We are failing too many children with disabilities in mainstream schools

I want a totally inclusive approach to education – but it won’t be cheap, fast or easy

Total inclusion should mean that  every child having their unique needs met based on individual need, says Adam Harris. Photograph: iStock

Total inclusion should mean that every child having their unique needs met based on individual need, says Adam Harris. Photograph: iStock


Inclusive education can be life changing. It certainly was for me. Just before my eighth birthday I moved from the special school environment I attended for three years to a national school.

This meant I was able to make the short journey to my local school instead of a three-hour round trip each day. It meant sitting next to people my own age, from my own community. It meant being able to take on the mainstream curriculum while still having additional supports such as a special needs assistant (SNA) and additional teaching time.

Ultimately, it meant being able to go to secondary school independently, make great friends and complete my Leaving Certificate. I know how lucky I am to have had this experience and I will be forever grateful for the changes in national policy which enabled it to happen.

However, there is one question I get asked repeatedly when giving talks to parents or teachers, and it is one I hate answering: “Which was better, special school or mainstream school?”

I think we like to have simple answers to very complex questions. For me, both were very important. Even though I was quite a clever child, my parents knew that if they sent me to my local school to begin with, I wouldn’t have been able to cope. They knew I would have been overwhelmed by the sensory environment. Small changes in a plan or a lack of clarity could lead me to become very distressed. This could result in me screaming, shouting, throwing myself on the ground or hurting people. At the time, there would have been little or no supports for me in the classroom and so I would have been overlooked or branded “the bold boy”. This is before we even talk about the soft barriers in getting a place in a mainstream school.

Move to mainstream

So, instead, I went to special school in a calm, structured classroom with just six students and three adults. I had lots of one-to-one time with teaching staff every day to address not only academics but life skills, emotion regulation and executive functioning challenges. I had some fantastic teachers in special school who really believed in me and brought me to a point where I could make the big move to mainstream.

For me, both special and inclusive education were life-changing. Both had a place and both helped me reach my potential.

I passionately believe that every child must be welcome at every school. I believe that parents should follow their instinct on what their son or daughter needs and should be listened to by those in authority. I want an education system where my positive experience in mainstream education is universal.

But this is a million miles from reality at present. The vast majority of people with disabilities are enrolled in mainstream schools. This does not mean they are included. Many sit in classrooms with teachers who do not understand their access requirements or have no relevant training. Large numbers face suspension and expulsion due to factors arising from their condition such as experiencing a meltdown. Inclusion is not about permitting people to enter buildings; it is a person being fully accepted, included and involved “as they are”.

If the last decade was about opening up education opportunities for children with disabilities in mainstream schools, the next decade must be about ensuring every child has their needs fully met.

For me, total inclusion would look like every child having their unique needs met based on individual need

What would this look like? Every teacher in the country would have appropriate training to meet the needs of all children in their classroom. Comprehensive reform of school policies to ensure they do not discriminate against people with disabilities. A wholesale re-evaluation of the role of our education system, recognising that medicine at Trinity is not the only means of measuring success in education.

Exciting prospect

This is an exciting prospect. Imagine if we could one day say we had a truly, universally inclusive education system. That would be something we could be proud of as a nation. But, be warned, it won’t be cheap, fast or easy.

The National Council for Special Education (NCSE), in its progress report on the future of special schools and special classes, has suggested we may need to consider closing special schools and classes and replacing them with a “total inclusion” approach.

For me, total inclusion would look like every child having their unique needs met based on individual need. It would mean every teacher having the skills and training to meet the needs of every child in their classroom. It would mean an NCSE and Department of Education that listens to parents and young people and seeks to co-create solutions to problems when they arise on the ground.

Sadly, at every juncture this year, we have seen evidence of quite the opposite. The poor management and oversight of front-loaded additional teaching hours is now set to be followed by the same approach to SNAs despite key consultation commitments not being delivered upon.

So do I want a total inclusion model. Yes, but only if this is real and meaningful inclusion and not cost-saving under the guise of a much-bandied about word.

If we do go down this road, who better to design an inclusive system than the students who need it themselves. Their voices tend to be all but absent in NCSE policy reviews. I would suggest we place them centrally, alongside their parents, and create something that stands up to scrutiny.

* Adam Harris is founder and chief executive of AsIAm, an autism charity and advocacy organisation