A review of post-war educational reforms and initiatives certainly corresponds to our society’s evolving desire and respect for civil rights. Yet, despite being developed alongside the civil rights and equal rights movements, the education of children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment is seldom viewed as an issue of either civil or equal rights. Reviewing mainstreaming beliefs and practices in education dating back to 1975, Lipsky and Gardner (1997) found mainstreaming is based on the assumption that a student with a disability can cope with the academic and social demands of a general education classroom. Specifically, they found mainstreaming was traditionally only “applicable to those students who were considered to be most like normal” (p. 77). By contrast, inclusion signifies that a student with a disability can benefit both academically and socially from the general education classroom, even if goals for students with disabilities were different from typically developing students. Too often mainstreaming and inclusion are used interchangeably in educational literature. They differ significantly in terms of both definition and philosophy. In a critical commentary on the field of special education, Kauffman (1998) stated, “Inclusion has become virtually meaningless, a catch-word used to give a patina of legitimacy to whatever program people are trying to sell or defend” (p. 246).
The p, eriod following 1997 marks a clear point of change in the field of special education. Requirements increasing accountability using standards-based assessment for all students as stated in the reauthorization of IDEA (1997) stressed increased access to the general education curriculum and inclusion of general educators as members of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team. These explicit mandates promoted the opportunity for increased inclusion to become firmly established as the foundation for placement decisions. Although requirements for placement within the least restrictive environment had been in special education legislation since 1975, the explicit mandates of IDEA 1997 increased academic expectations, resulting in a shift in policies and practices within education. An effective “inclusion movement” helps ensure educators will, to the greatest extent appropriate, provide access to the general education curriculum in the least restrictive environment (LRE) for students with disabilities.
Despite progress, placement decisions are too often based on budget and staffing considerations rather than the rights of a student with disabilities to receive a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment to ensure access to the general education curriculum with optimal success. Such a practice should be met with the same outrage we now hold toward segregated water fountains, lunch counters, or bus seats. Inclusion of a student with special needs in the appropriate least restrictive environment is indeed a civil right.