Disability & Society
Vol. 22, No. 1, January 2007, pp. 63–77
ISSN 0968-7599 (print)/ISSN 1360-0508 (online)/07/010063–15
© 2007 Taylor & Francis
The conflict within: resistance to
inclusion and other paradoxes in
David J. Connor
* and Beth A. Ferri
Hunter College, City University of New York, USA;
Syracuse University, USA
Taylor and Francis LtdCDSO_A_205575.sgm10.1080/09687590601056717Disability and Society0968-7599 (print)/1360-0508 (online)Original Article2007Taylor & Francis221000000January 2007Associate Professor DavidJ.ConnorDavidjuan1@aol.com
In the 30 years since the passage of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (PL. 94-142)
in 1975 (subsequently the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) special education in the USA
as an institutionalized practice has become solidified. Over the years, however, the practice of segre-
gating students because of disability has come under increased scrutiny. Beginning in the late 1980s,
an increasing number of parents advocated that their children with disabilities be put in mainstream
general education classes. Emotionally charged debates over the inclusion of students with disabil-
ities in general education classrooms ensued. In this paper we look at the public debates over inclu-
sion and expose some of the paradoxes within special education that serve to hinder the integration
of individuals with disabilities into general classes and, by extension, society at large.
Greatly influenced by the disability rights movement (Shapiro, 1993), efforts by US
parents of children with disabilities and their allies led to the passing of the Education
of All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142) in 1975, which mandated a ‘free and
appropriate education for all handicapped children’. Before 1975 an estimated
4,000,000 children with disabilities in the USA did not receive necessary supports in
school, with another 1,000,000 received no schooling whatsoever (Friend, 2005).
Once P.L. 94-142 (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA)
opened school doors for students with disabilities, clinical teams evaluated, labeled
and determined, with parental input, the educational placement for each student.
The law mandated that placements, selected from a continuum of options, be
provided in the ‘least restrictive environment’ (LRE). Soon after the implementation
of P.L. 94-142 professional debates ensued as to what constituted the least restrictive
*Corresponding author. Department of Special Education (RM 917HW), Hunter College, City
University of New York, 695 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10001, USA. Email: dconnor@hunt-
64 D. J. Connor and B. A. Ferri
placement. Some questioned whether segregated placements led to either academic
or social gains beyond what would be achieved without special education (Semmel
et al., 1979). Others doubted that the academic needs of disabled students warranted
a wholly separate system (Stainback & Stainback, 1984). For many disability rights
activists the LRE was simply a loophole that enabled educational institutions to
continue to segregate people with disabilities (Taylor, 1988; Linton, 1998; Russell,
1998), concluding that segregated placements were overly restrictive and contra-
dicted the underlying intent of IDEA (Reynolds, 1989).
Despite mounting criticism, the majority of students with disabilities continued to
be taught in segregated settings. As a result, special education became an increasingly
separate institution, with its own practices, regulations, certifications and staff.
Furthermore, the research base of special education maintained a distinctly separatist
stance in relation to other fields of study (Brantlinger, 1997). Grounded in the medi-
cal model, special education was characterized as contributing to the longstanding
oppression experienced by disabled people (Oliver, 1996). Thus, despite seeing itself
as a service to students with disabilities, special education was increasingly positioned
as an oppressive force. Aligning with clinical approaches, much of the field either
ignored or defined itself in opposition to the evolving social model understandings of
disability advocated by disabled people themselves (Gallagher et al., 2004).
The issue of inclusion, while a seemingly simple concept, remains highly conten-
tious. To traditional special educators inclusion constitutes a dismantling of all that
is good about existing services for children with disabilities (Diamond, 1995; Kauffman
& Hallahan, 1995). To others, inclusion is not simply a service placement, but ‘a way
of life, a way of living together, based on a belief that each individual is valued’ and
belongs (Villa & Thousand, 1995, p. 11). In this respect inclusion is a philosophy that
challenges ableism. As Gerrard (1994) explained, inclusive education is ‘an issue of
social justice in which separate education and special education students is not only
unequal, but detrimental to the development of all students’ (p. 58).
The concept of inclusion has fundamentally changed the foundations of special
education. Indeed, the very apparatus of what legitimates special education as a field
has been called into question, including: the growth of disability categories and their
reification; the separate education and certification of teachers; academic journals
devoted to specializations; the burgeoning industry of professionals to serve the disabled
(therapists, counsellors, evaluators, school psychologists, etc.); separate schools; segre-
gated programs within existing schools; different funding sources, etc. Supporters of
inclusion have held a mirror to special education and asked ‘What is so special?’ Used
as a euphemism, ‘special’ serves as a gauze curtain behind which the word ‘disabled’
resides—perhaps too painful to be confronted as is. Sadly, more often than not ‘special’
(i.e. disability) becomes synonymous with exclusion, segregation and marginalization.
