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Introduction

One critical shift in the developments that have been taking place in the field of education is the movement from special education for students with disabilities to the emphasis on the creation of inclusive learning environments. Special education emphasizes the fact that students with disabilities possess physical, psychological, mental, or sociological attributes that are different from the normal students.

The needs of students with disabilities can, therefore, be best attended to by virtue of placing them in a separate learning environment (Molnar, 2008). However, this is subject to criticism, one of the arguments being that it promotes social gaps between the normal students and the disabled students.

This mainly happens when these students are pictured from the social relations that are developed and fostered by society. The other thing is that the enhancement of collective learning environments, also known as the inclusive classes, promotes the ability of the disabled students to learn through the acquisition of communication attributes from the normal students.

Various explanations are brought about by the proponents of inclusion for students with disabilities. The justification for inclusive learning for students with disabilities lies in the various learning models that have been developed to support the functionality of inclusion.

It is important to conduct an inquiry into the prospects and aspects of learning in inclusive learning through a critical analysis of the history and developments in inclusive learning to present a clear picture of inclusion for students with disabilities in the contemporary learning environment.

The paper argues that inclusion can only attain most of its objectives when the models of inclusion are standardized to capture the diverse needs of disabled students.

The paper is divided into four main parts in order to present a broad analysis of the subject matter under study. The first part of the paper seeks to develop an understanding of inclusion as it is related to students with disabilities in the field of education.

This part is critical because it brings out the various aspects of variation in reference to the students with disabilities and the normal students and how these variations are captured in the collective learning environment. This part also brings out a number of critical terms and issues that are subjected to analysis in the paper later.

The second part of the paper explores the history of inclusion for students with disabilities. The aim here is to explain the critical developments in the whole issue of inclusion for students with disabilities. In this part, the paper presents the factors that have promoted the subject of inclusion over the years, as well as the hitches in the development and embrace of inclusion for students with disabilities.

The third part of the paper is quite extensive in that it critically analyzes the facts and issues that come out in inclusive learning. This part mainly presents an in-depth analysis of the developments in inclusion and learning for students with disabilities as featured in the broader field of education. The last part of the paper presents policy recommendations and conclusions that are based on the critical analysis of the facts and issues in the third party.

The paper is guided by the following three questions in the exploration of the critical issues in inclusion and learning for students with disabilities: What is inclusion, and how does it cater to the needs of learning for students with disabilities?

When did the issue of inclusion for students with disabilities emerge, and how has it shaped the developments in the field of special education? What achievements have been attained so far in inclusion for students with disabilities, and what are the issues that present as challenges to inclusion and learning for students with disabilities?

Comprehending inclusion and learning for students with disabilities in the field of education

Understanding the inclusion and aspects of learning in the field of education

Pring (2002) observes that most researchers in the field of education have been focusing on the development of important facts that could help to change the field of education the way it was constituted. A lot of emphasis on educational research in the modern times is placed on the diagnostic attributes to make education responsive to the problems that prevail within the sector itself and in the wider society in which the institutions of education prevail.

In this sense, inclusion can be taken as one of the diagnostic and prescriptive aspects that feature in the education sector in contemporary times. Mahn (1999) observes that the creation of gaps in the education sector has been facilitated by the separation of facts when it comes to an understanding of the children with mental disabilities and normal students.

Odom et al. (n.d.) indicate that a standard definition of inclusion is yet to be attained. According to Molnar (2008), inclusion means the efforts to create schools that can meet the needs of normal students and disabled students as well. Such schools are established through the creation of learning communities for all students.

The rationale behind the creation of learning communities is that they aid in dissolving the learning differences and needs between the normal students and the students who are disabled, also called the students with special needs when referring to special education. Inclusion, when applied in the field of education, is a term that means the placement of students with disabilities in general classrooms.

Kavale and Forness (2000) observe that the debate about inclusion is one of the parameters that have been used to criticize special education. Inclusion is seen as one of the most desirable ways of promoting learning and socialization competencies for students with disabilities, given that special education is considered as an aspect of total exclusion for children with disabilities in the education sector (Kavale & Forness, 2000).

