tag that is staggering.  And, of course, we know that there is substantial duplication of programs, services, and materials.  Much could be saved, including both fiscal and human resources, from a unified rather than a segregated, dual system.


The third premise is one of attitude.  The dual system fosters an inappropriate attitude by all involved.  We have developed a charitable attitude toward the handicapped.  They are viewed as special charity cases who are given special programs because they are needy and have as special condition.  In a merged system this attitude would not prevail.  A system where each child is provided for according to his need will be viewed as more fair and more normal and expected.


This third generation of reform will put children at the center, emphasize their needs and focus on student outcomes.  A number of key elements are needed to ensure the success of this reform. The first is that children will be viewed relative to their strengths rather than using our present deficit model.  It might be said that this is an approach that has more respect for children in that the model that tracks children and separates them based on their problems is inherently one of less respect.  Only  when children are viewed as positive contributors, as individuals who have worth, can they be expected to achieve and be successful in their school experience and in their lives generally.


The second element is to actively engage students in the learning process.  Most of the reform proposed up to now gives the student a passive role, they are the object of teaching, they are the recipient of some new approach.  The third generation will be structured to make children active and engaged in their learning.  Students must be given control over the learning process.  We must recognize that students and their abilities are the outcomes of education and as such they must buy-in to the process in a very significant way.  It is much easier to be an authoritarian and to be very directive in what we do.  However, as we believe for ourselves, so must we believe for children, the outcomes will be better, attitudes will be more positive, when students are active, have control, and see their learning as fundamental to their own needs rather than as a response to a disjointed set of adult expectations.


This is not a radical proposal.  Attempts to engage children in more meaningful ways in their own learning are not new.  What might be new here is the inclusion of handicapped children in this scenario.  Our inclination to protect special children, something that easily becomes overprotect and even can become repressive, will need to undergo careful scrutiny if children with disabilities are to benefit from this particular initiative.


The third generation of reform will promote a single, unitary, integrated system of education for all children.  There will be ability grouping, there will be no special classes, or segregated schools.  When children participate in their learning together, when no one is excluded, we will all be the better for it.  Just as we were unable to justify the various kinds of segregation that emerged throughout the history of our nation that have always been reflected in our schools (race and language being notable examples), we are also unable to justify a dual system that basically rejects some children by separating them on the premise that their needs are so different that they can not be served in a regular class.  The challenge is to consider what is it exactly; that cannot be delivered in a regular class.  If we think through the issues, and reject the notion that because someone will resist, or doesnŐt want to be involved in the process, or even that parents will oppose this exposure of their children to danger or abuse, there is very little that we can say justifies the exclusion of a child from the mainstream of education.


The stigma of separation, the emotional impact of being considered so different as to be excluded or set aside, is sufficiently harmful, sufficiently devastating to the self esteem and feelings of self-worth of a child as to negate whatever benefits might be expected to accrue from the services that we provide. The  dual system of regular and special education is expensive and is not cost-effective.


Now to what might we attribute the tremendous resistance to much of what we call reform in special education?  Special education has been likened to a social movement.  By definition, a social movement is in jeopardy when it becomes successful.  The social psychology literature tells us that successful social movements become conservative, draw boundaries to protect hard-won turf, and lose urgency (Lilly & Smith, 1980).   The definition of success doesnŐt necessarily mean success for children in this scenario.  It might only mean a successful professional career or an extensive system or bureaucracy that employs many people. No longer can we take the position that placing a child in special education, particularly when it is a borderline case, is in fact erring in their behalf.  Special education has become a life sentence.  It is very difficult to escape.  And when you do exit you are apparently not prepared for anything in particular.  Your prospects for life after school are dismal. Now what to do?  How can we participate in this third generation of school reform?  How shall we restructure special education?


Restructuring represents an exciting opportunity because it allows us to redefine ourselves and what we are all about.  This is the opportunity for special education to participate in the school reform movement.  The needs of children with disabilities are now part of the mix when considering how what we do in our public schools might be changed to better serve the needs of all children.  Moreover, including these children and their special needs in our restructuring efforts will help drive the goals and ultimately the form that these efforts will take.


Make no mistake, the school reform movement is a direct outgrowth of the fact that our schools need to change because what we are doing does not work as well as the public thinks it should. Likewise, the push to restructure special education is also based on a lack of success.  Because we are unable to demonstrate the efficacy of special education they should stay in regular education, never be removed and have their needs met in this setting.  It will be in the best interests of children and as such it will be in the best interests of those of us in the profession.


We must discontinue labelingchildren.  These labels create categories that are neither of much instructional use or of value for individual children.  We spend an enormous amount of money on this process and the return on this investment is limited.