It is no surprise that inclusion has illuminated a growing divide within the field of
special education (Friend, 2005). In one commentary a prominent scholar wrote that
inclusion was ‘virtually meaningless, a catchword used to give a patina of legitimacy
to whatever program people are trying to sell or defend’ (Kauffman, 1999, p. 246).
While a harsh critique of inclusion, Kauffman inadvertently called attention to how
Paradoxes in special education 65
the term has been used in many ways by many people, including being colonized
by special educators who depoliticize its intentions, transforming inclusion into a
benign, well intentioned, pie in the sky fad. However, this cooption serves to highlight
ways in which the field of special education does not recognize the politics of disabil-
ity, so central to disability studies. This wilful ignorance is painfully evident in the
overwhelming majority of foundational texts in the field of special education, which
do not mention disability studies or disability rights (Brantlinger, 2006).
Public discourse on inclusion
In this article we explore resistance to the inclusion of students with disabilities into
mainstream classes over the last three decades and the solidification of special educa-
tion as an institutionalized practice. Rather than focus on professional literature (jour-
nals and textbooks) we concentrate instead on the public discourse about inclusion
in the editorial pages of several major newspapers. We specifically attend to opinions
about the merits (and demerits) of special education. Although we both identify as
disability studies scholars who remain critical of special education, here we are inter-
ested in what can be learned from attending to the ambiguity and paradox of a more
complicated view of special education. By asking ‘What can we learn from the tangle
of parental opinions regarding inclusion?’ we contemplate ways in which special
education has been both a service and disservice to students with disabilities. We
begin by looking at parental support for inclusion before looking at special education
first as a service and then as a disservice. This is followed with our analysis of the
editorial coverage of inclusion and a discussion of several inherent paradoxes within
special education that serve to hinder the integration of individuals with disabilities
into general classes and, by extension, society at large.
To explore public discourses on inclusion we examined several major newspapers
from 1987 to 2002. During this time there was increased debate over the inclusion of
special education students in ‘regular’ classrooms, particularly after the reauthoriza-
tions of IDEA, including the 1990 and 1997 reauthorizations. We collected editorial
pages from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal and
Constitution, as well as a sampling of other papers, including publications from the
UK, which was experiencing a parallel growth of inclusion. Altogether, we collected
approximately 250 editorials, ‘opposing viewpoints’ pieces and letters to the editor.
To begin placing these texts in their historical context we first look at the growth of
parental support for the inclusion movement.
Support for inclusion by parents
Convinced of the benefits of inclusion, many parents began to view placement in
general education as an entitlement. As Kathleen Boundy, an attorney with the
66 D. J. Connor and B. A. Ferri
Cambridge, Massachusetts based Center for Law and Education, said, ‘Instead of
proving that you have the right to be in you start with the right to be in’ (Wilgoren &
Pae, 1994, p. B1). In a letter to the editor Ruppmann (1991) directly challenged hith-
erto taken for granted assumptions about the benefits of special education place-
The jury is not out on the question, ‘Do children and adults with mental retardation and
physical disabilities benefit from being placed together in segregated facilities outside their
communities?’ The answer is ‘No, they do not’. Overwhelming evidence shows that people
with severe disabilities do not thrive in isolated programs and settings. They achieve less,
and more important, they suffer from the loneliness and lack of choice imposed upon them
… . (p. A16)
A mother wrote that she once believed her child had a limited future, but because he
was included her son was now ‘a self-sufficient young man who is not going to need
a group home or supported work environment’ (DeFord, 1998, p. W08). Another
parent wrote that her child was:
now in his neighborhood school with his sisters, taking music, art and gym class with
his friends and neighbors. He may not be as intellectually capable as others in his grade,
but he has greatly improved his self-esteem and his desire to go to school. (Maushard,
1994, p. 1B)
Others report benefits to non-disabled children. An art teacher said ‘My own children
… [are] much more aware of handicapped people as just kids; they’re not as fearful.
I think as adults we’re accustomed to backing off. … This is a big advantage for every-
body’ (Applegate & Lu, 1998, p. A1). Conversely, some parents worry about a loss
of hard won services for their children. In the next section we look at some of the
reasons such parents seek to retain special education as an exclusive system.
Special education as a service
Although it is easy to see how special education has been problematic, it is undeniable
that the passing of P.L. 94-142 (IDEA) resulted in many benefits for students with
disabilities. The IDEA was designed to expand access and educational rights for
students with disabilities and it largely achieved its goal of ensuring greater access to
schooling and increased provision of services. Yet, an inherent paradox in special
education legislation and policy is the dual desire to ensure access to specialized
services and individualized education, while guaranteeing greater access to the least
restrictive educational setting.
Those writing in support of preserving special education remind readers of how far
society has progressed in educating children with disabilities. For example, Joan
Goodman (1992) wrote ‘As recently as the mid-1960s pediatricians still advocated
institutionalization and sterilization for the child with Down Syndrome’ (p. A15).
