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A Fully Inclusive Learning Environment

A system in which every student, regardless of disability or difference, is welcomed and supported in regular classrooms and where all students learn together and reach their full potential – academically, socially and emotionally. A place that respects and values diversity and prepares all students to be members of the rich communities in which they will work and live. That is the world of school to which all students, including students with Down syndrome and other disabilities, are entitled, as they prepare to be part of the world beyond it.

When children are included from the start, they are given the best opportunity to develop mutual respect and understanding and the skills they need to live together in today’s diverse communities.

But around the world, many children with Down syndrome and other disabilities continue to be excluded from regular classrooms, denied access to an inclusive education and diverted into an alternate separate “special” life-path with life-long consequences. 

Many countries still deny or limit the right of students with Down syndrome and other disabilities to be educated in regular classrooms. Or they allow students with disabilities to attend mainstream schools, but do not provide appropriate staff training, educational resources, curriculum adjustments and supports to genuinely welcome and accommodate them in regular classrooms. Even in Italy, which closed its separate “special” schools in the 1970s, the strong regulatory framework is not enough to guarantee an inclusive education for students with Down syndrome and other disabilities.

Inclusive education is a fundamental human right of every child and it is backed by over 40 years of research evidence that overwhelmingly establishes better academic and social outcomes in general education school classrooms compared to separate “special” classrooms.   

It’s time to remove the barriers to inclusive education, challenge long-standing misconceptions about the potential of students with Down syndrome to thrive in inclusive classrooms and build a world – starting with the introductory and formative world to life – our schools – that responds to the diverse needs of all children and welcomes and includes every child for the individual that they are. 


Inclusion is a human right

Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises the right to an inclusive education as a human right of people with disability. General Comment No. 4  issued by the UN Committee on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on 26 August 2016, gives guidance to Governments, about what is meant by “inclusive education” and what they need to do under Article 24.  It makes it clear that inclusive education is not:

  • Exclusion – the denial of access to any education;
  • Segregation – the education of students with disability in separate environments (e.g. separate ‘special’ schools or ‘special’ units and classrooms in mainstream schools) in isolation from students without disability; and
  • Integration – the education of students with disability in mainstream classrooms so long as the student adjusts to the pre-existing and standardised requirements of the classroom.


Inclusion is best practice

The case for inclusive education is overwhelming.  Over 40 years of research shows that when students with disability are included, all students learn and achieve more, academically and socially.  

A 2008 comprehensive review of all studies over a 40-year period found that NO study supported better outcomes for students with intellectual disabilities in “special” settings.

The most recent comprehensive review of 280 studies from 25 countries released in 2016 found:

There is clear and consistent evidence that inclusive educational settings can confer substantial short- and long-term benefits for students with and without disabilities.  A large body of research indicates that students develop stronger skills in reading and mathematics, have higher rates of attendance, are less likely to have behavioural problems, and are more likely to complete secondary school than students that have not been included.  As adults, students with disabilities who have been included are more likely to be enrolled in post-secondary education, and to be employed or living independently.  Among children with Down syndrome, there is evidence that the amount of time spent with typically developing peers is associated with a range of academic and social benefits, such as improved memory and stronger language and literary skills.


Inclusion is best for everybody

Research has shown consistently that inclusive learning environments have no detrimental impact, and some positive impact, on the academic performance of non-disabled students. 

It also shows that children who share inclusive schools with children with disabilities have more positive attitudes towards difference, better social skills and awareness, less disruptive behaviours and more developed personal values and ethics.

How Do We Move Forward?

To build the world of inclusive education and realise its promise for all children, we must remove the barriers that continue to operate to deny many children, including children with Down syndrome, the right to an inclusive education – whether systemically, or by impacting the attitudes of school administrators and teachers and the decisions of parents.

We can do this by:

Affirming rights:  Affirming the right of students with Down syndrome and other disabilities to an inclusive education along-side their non-disabled peers.

Community awareness and challenging myths:  Helping our communities to understand the importance and benefits of inclusive education, including by challenging common myths, such as students with disabilities having a negative impact on other students, and the presumption that students with disabilities should be educated in separate ‘special’ schools or classrooms.

Political committment: Ensuring that our political representatives act to create strong legal and policy frameworks to oversee the transformation of the general education system into an inclusive education system, including funding models that are not biased towards the segregation of students with disability in ‘special’ schools and classrooms and effective and efficient complaint mechanisms for violations of educational rights.

Promoting inclusive school cultures: Fostering high-expectations and welcoming school cultures with a positive attitude to collaboration between administrators, teachers, parents and students.

