What makes a school for a child with special needs 'inclusive'?

Two young men succeeded in different ways, thanks to schools that fully included students while empowering them to achieve their full potential

A student reading braille in a classroom

All schools can be inclusive if they create an academic and social community that values and fully includes students with disabilities.

November 20, 2015

For more than 10 years I’ve had the privilege to watch two students with special needs succeed academically and socially, while making critical gains in independence.

Coincidently, they share the same first name, although spelled differently. Knowing their sense of humor, I can only imagine the “discussion” they might have to determine which name is properly spelled.

Brendan D.’s parents chose to live in Newton, because it offers strong inclusive special education services. Recently Brendan turned 22, the age at which publicly mandated services for students with special needs ends. At his transition party at Newton North Brendan gave a speech, and individually thanked all who had helped him on his path to success. I thought of the first time I saw Brendan crawl along with his oxygen tank. The need for the tank was later eliminated following the insertion of a pacemaker. I glanced across the room as this young man with Down syndrome spoke and saw the love and pride in the faces of his parents, brother and sister.

For seven years, Brendan was the basketball manager at Newton North and had the opportunity to play on TD Garden’s parquet floor near the end of his career. While at Newton North, with supports, Brendan was included in college prep classes, having the opportunity to learn alongside his typically developing peers. In addition he had a successful community work placement at Boston College and is currently employed at BC, traveling independently to work.

In 2011 Brendon H. graduated from Cotting School, a private day school for children with special needs where he developed academic, vocational and advocacy skills. In a wheelchair, and with speech and hearing challenges due to cerebral palsy, Brendon’s needs could not be met in public school, therefore Cotting was the most accommodating and therefore the most inclusive setting for him.

He was a tenacious student, embracing all the academic, athletic and social activities that our school had to offer. Brendon also has a remarkable sense of humor. At graduation he gave me a T-shirt with the message, “Handicapped, can’t beat the parking!” Brendon has become a national spokesperson for the Accessible Icon Project and recently was invited to join Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society at Craven Community College in North Carolina where he is studying computer-aided design.

Both students had rich academic and social lives. Both made gains in independence. Both are now on a path toward greater success.

In each case their parents were fortunate to find the right school to match the needs of their child. They were able to ask the critical question: “Which school can most fully meet the unique needs of my child with special needs?” For one, it was a public school setting, for the other private.

What makes a school “inclusive”?

Public or private, it is the opportunity for a student to be fully included academically and socially. It is having friends, being invited to sleepovers and birthday parties, growing in self-esteem and learning new skills. It is access to on-site services, which often include medical, communication, occupational and physical therapies, necessary to meet the critical and complex challenges of each child with special needs.

Brendan and Brendon’s families were dedicated to finding the appropriate school to serve the unique needs of their child. All schools along the special education continuum from public to private, day to residential services can be inclusive if they create an academic and social community that values and fully includes students while empowering them to achieve their full potential.

David W. Manzo is president of Cotting School in Lexington, Massachusetts and the vice-president of MAAPS, a state-wide association for schools that serve children with special needs.