Not so distant history serves as a reminder of the severe conditions that existed for
children with disabilities, and perhaps accounts for the sense of gratitude expressed
by some parents for at least ‘getting in the door’. Lewin (1997), for example,
Paradoxes in special education 67
recounted the experience of Judy Heumann, former Assistant Secretary for the Office
of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services: ‘When I was a kid in Brooklyn and
my mother wheeled me over to the neighborhood school for kindergarten, they said
I couldn’t come there, I was a fire hazard. I was sent away to another school’ (p. 1).
Such accounts remind us that special education developed largely in response to
barriers in the general education system.
Funding is another concern of parents. As defined under federal law, special educa-
tion ensures ‘specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique
needs of a child with a disability’ (20 U.S.C. sect. 1401 ), including supplemen-
tary aids and services in the form of personnel and/or equipment. Advocates worry
that inclusion will siphon off needed funding away from students who most need it.
Some parents seek a middle ground, reserving the right to have their child placed
in a segregated special education environment as a preparation for future main-
streaming. One parent wrote:
After one year in a self-contained special education classroom, our son has improved
dramatically. His ability to socialize and forge friendships has developed into new and
rewarding relationships. Unable to hold a conversation just one year ago, he now ventures
forth haltingly with a new found confidence. His once-robust personality has reappeared.
(Kastens, 1995, p. A15)
It is interesting to note that the parent adds the caveat, ‘He will soon attain all of the
tools necessary for mainstream education’ (p. A15), indicating that general education
is still the ultimate goal. For some parents, however, the mainstream setting is not the
goal. In fact, this same mother contended ‘[inclusion] tosses the disabled child into
an environment in which the child cannot possibly develop, and in fact, may regress,
while simultaneously depriving the remainder of the class of critical instructional
time’ (p. A15). Thus, the worry is that children will lose ground in a general educa-
tion setting or they may come to be seen as a burden. Another mother recalled the
unfavourable experiences of her daughter, who ‘even now, after 20 years … expresses
painful memories of those experiences in a normal classroom’. She added that placing
a daughter in general education is ‘a cruel thing to do to … any handicapped person’
(Hunter, 1995, p. 7), revealing her view that exclusion amounts to a form of protec-
tion from a merciless world. Thus, special education is sometimes characterized as an
entry point to general education, a way of getting one’s foot in the door, or as a safe
haven from an unwelcoming general education system.
Special education as a disservice
Special education has had its detractors as well. Despite its rhetoric about least
restrictive environment, disabled students have very limited access to general educa-
tion. There are also gross disparities in the representation of race, ethnicity, class and
gender in certain special education categories. Many have also questioned the
unprecedented growth in the numbers of students labeled with ‘soft’ or subjective
disability categorizations and an over-reliance on testing. Others disparage the
68 D. J. Connor and B. A. Ferri
unprecedented growth in a special education ‘industry’, as well as the poor academic
results of students who are taught in special education.
For many students with disabilities gaining entry into general education classes has
been a long, hard and litigious road. In a landmark case, Hartmann v. Loudoun County
Board of Education (1997), parents were denied the right to have their autistic son placed
in a general education classroom. The ruling asserted that the mainstreaming provision
of IDEA is not considered a mandate, but rather a flexible directive. In addition, the
court claimed that mainstreaming was not required when (a) a student with a disability
would not receive benefit from such a placement, (b) marginal benefits would be signif-
icantly outweighed by benefits that could be obtained in a separate setting and (c) the
student is an ongoing disruptive force. Roxanna Hartmann, the child’s mother, stated
‘We want Mark to be a member of our society. … Mark has gained many skills in the
last three years, skills that would be lost if he is put in a class with four other autistic
children, as school officials have recommended’ (Wilgoren, 1994, p. B3). After the
ruling was made public some predicted that the ruling would ‘lead other school districts
to scale back programs to “mainstream” disabled children’ (Benning, 1997, p. D01).
Mark’s parents eventually placed their son in a private school at their own expense.
In another court ruling a judge claimed a teenager seeking to enroll in his neighbor-
hood school would be ‘isolated socially and academically’ and therefore a segregated
school constituted the least restrictive placement (Transfer of disabled student
rejected, 1988, p. B6). These examples indicate that despite parental advocacy,
students are often not welcome in general education classes. It is common to hear
teachers claim that they are not ready and/or unwilling to accept students with disabil-
ities into their classes. For example:
In a 1994 national survey by the American federation of teachers, the country’s second-
largest teachers union, only 11 percent of teachers said they were trained adequately. And
overwhelmingly, teachers believed inclusion is not appropriate for every child—particularly
those with severe and disruptive behavior problems. (Evans, 1996, p. 04H)
One teacher commented, ‘some times the learning-challenged students are the least
mature and the “biggest bullies” in the classroom. Teachers can’t be watching them
every minute of the day’ (Miller, 2002, p.16). Expressing resistance to inclusion,
(admittedly overextended) educators fear that disabled children would be disorderly
Over-representation of race, class and gender
Historically, special education has been over-represented by certain groups, includ-
ing students of color, children from ethnic minorities, working class and poor chil-
dren and boys. Furthermore, when these markers of identity occur simultaneously
there is an increased likelihood that such children will be given a label of disability.
