After having a University Participant Program student in her classroom for the first time last year, Vicki Faircloth, a Western Carolina University associate professor in the College of Education and Allied Professions, told colleague David Westling, “This is fabulous. We need to do more. We need to reach out to schools.” It was her first experience with the inclusion of a special needs student.
Thanks to a small grant from WCU’s School University Teacher Education Partnership, a presentation and discussion was recently held at the Blue Ridge Conference Center on the topic, “Inclusion: Teaching Students with Disabilities in General Education Schools and Classrooms.”
In attendance were local regular classroom teachers and special education teachers, administrators, parents and inclusion advocates. Featured speakers included Westling, WCU’s Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education; Lori Long, a special education teacher at Iotla Valley Elementary School in Macon County; and Becky Garland, the parent of former UP program participant David Maennle, and an advocate for inclusion.
“I wanted to have different points of view, different people represented,” said Westling. About 90 people signed up for the event, he added.
Inclusion occurs when students with disabilities are included in regular classrooms for at least 80 percent of the day. According to Westling, studies have shown that when inclusion occurs, it benefits both the students with intellectual disabilities, as well as the students without disabilities.
For the students with disabilities, inclusion promotes language skills, improves social skills, and increases engaged time and friendship development. For those without disabilities who spend a considerable amount of time in an inclusive classroom, it improves self-concept and self-understanding and improves their understanding of students with disabilities. It does not result in lower grades and does not negatively affect social behavior.
“For those of us that have been involved in the University Participant program, which is a program here on the Western campus where we have a number of students with an intellectual disability, I think we can vouch for this,” Westling said.
While WCU has made significant strides with its UP program, Westling said he would like to see more done at an earlier age.
Long, who received her master’s in special education at WCU in 2011, has been teaching in a self-contained classroom for 14 years. Last year, she convinced school officials to embrace inclusion. It began with two special education students going to a second-grade classroom and four others to a kindergarten class.
“I was bound and determined to make it work,” Long said. “I had been dreaming of this and this was our first step to what we could say would be full inclusion. I thought this was going to be great.”
Long said what she discovered was she had taken on more than she could handle. Nevertheless, there were plenty of positives. The regular education students were very loving and accepting, Long said.
“You have those natural caregivers in every classroom,” Long said. “You find students that gravitate towards my students. And they love peer-tutoring time that they were able to do in the morning when they first came in. They were flash carding with letters and numbers. They enjoyed that thoroughly.
“(The special education students) had more friends. I had one kindergartner who I don’t know how many people would come up and speak to her in the hall. Having those students come speak to her really made a difference in her day.”
Long said next year she will be working with just one regular education teacher and there will be at least two students going into that class during a set time of day, as opposed to the entire day.
Inclusion from elementary school through WCU’s UP program was very beneficial to Maennle, said Garland, who fought for him to be included at every level. From the time her son was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome as a baby, it was Garland’s mission to have him treated like any other child.
Upon completing the UP program and receiving his certificate from the university, Maennle now has a job with the Graham County emergency medical service.
“He does have a great life. That’s because he has a momma that didn’t take no for an answer,” Garland said. “Inclusion is about so much more than academics. I think because we have to educate our children in an academic institutional setting, we forget that.
“It’s a whole lot more than reading and writing. If you sat David down and you tested him today, he would score very, very low on a reading scale. Yet, if you give him something that he wants to read about like EMS, ambulances, food, girls, he can find anything he wants on the internet. But more importantly, he functions in society. He has a job. He’s a highly valued member of his work community. He knows how to navigate life. He has his own apartment.”
The discussion was part of a meeting of the North Carolina chapter of TASH, an advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Members discussed holding a similar event somewhere in the state every year. “I think we’ll try and move forward with this,” Westling said.
By Marlon W. Morgan