Inclusive best practices: Identifying inclusive structures and practices and where they are happening in schools all around the world to demonstrate how schools successfully welcome all children, and challenging structures and approaches that exclude and segregate students with disabilities.

Supporting teachers:  Supporting and training teachers, teaching assistants and school administrators by ensuring that they have the understanding and skills to include all learners and to work collaboratively with parents.

Supporting families:  Providing quality information to families and carers of children with disabilities about the benefits of inclusive education and supporting them to access an inclusive education for their child and to work collaboratively with schools.

Accountability:  Ensuring that education systems are accountable for the education of students with disabilities.  This includes monitoring the effectiveness of laws and policies and collecting disaggregated and accurate data on achievement and the degree to which students with disabilities have access to general education classrooms in each school.

Further Reading


“UN Committee Clarifies Right to Inclusive Education” By All Means All – The Australian Alliance on Inclusive Education

On Friday 26 August 2016 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted General Comment No. 4 to Article 24 on The Right to Inclusive Education. The purpose of General Comment No. 4 is to provide Governments with guidance on the scope of their obligation to provide quality inclusive education for people with disability.


“3 Myths of ‘Special Education” By Catia Malaquias, Starting With Julius

Disability, unlike many other human variables (e.g. wealth, skin colour, culture, religion, language etc) is not usually passed from generation to generation. Most parents do not have direct experience of living with disability, yet they find themselves making life-influencing decisions for their child which are affected by the limits of their own understanding of disability.


“Fighting School Segregation in Europe through Inclusive Education: A Position Paper” By the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

School segregation is still an unfortunate reality in Europe today. Its negative consequences affect in particular Roma children, children with disabilities, children with a migrant background and other children due to their social or personal circumstances (such as children living in institutions and children in the juvenile justice system).


“Getting An Inclusive Start: The Critical Need For Inclusive Pre-School Education” By Marilyn Dolmage, Parent, Consultant and Advocate

40 years ago, people from Ontario’s children’s services ministry came to the co-operative nursery school, in my small town of Gravenhurst. They promoted inclusion – offering additional support so children of all abilities could play and learn together. That meant our son Matthew left segregated pre-school, and life improved for all three of our children, the whole family.


“The Problem with Pro-Inclusion but Not Anti-Segregation” By Dale DiLeo, Consultant and Advocate

I recently gave a speech at a conference, and afterwards was approached by an individual who had a pointed criticism of my talk. “I support your message of inclusion, but why do you have to argue against facilities? Most of us work in these places. They will eventually change and workshops and day programs will just disappear if we do a good job with inclusion.”


“7 Essential Research Studies on Inclusive Education” By Courtney Hansen

“Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible.” Most parents of students with Down syndrome have heard a variation of the quote above, especially if you’ve tried fighting for inclusion.


 “A Guide for Ensuring Inclusion and Equity in Education” By United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)

Including all learners and ensuring that each individual has an equal and personalized opportunity for educational progress is still a challenge in almost every country. Despite commendable progress made over the past two decades to expand access to basic education, further efforts are needed to minimize barriers to learning and to ensure that all learners in schools and other learning settings experience a genuine inclusive environment.

From Around The World

Marta, Italia

Marta, Italia

Mi chiamo Marta Sodano e ho 23 anni. Le scuole che ho frequentato sono le scuole dell’obbligo e poi ho fatto le superiori.

Per quanto riguardo la scuola le persone che io ricordo e che mi stanno più a cuore sono un po’ di compagni e insegnanti. Tra gli insegnati che ricordo la prima in assoluto è stata Roberta che è un’insegnante di sostegno, che ha visto in me capacità e quindi mi ha aiutato. Una insegnante piena di comprensione, tenerezza e determinazione.

Sean, Australia

Sean, Australia

The day after my son Sean was born, my mother-in-law (undoubtedly a force of nature!) said to me: “I have called the Down Syndrome Association and he can go to a regular school you know”. At that stage, our precious baby boy was barely clinging to life in the neonatal intensive care unit so I thought she was getting a little ahead of herself.

Magdalena, Francia

Magdalena, Francia

Bonjour! je m’appelle Élodie, je suis française, maintenant nantaise et surtout bretonne.
Je suis aussi maman de 3 enfants arrivés dans mon cœur et tombés dans mes bras via l’adoption avec leur petit chromosome en +!
Il y a 10 ans pour mon aîné, 7 ans pour ma fille et 5 ans pour mon petit dernier.”

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