Recent research indicates significant disparities between special education referral
Paradoxes in special education 69
and placement rates for European Americans and Asian Americans compared with
African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans (Losen & Orfield, 2002). African
American students remain three times as likely to be labeled mentally retarded
as European Americans, twice as likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed
(ED), and almost one and a half times as likely to be labeled learning disabled (LD)
(Parrish, 2002, pp. 22–23). In fact, African American students remain the most over-
represented of all racial groups in nine of thirteen disability categories, a fact that
contributes to the restrictiveness of their school placement (Fierros & Conroy, 2002;
National Association of Black School Educators, 2002). The editorial pages occa-
sionally draw attention to the issue of racial isolation resulting from segregation based
on disability. One editor remarked:
The isolation is most frequent from Black and Latino children. These students are
frequently omitted from citywide tests, making it impossible to determine if they are being
educated at all. More drop out than graduate. … The current system holds no one truly
responsible for these failings. (Remaking special education, 1998, p. A28)
Research also documents the over-representation of males in categories such as LD
and ED (Carrier, 1986). In its hyperfocus on medical model understandings of
disability special education legislation has failed to adequately directly address issues
of poverty that impact on a disproportionate number of students who become labeled
disabled (Donovan & Cross, 2002).
Differential placement and outcomes by race, class and gender is an entrenched
and enduring problem. In a recent report on special education Saulny (2005) docu-
mented significant differences in graduation rates by race and gender. The report
found that students in special education who are white or Asian are twice as likely to
graduate as those who are black and Hispanic. The report also found that girls are
more likely to graduate than boys.
Since the early 1970s the US Office of Civil Rights has reported the persistence of
over-representation of minority children in categories requiring specialized clinical
judgement (Losen & Orfield, 2002, p. xv). As Hernandez (1999) stated:
most special education students … are classified as ‘learning disabled’ or ‘emotionally
handicapped’. Education experts contend that such labels are often loosely applied, partic-
ularly in cases in which teachers want to rid themselves of disruptive students. (p. B1)
Thus, special education literally becomes a way to ‘keep the peace’ by removing
students who might disrupt the status quo of the general education classroom.
The confining nature of special education
One editor illustrated the powers schools have to ‘condemn … [students] to special
education classes where they remain for the rest of their school careers (Remaking
special education, 1998, p. A28) (emphasis added). Systematic bias in the assessment
of students has been well documented (Artiles & Trent, 1994; National Alliance of
Black School Educators, 2002). Education is dominated by an obsession for testing
student ability (Giordano, 2005), but this is most pronounced in special education.
70 D. J. Connor and B. A. Ferri
Moreover, many school psychologists and clinicians continue to uphold outdated
beliefs about mental ability and continue to focus on the use of intelligence tests to
defend classifications and placements.
Although general education is often described as ignoring the needs of students with
disabilities, special education is also described as a bureaucratic labyrinth in which
students are neglected and fall through the cracks. Reports from segregated facilities
are particularly shocking. Ramirez and Patrick (1999), for example, wrote about a 9-
year-old boy named Freddy Ramirez, a wheelchair user who was ‘frequently … forced
to use the school’s toilet in a degrading manner. He had to lower himself to the floor
and crawl across the bathroom floor to the commode’ (p. A24). Such institutional
neglect of people with disabilities reinforces the danger of practices that position
people out of sight, out of mind (Shapiro, 1993). This fear led two parents to write
that they would never put their child back into special education because ‘It would be
like putting him back to sleep. … Like “OK, you’ve seen what real life is like, now go
back”’ (Evans, 1996, p. 04H). The notion of general education being ‘real life’ and
special education as ‘outside of real life’ is echoed in the following letter:
She was condemned to spend her adolescent and teen years growing up riding ‘special buses’
to faraway ‘special schools’ … . She was cut off by long bus rides from the playtime she had
enjoyed with neighboring children. And, with diminished self-esteem produced by the stigma
of separation, her socialization skills, despite much love and support, were permanently
damaged. … With a lifetime of regret as a platform for advice, I urge other parents to not
allow their children who may be showing slow learning tendencies to be shunted out of the
mainstream system and into the isolation that is ‘special education’. (Dickes, 2001, p. A10)
Other parents decry the low expectations associated with special education. One
parent, speaking of her son’s placement, wrote ‘My fear is that he’ll just give up and not
complete school. … Special education has affected his ability to even try’ (Richardson,
1994, p. A1). Another explained that although ‘The first year … [of inclusion] was
miserable … he has learned to read and write, which his special education teachers said
he never would do’ (Evans, 1996, p. 04H). Several stories focused on parents who ‘fear
that the special education classes, with their lower expectations, will fail to bring out
[their child’s] abilities’ (Goodman, 1996, p. 44). Finally, one mother drew attention
to the deficit model in special education, telling other parents ‘Don’t believe all the
things that you are told your child cannot accomplish … find out what they can accom-
plish’ (Matthews, 2002, p. A09).
