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Perspectives on the Vision of Inclusion:
The Voices of Experience

By Terri Vandercook

Creating and sustaining inclusive school communities is complex and critically important. Due, in part, to the complexity of the undertaking, generating the interest, commitment, and energy required for doing so is difficult. We know from the organizational change literature that there are three primary considerations in generating the momentum for change: dissatisfaction with the current state, a desirable vision for a future state, and ideas and strategies for taking action toward that vision.

Many people have made substantial and lasting contributions in the movement toward inclusive schooling. This article reflects the perspectives of 12 such individuals – parents, special educators, general educators, principals, and university faculty – who responded to questions about dissatisfaction, vision, and action. These individuals represent many roles that are integral to inclusive school communities, and all have functioned as advocates and community builders around the vision of inclusive schools. It is our hope that sharing these perspectives, dreams, and strategies will inspire and energize others to continue the compelling and important work of creating and sustaining inclusive school communities.

Identifying Dissatisfactions

This article was initiated because of the personal dissatisfaction felt by the author and communicated by parents and colleagues in the field regarding the discrepancy between a vision of inclusive community and the reality in schools and the broader community. All those interviewed echoed this same dissatisfaction. The most common response to the question, “How close is the reality that you see to the vision that you have for inclusive schools?” was “Not very close at all!” Responses basically followed three themes:

Those questioned recognize that it is important to acknowledge that the realization of inclusive communities will be a never-ending process, something that must be constantly worked on, celebrated, and never taken for granted. And the vision toward which that process is moving was described by them in relation to the three general areas discussed below: what inclusive school communities mean for individual students, what they mean for classroom practices that support effective curriculum and instruction, and what they mean for system-wide structures and mindsets.

The Vision for Individual Students

For students, inclusive school communities are described as places in which each student feels welcomed and valued. Community members are glad to have students included and it is taken for granted that each individual (regardless of any differences, and often because of them) will contribute worth to the school. Differences are viewed as bringing a richness to the environment that is otherwise unavailable and that promotes acceptance, valuing, and celebrating of individual differences. The sense of belonging created with this mindset is unifying, declaring to all that each has a part in the whole community. This sense of belonging goes beyond being cared for and accepted. It entails everyone feeling personally responsible for and involved in the success of all students in that school community, regardless of differences in ability, race, sexual orientation, gender, or socio-economic status. This “everyone” would run the gamut from classroom teachers, special educators, the principal, custodians, lunchroom personnel, paraprofessionals, volunteer playground aides, and parents in the PTA to members of the school board. This sense of ownership, involvement, and responsibility for each child was identified as particularly important for general education classroom teachers. It was felt that classroom teachers play a key role in a child being seen as a true member of the school community.

The Vision for Classroom Practices

In the vision for inclusive classrooms, classroom teachers lead the way in establishing classroom assumptions and practices that support an inclusive community. Decision-making is child-centered and the facilitation of student learning is done with passion and the support of others. Communication and collaboration with others (e.g., special educators, parents, related service personnel, volunteers) is done for the sake of serving each student to the best of everyone’s capacity. There is an active and intentional differentiation of curriculum based upon an understanding of individual students needs. Instruction is also delivered in a variety of ways, including multiple formats and multiple choices of learning environments. The goal is to keep each child actively engaged and learning throughout the day, which is most often in the broader social context of the classroom, but can also be side-by-side, or even in a quiet, isolated space when a student’s needs dictate.

The Vision for Structures and Mindsets

Structures and mindsets was another area for which respondents had a vision. Whenever anyone wants to change something, be that a personal habit or how children are served in school, there are three ongoing and interrelated aspects of change:

The respondents identified several paradigms that shape seeing, doing, and getting. These included: a) the expectation that each individual is capable of making contributions to the community; b) a sense of personal responsibility for the success of all students in a school community; c) collaboration with others to meet student needs is standard practice; and d) differentiation of curriculum and instruction as the norm. In addition, respondents identified the importance of participatory decision-making, and not just among school staff. Parents and community members need to be valued as resources for learning and their involvement welcomed. Furthermore, as people work together and approach the challenges inherent in creating and sustaining inclusive schools, their work is advanced when they approach those challenges from a problem-solving for growth and improvement perspective versus just a problem perspective.

