The down side of mainstreaming disabled students

Full inclusion sounds like a great concept; it calls for mainstreaming students with disabilities into regular education classrooms with appropriate accommodations.  The philosophy – guided by federal regulations – contends that the best way for students with disabilities to obtain the same education as their non-disabled peers is to include them in the general education population. However, this system has a flaw; not every student with a disability will benefit from full inclusion.

Special education is meant to address the educational concerns and needs of a child with disabilities.  By law, that students must have the same access to the material and lessons that their non-disabled peers have.

However, some students may have skills levels far below their peers, or they have severe or emotional disorders that may render their ability to operate or access the same education as their non-disabled peers.  When this is the situation, the student needs to have his/her lessons modified to fit their skills or to be placed in an environment that will impose the least restrictions on his/her learning abilities.

In special education circles the concept of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is often listed as the crucial reason to fully include a student with disabilities in a classroom. However, this concept works both ways. If the student with mild/moderate disabilities is able to attend general education classrooms (with observation by the special education teacher or minor accommodations by the general education teacher), then a special education classroom would be considered too restrictive for him to learn the same things that his non-disabled peers are learning.

Accommodation is an effective tool for helping these students in a fully included classroom. Practices such as repetition of information, visual or auditory cues, flexible or extra time on assignments, or strategic placement near the teacher or the board are often used to help these students.  For the most part, this helps the student with mild/moderate learning or physical disabilities.

On the other hand, accommodation may not be enough for students with severe or emotional disabilities.  Some students simply have skills and abilities far below their peers. They will struggle or get lost in a general education setting. As a result, the speed, skill and knowledge base of a general education course may prove to be the most restrictive environment that prevents them from learning.  In all likelihood a student with one of these disabilities will need modifications (a change in the curriculum, not the method to acquiring the curriculum).

Students with limitations in reading, writing and math skills will need a specialized classroom. They may attend for a third or half the day. Others will need it for most of the day. Full inclusion classroom will not help for they will be too far behind in terms of skills to acquire the lesson.

Students with severe mental retardation or low-functioning autism may not benefit from a fully included classroom. In most cases, these students will be in a self contained life-skill classroom. Their levels will be far below their non-disabled peers. Also, they will most likely continue with their education until 22 years age, and will probably transition to a work transition program or regional center.

Full inclusion works for students with mild/moderate disabilities. Often these students are already taking general education courses for the majority of the day (they are also known as resource special program – RSP students). However, when the student is low in a skill, he’ll need extra help that may not be applicable in a general education setting. They’ll need accommodation or modifications to help them learn. For these students, specialized classes or programs are needed.


The law Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2004 mentions the concept of LRE. It can be found at