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What Matters Most: Ensuring That High School Students With Disabilities Are Members of...

By Cheryl M. Jorgensen, Douglas Fisher, Carol Tashie, and Michael Sgambati

Nearly twice as many students with significant disabilities1 are included in the elementary grades as in high school (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). Among the reasons most commonly given for this discrepancy are the perceived difficulty or irrelevance of curriculum content and the belief that the need to learn functional skills precludes inclusion. How have inclusive high schools resolved these concerns? From research in diverse high schools, the following beliefs, practices, and organizational structures have consistently been found to be important to successful high school inclusion (Fisher, Sax, & Pumpian, 1999; Jorgensen, 1998).

The Value of Diversity

At the heart of successful high school inclusion is the belief that heterogeneous grouping and inclusion prepare students for responsible citizenship in a democracy where they will live and work alongside people who have different cultural, racial, and political identities and opinions (Oakes, 1985). In inclusive high schools, administrators and teachers acknowledge the clear benefits of inclusion for students with significant disabilities (McGregor & Vogelsberg, 1998; Mirenda & Erickson, 2000; Peterson, 1996; Rubin et al., 2001; Tashie et al., 1996) and the dangers of segregation (Hunt & Farron-Davis, 1992; Stokes & Baer, 1977; Strully & Strully, 1992). Furthermore, they know that the general education classroom is the only place where students can learn some important life lessons through exposure to the “hidden curriculum” (comprised of expectations, routines, behaviors, relationships, and culture) that is significantly different from that in the special education classroom (Apple, 1979).

High Expectations and Least Dangerous Assumptions

The second foundational belief of an inclusive high school is holding high expectations for student achievement. For students who experience significant disabilities, this often means applying the “least dangerous assumption” principle (Donnellan, 1984, 2000) that states that when professionals must make decisions about students’ educational programs in the absence of clear evidence about their capabilities or the merits of various options, they should make the decision that would have the least dangerous consequences to the student, should that decision ever be proven wrong. In other words, we ought to assume that all students understand, that all students are capable of learning. To do the opposite risks grave consequences.

Intentional Community for All

In an inclusive high school, celebration of diversity and authentic social relationships are nurtured by intentional acts. At Souhegan High School in New Hampshire, teachers embedded content about diversity into the curriculum (Jorgensen, 1998). For example, in a biology unit, students considered the science and ethics of prenatal testing for conditions like Down syndrome or muscular dystrophy. The presence of students with significant disabilities in these classes ensured that the human element in the topics they were studying was addressed.

Another way that high schools intentionally support diverse community is to invite students to participate in development of support networks for classmates. At Souhegan, students who were in class with a student who had been socially isolated were asked to help identify and remove barriers that stood in the way of his developing friendships.

Full Inclusion in General Education

In an inclusive high school, students are enrolled in the same courses as their peers without disabilities, on a path towards graduation at the age of 18. They do not ride special transportation or check in to the resource room at the beginning of the day. Their names appear on class rosters and their lockers are in the same location as those of typical students. They do homework and get grades. If typical students perform community service during the school day, so do students with disabilities. If typical students go to an academic support center for assistance, so do students with disabilities. If typical students join the chess club, so do students with disabilities. In an inclusive high school, there are no places or programs just for students with disabilities and likewise, all courses or extracurricular activities open to the general student body are open to students with disabilities.

Students with significant disabilities march with their classmates at graduation, but oftentimes continue to receive special education services outside the school building until their eligibility expires. During the 18-21 years, they work, volunteer, and develop skills for living independently. Many students with significant disabilities will always need help getting dressed, counting their change, eating, and taking care of their personal hygiene needs. But in an inclusive model, rather than focusing on those things, more time is spent on what really matters in the quest for a typical life: figuring out how to get to work on time, sending an instant message, choosing between draft and bottled, asking someone for a date, ordering a pizza, or downloading a tune to an MP-3 player. When we open students’ worlds to these typical experiences, the skills that need to be taught will be obvious.