Poor results of special education
Historically special education has yielded very poor academic results (Skrtic, 1991).
Because students with disabilities have been exempt from required statewide exami-
nations (Lipsky & Gartner, 1997) they are positioned as literally unworthy of count-
ing. One New York Times editorial noted that ‘The percentage of special education
students who graduated with Regents diplomas
increased to 8 percent in 2000, up
from 6.1 percent in 1999’, commenting ‘These gains are modest but suggest that at
least some disabled students could have been mainstreamed all along’ (Progress in
special education, 2001, p. A22).
Paradoxes in special education 71
In a letter, the president of the American Association of People with Disabilities
calls attention to disparities in outcomes for students in and out of special education.
He writes that:
Data from the [US] Department of Education show that national graduation rates for
students who receive special education have stagnated at 27 percent for the last three years,
while rates are 75 percent for students who do not rely on special education. (Imparato,
2001, p. 14)
The message is clear, reliance on special education disadvantages students with
disabilities. In a recent report Advocates for Children noted that only ‘12.3 percent
[of New York City students in special education] graduated with Regents or local
diplomas. … In addition, 12 percent received an alternative certificate, an Individu-
alized Education Diploma’ (Saulny, 2005, p. B5). These statistics confirm those cited
by Imparato and point out limitations imposed on students who do not meet stan-
dardized graduation requirements.
Engaging paradoxes in special education
Although we expected to see differing viewpoints in the editorial pages we collected,
we were struck by the oppositional views on inclusion, particularly by parents. We
define a paradox as two contradictory elements that coexist. Paradoxes defy easy reso-
lution as each side contains elements that exist precisely because they are defined
against another. The following are some of these paradoxes we uncovered, along with
some questions they raise.
Once in, where’s best?
Schleifer (1997), founder of Exceptional Parent, described how historically parents
struggled just to get children with disabilities in any school program. He wrote ‘Not
only were many of their efforts thwarted, but school personnel and other “experts”
commonly told them that their “unrealistic” expectations were putting their children in
jeopardy’ (p. 2). Parental knowledge has neither been valued nor heeded, despite legis-
lation that supports their input (Valle & Aponte, 2002). Parents may differ considerably
on the issue of placement: ‘Those who want their children in regular classrooms all day
long may accept no less than full inclusion. Those who feel their children need the secu-
rity of a separate classroom out of the mainstream, may be no less insistent’ (Special
focus on special kids, 1996, p. 06B). In essence, if parental or personal input is
respected we might expect that two students with the same learning profile and disabil-
ity classification would be placed in entirely different programs. Of course, ‘choice’
assumes that each option presented to parents and students is equally compelling and
Included in what?
General education classes are not always perceived as adequately prepared to meet
the needs of diverse learners. The ‘readiness’ of teachers in particular is often claimed
72 D. J. Connor and B. A. Ferri
to be lacking. As one member of the public noted, ‘It is absurd to plan inclusion of
students with significant disabilities in overcrowded classrooms where the teacher has
received no more than a crash course in special education’ (Puddington, 1998, p.16).
Although we most often talk about isolation in special education, alienation can occur
for disabled students in general education settings. One parent recounted the experi-
ence of her 8-year-old son with autism: ‘Some children tell him he is different, weird,
and he doesn’t know how to handle it. … He has no friends at school. He is devas-
tated about that’ (Moore & Hayasaki, 2002, p. 1). In a letter to the editor a wheelchair
user with cerebral palsy who had been included in 1970s recalled: ‘I was not greatly
accepted socially by my peers’ (Perricone, 1994, p. 81). One teacher, cynical of inclu-
sion, revealed: ‘Many of us see this as sharing the air in a building, but not really
having anything to do with the educational value for special education children. This
is not an education plan but a space plan’ (Saslow, 1999, p. 3). Thus, simply allowing
students to be present and visible is not the same as promoting interaction or integra-
tion. Anything short of full and meaningful participation, which will require funda-
mental changes in general education, violates the principles of inclusion.
Inclusion as oppression
In The illusion of full inclusion Kaufmann and Hallahan (1995) featured essays by
scholars who support maintaining separate educational facilities for children who are
blind and deaf, conveying the need for certain groups to be taught separately. Such
sentiments were supported in a newspaper article written by a sign language inter-
preter for a deaf girl in a Grade 11 inclusive classroom. In the article Cohen (1994)
described how the student was not included fully in academic or social activities and,
as a result, became overly dependent. Cohen believed that the student would benefit
from a school for the deaf ‘where all the students can converse with each other, all the
information is presented visually, teachers sign and deaf adults serve as role models
…’ (p. 11A). In addition, increased activities such as participation in student govern-
ment, acting in school plays and access to the deaf community would also be possible.