A common premise underlying the ideas presented thus far is a focus of time and energy to the work of building trusting relationships. When this is an intentional and overt priority of the members of the school community it contributes to the successful collaboration necessary for creating inclusive school communities.

Lastly, as eloquently stated by a school principal, people in schools are encouraged to discover how to validate the different realities and focal points of teachers, parents, administrators, and students, seeking to find the themes, common purposes, specific agreements, and individual actions that unite them as they struggle toward achieving an evolving shared understanding of what it means to be an inclusive community. These discussions are broadened when the concept of inclusion extends beyond special education and embraces what and how people want to be for each member of the school community, regardless of the diversity each contributes.

Moving From Dissatisfaction to Action

When respondents were asked, “What do you think is needed to energize or re-energize a commitment to creating and supporting inclusive school communities?” their responses fell into four categories: share student contributions, move beyond special education, attend to internal and external practices and mindsets, and celebrate successes. These strategies, described in the remainder of this article, can help people persevere when progress toward the vision of inclusion seems too slow and difficult.

Share Student Contributions

It was felt that if others were to hear more about what students can do, if people’s awareness were raised of the positive contributions that students with disabilities can make, there may be more energy given to working for the breakthroughs and to focusing on a student’s potential, rather than on his or her deficits. If the stories of contribution are circulated beyond parents and special educators, others in the school community may develop a mindset and a sense of responsibility regarding the importance and possibility of fostering each student’s gifts.

Move Beyond Special Education

Inclusion is often viewed solely as a special education issue. This paradigm leads to two negative results, one being that members of the school community feel that inclusion has nothing to do with students outside of special education. Therefore, if I were not a special educator or the parent of a child with disabilities, why would I put any energy toward supporting inclusive schools? The second negative response is that special education gets painted as a villain who takes away funding that could be used on students “who can really achieve.” Therefore, expanding the focus of inclusive community beyond special education is essential. Embracing a sense of belonging, contribution, and active learning for each child and aligning with practices such as differentiated curriculum and instruction will bring a more collective energy to the task.

Attend to Internal and External Practices and Mindsets

Other suggestions for energizing or re-energizing a commitment to inclusive school communities follow. These ideas fell roughly into two broad categories: specific practices and mindsets that can be adopted within a school, and practices outside of pre-K-12 schools that will have an impact.

Let’s begin from the outside in. Two primary influences on inclusive practices that need to occur outside the school community were identified, the first being a commitment from the educational and political leadership at the national and state levels. A school psychologist framed the commitment in this way: “The same kind of collective commitment that has been given to issues of civil rights [for people of color], equal rights [for women], and multicultural diversity needs to be applied toward inclusive schools. Even though there has not been complete success in these areas, there have been sustained efforts over time, and there is less argument about ‘whether,’ even if the ‘how’ is not always agreed upon.”

The second identified influence outside of pre-K-12 schools involved teacher preparation programs. The suggestions in this area varied, with some calling for a requirement that all teachers be certified to teach both general and special education. Underlying all suggestions was the recommendation that teacher preparation programs focus on teaching skills needed for working effectively with heterogeneous groups of students and that this training be ongoing throughout an educator’s career.

The suggestions for energizing or re-energizing a commitment to inclusion that could occur within a school community were numerous. The following bullets illustrate the range of ideas:

Celebrate Successes

Last, but certainly not least, respondents recommended focusing on what is working and moving the school toward more inclusive practices. Celebrating successes in an ongoing fashion can bring energy to the daunting task of creating and sustaining inclusive school communities. The magnitude of change that has taken place needs to be honored and acknowledged. That is not to suggest, in any way, that we become complacent. However, we can see the glass as half-full or half-empty, and how you “see” the situation will have a powerful influence on the energy you have for maintaining both a personal and collective commitment to the complex and critically important job of creating inclusive communities.

Terri Vandercook is Associate Professor in the Special Education Department, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis, Minnesota. She may be reached at 651/962-4389 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Vandercook, T., and York-Barr, J. (Eds.). (2003). Impact: Feature Issue on Revisiting Inclusive K-12 Education, 16(1) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


The print design version (PDF, 580 K, 32 pp.) of this issue of Impact is also available for free, complete with the color layout and photographs. This version looks the most like the newsletter as it was printed.

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