Inclusion Done Right—From the Top Down

Inclusion works from the top down; it starts with open lines of communication between administrations of the two partnering agencies. The same philosophy applies whether facilitating inclusion in an educational, recreational, or vocational setting. Common questions asked include, Who is the “go to” person if there are issues? Who covers the liability if someone gets hurt? Both questions need to be addressed prior to the start of the program.

Unfortunately, special needs students and staff are often considered “guests” in the host site program. A genuine partnership based on mutual respect must be established between the parties, as successful inclusion requires buy-in and cooperation from everyone. The host site administration should include support staff provided by the special needs partnering agency and welcome them as part of their team. Establishing clear lines of communication and expectations going in is essential to achieving the desired outcome. As for liability concerns, experience has led us to believe it’s best when the special needs organization carries its own insurance and the host site(s) are added as an additional insured party.

Another critical component of successful inclusion is the preparation and education of the typically developing students, staff, or employers. This involves disability awareness—or, as we call it, ability awareness training. During these orientation sessions, lessons taught must relay the how-tos of communicating with students with special needs. These lessons are conveyed through stories, games, articles and dialogue, all dependent on the age of the peer group. By utilizing this pre-introduction format to establish a level of comfort for engagement, we’ve found that the typical students feel privileged and eager to have this opportunity. When the children actually get to know each other as individuals, true caring and friendships emerge.

It is also important to note that integration cannot be forced. Inclusion must be individualized to the best of each child’s ability. Some individuals need assistance with fitting into certain settings and activities. Others may need someone to facilitate their involvement or to interpret for them. An individualized, one-on-one approach is the key to success and far-reaching, long-term impact.

The best practice is to train the staff of students with intellectual delays uniformly across all programs. At Keshet, we adhere to a philosophy of structured teaching, designed to give the individual with intellectual disabilities clear expectations and as much visual support as possible. This could be in the form of a written schedule (either in picture or words) or a defined workspace, and empowers the individual to act as independently as possible. Guidance from staff may include such phrases as “check your schedule” or “your turn” when playing a game, which offers respect and dignity to the individual. This allows the staff to model appropriate techniques for working with the student with special needs. By the staff serving as a model for the typically developing peers, they in turn are better able to communicate and understand how to connect with the child with special needs.

From a young age people recognize differences in each other. Children might recognize the additional staff support, but if done properly, that staff will become the connector fostering a positive relationship. All participants find mutual ways of communicating and sharing in each other’s lives, and learn to focus on capabilities instead of perceived inabilities. For typical students, these early and meaningful relationships with individuals with disabilities can shape their attitudes and values and empower them to assist and advocate for those in need, as adults.

Inclusion done right produces children who have grown up “disability blind,” accepting each other as equals regardless of their abilities. Relationships turn into lifelong friendships. One such example is that of Jeremy and Justin. Today, Jeremy and Justin are young adults—Jeremy is a college student. Justin and Jeremy met 13 years ago when they both attended Solomon Schechter Day School and spent their summers at a local JCC day camp, where Keshet integrates over 160 children with cognitive impairments on an annual basis. On a hot day, the phone rang at Justin’s home and his mom answered. For the first time, the call was for Justin (six years old at the time). “May I speak to Justin?” Justin’s mom replied, “Justin does not speak.” Jeremy responded, “I know.” With baited breath, Justin’s mom listened carefully and heard Jeremy tell Justin, “Don’t forget to wear your camp T-shirt tomorrow, it’s picture day!” Today, Jeremy still calls Justin on a regular basis and their conversations largely revolve around events of the day and childhood memories of their time together.

Leslie Soodak and Elizabeth Erwin summarize the ways that our understanding of special education has changed in recent years. “For a long time, children with disabilities were educated in separate classes or in separate schools. People got used to the idea that special education meant separate education. But we now know that when children are educated together and with the appropriate support, positive academic and social outcomes occur for all the children involved. We also know that simply placing children with and without disabilities together does not produce positive outcomes. Inclusive education occurs when there is ongoing advocacy, planning, support and commitment.”

By providing resources and fostering an environment in which developmentally disabled individuals can learn, live and work comfortably alongside their typically developing peers, educators can create an opportunity for all to advance—individuals, families and communities. ♦

Abbie Weisberg is CEO/Executive Director and Heather Tratt is COO of Keshet, an organization based in in Northbrook, Illinois, that has successfully integrated more than 2,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities into educational, recreational, and vocational settings. They can be reached at and

Abbie Weisberg and Heather Tratt
Special Needs
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership
Published: Spring 2011