Cohen did not believe that her role as a sign language interpreter benefited this partic-
ular student, and concluded by stating: ‘To many Deaf people … [inclusion] is at best
maddeningly naïve; at worst, chauvinistic. The history of Deaf people is one of
mandated assimilation: we can make you more like hearing people, we can make you
more normal’ (p. 11A). Cohen’s observations raise questions such as: does inclusion
serve students with some disability, but not others?; are segregated or exclusive spaces
important in fostering community among disabled youth?
Inclusion as cost cutting
The cost of special education is enormous, with segregated placements costing as much
as three times that spent on non-disabled students (Lipsky & Gartner, 1997). Given
such poor results, funds may better be deployed elsewhere, such as in inclusive settings.
Inclusion has been viewed as a cost-cutting device, not motivated by humanistic
Paradoxes in special education 73
reform, but rather a means to bureaucratic fiscal prudence. Contrary to cost-cutting
theories, inclusion may prove even more costly than segregated education, depending
on how thoroughly and responsibly it is implemented (Villa & Thousand, 1995).
However, the inflexibility of funding sources sometimes impinges upon how inclusion
is put into practice. For example, providing and mobilizing staff on an as needed basis
does not provide the job stability and security sought by many professionals.
Inclusion as a civil right
Implementation of inclusion varies enormously. Pat Jones, parent and advocate for
disabled children, explained: ‘Inclusion is a sense of belonging’ (Librach, 1992, p. 1).
How does inclusion as a ‘sense of belonging’ compare with inclusion as a civil right?
While proponents of inclusion see it is a matter of social justice and civil rights
(Gerrard, 1994), courts have not always supported this stance and acted to ‘protect’
non-disabled students from ‘disruptive’ students (Hartmann v. Loudon County Board
of Education, 1997). One parent wrote ‘I feel strongly that my children in regular
classrooms have a civil right to learn without having their paths to progress disrupted
and diverted by the demands of a disabled child’ (Kastens, 1995, p. A15). How do
we weigh what are perceived to be competing civil rights?
Accountability and the No Child Left Behind Act
The intention of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) (PL. 107-110) is to
improve the academic achievement of all students. Students with disabilities are no
longer exempt from high stakes achievement tests. In such a high stakes testing envi-
ronment disabled children are more likely to be perceived as problems. A letter from
a teacher confirmed this phenomenon. She wrote ‘We have seen such children
become “unwanted” because they affect the league tables in a negative direction and
we have evidence of schools refusing to take such children before national tests’
(Chambers, 2000, p. 6). Others have echoed Chambers’ concern that the relentless
preoccupation with high stakes testing will—as it has done in the past—serve to justify
the exclusion of children with disabilities, a form of educational triage (Meier &
Wood, 2004). That government desired standardization of all students is a frighten-
ing notion, serving only to further reinforce socially constructed notions of
(ab)normalcy. We ask to what degree can inclusive practices be compatible with
prioritized high stakes testing? What alternatives exist for students with disabilities
who cannot meet benchmarks dictated by the state?
Significance and limitations of the evidence
Engaging with the media is a dynamic process in which textual representations mirror
reality while simultaneously influencing how reality is shaped. Similarly, newspaper
readers engage with diverse voices and opinions about inclusion. Readers therefore
engage in a democratic experience, as they open themselves to polyphonic influences
74 D. J. Connor and B. A. Ferri
from the general public—including parents and teachers, disabled and non-
disabled—via letters or interviews, as well as writers and editors who ‘have something
to say’. The concept of inclusion, important to every citizen, is no longer merely in
the hands of a small coterie of policy-makers and academics; it moves from govern-
mental offices and ‘ivory towers’ into the streets. The everyday press is important
because it informs and shapes public knowledge about all aspects of life, including
people with disabilities and their place in society.
A strength of engaging with the media may also be perceived as a limitation. Every
publication has an ideological grounding that influences its position on all topics. In
brief, information can be skewed in a particular direction, arguably misleading or
distorted, even consistently over a long period of time. In her study of how special
education was represented in the New York Times for three decades Rice (2006)
concluded that the periodical largely portrayed special education as costly, ineffective,
bureaucratic and out of control. In our own analysis inclusion is often portrayed as an
idealistic, cost-cutting device that will tip the scales and destroy general education
(Ferri & Connor, 2005). Rice pointed out, and we concur, that traditional special
education discourses within the mass media do not include the concerns of disability
studies (aligned with an inclusive philosophy), such as increased access to all aspects
of society, participation, citizenship, civil rights, social justice, empowerment and
In closing, we must observe that special education is not the nice, orderly system of
structures, categories and services that introductory textbooks would have us believe
(Brantlinger, 2006). Instead, while predominantly (and tenaciously) rooted within
the medical model of disability, special education is also an increasingly complicated
arena in which legal, psychological, scientific, social, cultural, historical and a host of
other discourses compete. However, despite being a field replete with tensions and
contradictions, special education is a space of much debate, but little action toward
social change. For example, we must ask, when much of what is done in the name of
inclusion is unsuccessful, how much of the failure is due to an educational system that
is not wholly interested in change or equity? Also, are the majority of non-disabled
‘special’ educators more invested in maintaining their own sphere of influence than
making substantial changes for people with disabilities?