We should measure our own success by measuring student outcomes.  When these outcomes are not what they should be we should look at our own efforts rather than looking at the child.  We should be willing to evaluate the services that we provide and make changes when our students are not experiencing success  The dual system of education should be replaced by one unified system for all children.  Regular education and special education should be merged.  Though this concept is easier to understand and visualize when you think of children with mild disabilities, it is also meant to include the moderate and severe in this unified system.  Just as we cannot imagine a family that would exclude or isolate a child because of a disability, imagine a separate room for this child to play in or watch TV in away from his brothers and sisters, imagine separate trips just for this one child and other trips for the siblings, we cannot imagine continuing a school system that does not fully include children with disabilities.  Schools must become friendlier places that are more respectful of children.  If we focus on childrenŐs strengths rather than their deficits, if we give them control over their own learning, if we ensure access to a curriculum that is meaningful, then success will follow.




Dr. Stanley L. Swartz, School of Education, California State University

5500 University Parkway, San Bernardino California, 92407-2397

Tel: 909-880-5601, Fax: 909-862-4045







A Nation at Risk. (1983). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.


Algozzine, B., & Korinek, L. (1985). Where is special education for students with high prevalence handicaps going? Exceptional Children, 51, 388-394.


Carlberg, & Kavale, (1980).


Edgar, E. & Hayden, A.H. (1984-85). Who are the children special education should serve and how many children are there? The Journal of Special Education. 18(4), 523-  539.


Gartner, A. & Lipsky, D.K. (1992). Breaking the yoke of special education. National Learning Differences Network Newsletter and reprinted in The Special Edge. 7(1),           September/October 1992. Sacramento, CA; California Department of Education.


Guess, D., Benson, H.A., & Siegal-Causey, E. (1985) Concepts and issues related to choice-making and autonomy among persons with severe disabilities. The Journal of the Association of Persons with Severe Handicaps. 10, 79-86.


Lilly, M.S. & Smith, P. (1980). Special education as a social movement. Education Unlimited. 2(3), 7-11.


Lipsky, D.K. & Gartner, A. (1987). Capable of achievement and worthy of respect: Education of handicapped students as if they were full-fledged human beings. Exceptional Children.  54, 69-74.


Lipsky, D.K. & Gartner, A (1992). Achieving full inclusion: Placing the student at the center of educational reform. In W. Stainback & S. Stainback (Eds.), Controversial         Issues Confronting Special Education.. New York: Allyn and Bacon.


Reynolds, M.C., Wang, M.C. & Walberg, H.J. (1987). The necessary restructuring of special and regular education. Exceptional Children. 53, 391-398.


Sansone, J. & Zigmond, N. (1986). Evaluating mainstreaming through an analysis of studentsŐ schedules.  Exceptional Children. 52, 452-458.


Shaver & Wagner (1989)


Stainback, W., Stainback, S. & Bunch, G. (1989). A rationale for the merger of regular and special education. In S. Stainback, W. Stainback, & M. Forest (Eds.). Educating All Children in the Mainstream of Regular Education. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks.


Stainback, S. & Stainback, W. (1984). A rationale for the merger of regular and special   education.  Exceptional Children. 51, 102-111.

Swartz, S. (1978). Zero reject-The public law regarding handicapped children. Curriculum Review, 17(4).


Swartz, S. (1978). The case against mainstreaming. Illinois Principal. 9(4), 6-10.


Swartz, S., & Hidlago, F. (1991-92).  Teacher education and the regular education initiative. Action in Teacher Education XIII(4), 55-61.


Swartz, S.L., & Klein, A.F. (1994). Reading Recovery: An overview. Literacy, Teaching and Learning, 1(1),3-6.


Swartz, S.L. (1995, February 26). Early intervention and school restructuring. Keynote address at the annual West Coast Reading Recovery Institute, Anaheim.


Swartz, S.L. & Klein, A.F. (Eds.). (1997). Research in Reading Recovery. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Tenth Annual Report to Congress on the Education for Handicapped Children Act (1988). Washington, DC: Superintendent of Public Documents.


Turnbull, H.R. & Turnbull, A.P. (1985). Parents speak out: Then and Now. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.


Wagner, (1989).


Will, M. (1986). Educating children with learning problems: A shared responsibility. Exceptional Children, 52(5), 411-416.


Ysseldyke, J.D., Thurlow, M., Graden, J. Wesson, C., Algozzine, B. & Deno, S. (1983). Generalizations from  five years of research on assessment and decision-making. Exceptional Educational Quarterly. 4, 75-93.