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The Regular Education Initiative: The Roots of Inclusion

In 1986, however, there was a major shift in the way educators began to think about special education and general education.

Madeleine Will was Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education. She was (and is) also the mother of Jon Will who at the time was a teenager with Down syndrome. She brought a new perspective to the federal government and built on the ground work laid in the late 1970s and early 1980s for more and more students to be educated in regular classrooms.

Madeleine Will raised concerns about some unintended negative effects of special education "pull out" programs. "Pull out programs" refer to resource rooms and special class placements. She noted that, in the ten years since P. L. 94-142, there had been little change in the distribution of students along the continuum.

Child with pencil
Photo courtesy Ann Marsden

The IDEA and court cases supported a change in direction that did not appear to be unfolding. For instance, in 1983, Roncker v. Walter challenged the assignment of students to disability specific programs and schools. The ruling favored inclusion and found that placement decisions must be determined on an individual basis.

It is not enough for a district to simply claim that a segregated program is superior. In a case where the segregated facility is considered superior, the court should determine whether the services which make the placement superior could be feasibly provided in a non-segregated setting (i.e., regular class). If they can, the placement in the segregated school would be inappropriate under the act (IDEA). (Roncker v. Walter, 1983, at 1063)

Nevertheless, there were many indications that practices continued to violate the purpose of the IDEA and court decisions.

Child sitting in a chair
Photo courtesy William Bronston, M.D.

The debate centered around four key issues. These issues included the exclusion of many students who needed special educational support; the withholding of special programs until the student failed rather than making specially designed instruction available earlier to prevent failure; no support for promoting cooperative, supported partnerships between educators and parents; and using pull-out programs to serve students with disabilities rather than adapting the general education program to accommodate their needs.

Ultimately, the regular education initiative caused significant changes in the entire approach to special education. A new term, inclusion, and a new technique, collaboration, evolved.

There was considerable resistance to these concepts. Many charged that integration and mainstreaming basically meant dumping. The controversy is reflected in the efforts of Doug Biklen and his colleagues to be very clear about what integration did and did not mean.

woman and children interacting
Photo courtesy Ann Marsden