We acknowledge that special education is a field that genuinely seeks to best educate
children with disabilities and certainly many parents doubt their children’s needs would
be met without it. Yet, given the overwhelming evidence of its shortcomings, perhaps
the greatest paradox of special education is that is both a service and a disservice. Given
the trends of the past 30 years it appears likely that we will continue to debate the need
for ‘special’, but let us remember the terms of exclusion which put special into motion.
Instead of being satisfied with the way things are, we might do well to view students
in special education as a statement about insufficient progress towards the integration
of people into society at large—and continue to push for inclusive education.
Paradoxes in special education 75
1. All of these categories, MR, ED and LD, are legal/education terms when referring to specific
disabilities in the USA. We have used the phrase ‘labeled’ to signify their cultural significance.
2. All children in New York State are now required to graduate with a Regents diploma, which
means they successfully pass all high school courses over a 4 year period, as well as pass five
Applegate, L. & Lu, K. (1998, February 1 ) School inclusion for pupils with disabilities, Roanoake
Times & World News, p. A1.
Artiles, A. J. & Trent, S. C. (1994) Overrepresentation of minority students in special education: a
continuing debate, Journal of Special Education, 27, 410–437.
Benning, V. (1997, July 10) Court backs decision to remove autistic boy from regular class, The
Washington Post, p. D01.
Brantlinger, E. (1997) Using ideologies: cases of non-recognition of the politics of research and
practice in special education, Review of Educational Research, 67(4), 425–459.
Brantlinger, E. (2006) The big glossies: how textbooks structure (special) education, in: E.
Brantlinger (Ed.) Who benefits from special education?: remediating (fixing) other people’s children
(Mahwah, NJ, Erlbaum), 45–75.
Carrier, J. (1986) Learning disability: social class and the construction of inequality in American educa-
tion (New York, Greenwood Press).
Chambers, M. (2000, March 17) False sympathy for inclusion [Letter to the editor], The Times
Educational Supplement, p. 23.
Cohen, L. H. (1994, February 23) The inclusion’ debate: schools for all, or separate but equal?,
The Baltimore Sun, p. 11A.
DeFord, S. (1998, February 8) Inclusive classrooms, The Washington Post, p. W08.
Diamond, S. C. (1995) Special education and the great god, inclusion, in: J. M. Kauffman & D. P.
Hallahan (Eds) The illusion of full inclusion: a comprehensive critique of a current special education
bandwagon (Austin, TX, Pro-Ed), 247–254.
Dickes, T. W. (2001, June 16) Don’t sentence children to special education [Letter to the editor],
The Hartford Courant, p. A10.
Donovan, M. S. & Cross, C. T. (Eds) (2002) Minority students in special and gifted education
(Washington, DC, National Academies Press).
Evans, S. (1996, March 17) Opening the door, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, p. 04H.
Ferri, B. A. & Connor, D. J. (2005) Tools of exclusion: race, disability, and (re)segregated educa-
tion, Teachers College Record, 107(3), 453–474.
Fierros, E. G. & Conroy, J. W. (2002) Double jeopardy: an exploration of restrictiveness and race
in special education, in: D. J. Losen & G. Orfield (Eds) Racial inequity in special education
(Cambridge, MA, Harvard Education Press), 39–70.
Friend, M. (2005) Special education: contemporary perspectives for school professionals (Boston, MA,
Allyn & Bacon).
Gallagher, D. J., Heshusius, L., Iano, P. & Skrtic, T. M. (2004) Challenging orthodoxy in special
education (Denver, CO, Love Publishing).
Gerrard, L. C. (1994) Inclusive education: an issue of social justice, Equity & Excellence in Education,
Giordano, G. (2005) How testing came to dominate American schools (New York, Peter Lang).
Goodman, J. (1992, January 7) Wrong way to educate the handicapped, The Washington Post, p. A15.
Goodman, W. (1996, May 11) The problems of special education [Television review], The New
York Times, p. 44.
76 D. J. Connor and B. A. Ferri
Hernadez, R. (1999, June 12) Under federal threat, Albany seeks to overhaul special education,
The New York Times, p. B1.
Hunter, M. S. (1995, January 16) All children need to be able to compete [Letter to the editor],
The Washington Post, p. A22.
Imparato, A. J. (2001, January 28) Aid disabled students, The New York Times, p. 14.