Ownership and Collaboration

In an inclusive high school, general and special education staff collaborate every day, not just at IEP meetings or three-year evaluation time. General education staff view themselves as students’ primary teachers and special education teachers shift their role to that of “inclusion facilitator” fulfilling the roles of advocate, liaison with families, facilitator of peer relationships and natural supports, coordinator of instructional supports, and team leader (Tashie et al., 1993).

Curriculum and Instruction That Accommodates Student Diversity

In Ms. Camacho’s ninth grade English class, the syllabus is organized around six themes that represent the American Experience from the perspective of diverse cultural groups. Students engage with these themes by reading novels, short stories, and essays. They hear presentations from guest speakers whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower and speakers who fled a totalitarian regime to come to this country, reenact scenes from their reading, and dissect critical passages from the text through Socratic dialogue. Student work is published on the class Web site and entered into a variety of literary competitions.

Our work with many different kinds of high schools has shown that inclusion can work in classrooms taught by more traditional teachers, but is certainly easier when teachers like Ms. Camacho frame instruction around real life issues, questions, and problems; use differentiated instructional methods; and use authentic and varied assessments (Onosko & Jorgensen, 1998).

Quality Supports and Accommodations

Finally, a successful inclusive high school uses a systematic process for planning the supports and accommodations needed by students with significant disabilities. Teachers don’t ask, “Should this student participate in this lesson?” but rather, “What supports does this student need in order to participate and learn?” The following can be used separately or in combination to help students fully participate in different types of academic routines and social situations: physical, emotional, and sensory supports; modification of materials or provision of technology; personalized performance demonstrations; personalized instruction; and unique evaluation and grading plans (Onosko & Jorgensen, 1998).

Final Word: A Student’s Perspective

Michael Sgambati, a high school senior at a public school in New Hampshire, has been included in general education classes since kindergarten. He offers a student’s insight into what’s important to achieve inclusive education:

My name is Michael Sgambati and I am a high school senior at a public school in New Hampshire. I am on the JV soccer team and also in chorus. I am learning to play the bass guitar and enjoy playing video games, paint ball, and probably have gone to every school dance we have had in high school. My best friend Dan just got a new car and we have a great time hanging out.

If I could dream what the perfect school would look like it would be a place where everyone would be respectful and not pass judgment on people with disabilities or because of the way they dress or look. There would not be any special ed rooms and all teachers would help all kids. Classes would be interesting and teachers would make learning fun. For any student who needed extra help there would be teacher aides who would also be there to help. It would be a place where everyone felt that they belonged.

In school I have had to struggle a lot and sometimes didn’t feel like I was worth much. The classes that I did the best in were when the teacher made me feel like I could do stuff on my own and when I felt that everyone thought that what I had to say was important.

I expect to graduate in June and one day I may go to college. I know I will do well because I will work hard and have lots of support from my family and friends. I hope that you teachers who are reading this will be able to make sure that all students in your classes feel like they can be successful.

1 Students with "significant disabilities" are those who have traditionally been given labels of mental retardation or intellectual disability, autism, deafblindness, traumatic brain injury, and/or multiple disabilities.


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Tashie, C., Jorgensen, C., Shapiro-Barnard, S., Martin, J., & Schuh, M. (1996). High school inclusion: Strategies and barriers. TASH Newsletter, 22(9), 19-22.

Tashie, C., Shapiro-Barnard, S., Dillon, A., Schuh, M., Jorgensen, C., & Nisbet, J. (1993). Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes: The role of the inclusion facilitator. Durham, NH: Institute on Disability, University of New Hampshire.

U.S. Department of Education (2000). To assure the free appropriate public education of all children with disabilities. 22nd annual report to Congress. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Cheryl M. Jorgensen is Project Coordinator and Research Assistant Professor, Institute on Disability/UCE, University of New Hampshire, Durham. She may be reached at 603/862-4678 or Douglas Fisher is Associate Professor of Teacher Education at San Diego State University; he may be reached at 619/593-2507 or Carol Tashie is an Inclusion Consultant based in Concord, New Hampshire. She may be reached at Michael Sgambati lives in Tilton, New Hampshire.


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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


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