Kastens, T. Y. (1995, January 4) My children have a civil right to learn, The Washington Post,
Kauffman, J. (1999) Today’s special education and its messages for tomorrow [Commentary],
Journal of Special Education, 32, 244–254.
Kauffman, J. M. & Hallahan, D. P. (1995) The illusion of full inclusion (Austin, TX, Pro-Ed).
Lewin, T. (1997, December 28) All in one: where all doors are open for disabled students, The
New York Times, p. 1.
Librach, P. B. (1992, March 2) Inclusion: mixing pupils who have handicaps with others helps
many to improve, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 1.
Lipsky, D. K. & Gartner, A. (1997) Inclusion and school reform: transforming America’s classrooms
(Baltimore, MD, Paul H. Brookes).
Linton, S. (1998) Claiming disability (New York, New York University Press).
Losen, D. J. & Orfield, G. (Eds) (2002) Racial inequality in special education (Cambridge, MA,
Harvard Education Press).
Matthews, J. (2002, June 4) For many, special ed. required special effort, The Washington Post, p. A09.
Maushard, M. (1994, January 2) Inclusion works [Letter to the editor], The Baltimore Sun, p. 1B.
Meier, D. & Wood, G. (Eds) (2004) Many children left behind (Boston, MA, Beacon Press).
Miller, K. (2002, February 16) Mainstreaming disabled kids isn’t cheap, easy, The Los Angeles
Times, p. B23.
Moore, S. & Hayasaki, E. (2002, February 1) The challenge of special education, The Los Angeles
Times, p. 1.
National Alliance of Black Educators (2002) Addressing over-representation of African American
students in special education (Washington, DC, National Alliance of Black School Educators
and Council for Exceptional Children).
Oliver, M. (1996) Understanding the hegemony of disability, in: M. Oliver (Ed.) Understanding
disability: from theory to practice (New York, St Martin’s Press), 126–144.
Parrish, T. (2002) Racial disparities in the identification, funding, and provision of special educa-
tion, in: D. J. Losen & G. Orfield (Eds) Racial inequality in special education (Cambridge, MA,
Harvard Education Press), 15–37.
Perricone, M. A. (1994, January 11) Benefits of mainstreaming, Newsday, p. 81.
Progress in Special Education (2001, May 1) The New York Times, p. 22.
Puddington, M. (1998, January 2) ‘Mainstreaming’ disabled students has a price, The New York
Times, p. A16.
Ramirez, F. & Patrick, S. (1999, October 26) It took a judge, The Washington Post, p. A24.
Remaking Special Education (1998, June 10) The New York Times, p. A28.
Reynolds, M. C. (1989) An historical perspective: the delivery of special education to mildly
disabled and at-risk students, Remedial and Special Education, 10, 7–11
Rice, N. (2006) ‘Reining in’ special education: constructions of ‘special education’ in New York
Times editorials, 1975–2004, Disability Studies Quarterly, 26(2). Available online at: http://
www.dsq-sds.org (accessed 3 November 2006).
Richardson, L. (1994, April 6) Minority students languish in special education system, New York
Times, p. A1.
Ruppmann, J. (1991, November 27) Where disabled do best [Letter to the editor], The Washington
Post, p. A16.
Russell, M. (1998) Beyond ramps: disability at the end of the social construct (Monroe, ME, Common
Saslow, L. (1999, January 24) Special education mainstreaming to surge, The New York Times, p. 3.
Paradoxes in special education 77
Saulny, S. (2005, June 3) Study on special education finds low graduation rate, The New York
Times, p. B5.
Schleifer, M. J. (1997) Happy new (school) year, The Exceptional Parent, 27(9), 2.
Semmel, M. I., Gottleib, J. & Robinson, N. M. (1979) Mainstreaming: perspectives on educating
handicapped children in public schools, Review of Research in Education, 7, 223–279.
Shapiro, J. (1993) No pity (New York, Three Rivers Press).
Skrtic, T. M. (1991) The special education paradox: equity as a way to excellence, Harvard
Educational Review, 61(2), 148–206.
Special Focus on Special Kids (1996, June 19) The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 6B.
Stainback, W. & Stainback, S. (1984) A rationale for the merger of special and regular education,
Exceptional Children, 50, 102–111.
Taylor, S. J. (1988) Caught in the continuum: a critical analysis of the principle of the least restric-
tive environment, Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 13(1), 41–53.
Transfer of Disabled Student Rejected (1988, October 6) The Washington Post, p. B6.
Valle, J. & Aponte, E. (2002) IDEA and collaboration: a Bakhtinian perspective on parent and
professional discourse, Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35(5), 469–479.
Villa, R. A. & Thousand, J. (1995) Creating an inclusive school (Alexandria, VA, Council for
Supervision and Curriculum Development).
Wilgoren, D. (1994, October 28) Mother says regular school is crucial for autistic boy, The
Washington Post, p. B3.
Wilgoren, D. & Pae, P. (1994, August 28) As Loudon goes, so may other schools, The Washington
Post, p. B1.