D’Alessio (2011) observes that inclusion is the most vital principle in addressing issues of diversity and equality in education. The principle is essential because of the tremendous support from the stakeholders in the field of education, like governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Therefore, inclusive education does not only focus on the students who have or who are perceived to have special needs but it also largely focuses on bridging the issue of diversity through the promotion of a collective learning environment (Werts et al., 1996).

According to Kuhn (1996), the world is moving towards the development of a scientific community where learning is based on the observation of the works of other people. In the same way, structuring education by promoting a learning environment that incorporates the normal and the disabled students promotes learning competencies for the disabled students by virtue of observing the normal students.

The term inclusion can be best understood by looking at special education. Special education is a term that has been used in the field of education for a relatively extended period. In a nutshell, special education implies the educational techniques and standards that meet the needs of the students with disabilities. Thus, it can be argued that special education is the opposite of inclusion.

While special education insists on crafting exclusive learning environments for students with disabilities, inclusion embraces the placement of these students in the regular learning environment. A regular learning environment here refers to a learning environment that is highly comprised of students presumed to be normal; that is, students with no attributes of disability (Kavale & Forness, 2000).

Therefore, inclusion means the combination of students with disabilities with students without disabilities in the same learning environment or schools. Inclusion, therefore, negates the creation of separate schools for students with disabilities by insisting on the possibility of these students learning within the regular environment.

However, the critical concern here is about the possibility of the students with disabilities abandoning the features of learning in the realms of special education environment and the adoption of the systems or models of learning that are used in the regular learning environment (Molnar 2008).

Therefore, inclusion is a kind of a scientific model that is being used by specialists in the education to solve the gaps in learning competencies between the normal and the disabled students (Kuhn, 1996).

Students with disabilities portray higher abilities to communicate and learn when placed in regular or general classrooms because they are influenced positively by the skills and competencies of the normal students. This is better understood by exploring the peer mechanisms of learning that are incorporated into the inclusive models of learning in general learning environments (McLeskey & Waldron, 2006).

All aspects of interaction in the society promote learning; therefore, limiting interaction through the creation of structural barriers such as the development of special schools and special education is a limiting factor as far as the promotion of the learning abilities of the students with disabilities is concerned. When pictured from the broader society, learning is a continuous process.

This implies that learning goes far beyond the aspects of interaction in the classroom. Inclusion helps in bridging the social gaps that are evident between the disabled students and the normal students. These social gaps are promoted by the exclusion of the students with disabilities by placing them in separate or special learning environments that limit the contact between the two groups of students.

This exclusion enhances the development of negative perceptions of normal students about disabled students. This, in turn, creates a larger gap when it comes to communication and interaction between these sets of students. Placing children with disabilities in collective classrooms gives them a chance to improve their interaction capabilities by virtue of aping what is done by normal students.

On the other hand, the normal students familiarize themselves with the interactive attributes of the disabled students, thereby neutralizing the negative perceptions of students with disabilities. The creation of collective learning communities eliminates incidences of discrimination for students with disabilities (Molnar, 2008).

Learning abilities and the characteristics of the students with disabilities

To begin with, it is critical to understand that disability is broadly categorized into two; physical disability and mental disability. Physical disability encompasses a number of physical deformities that make it hard for students to portray the normal attributes of interaction with such students.

Persons with physical disabilities include the deaf, dumb, lame, blind, and amputated students, among other physically deformed students. On the other hand, the mentally disabled students are those students who suffer from brain development and functioning related disorders that impair their normal reasoning and functionality. Mental disabilities can also be caused by other factors like accidents and abrupt changes in environmental stimuli.

They include epilepsy, Asperger’s syndrome, and autism, among many other mental ailments. Looking at this from a broader perspective, it can be noted that special needs accrue from the difficulties in functioning that are posed by the ailments that these students suffer from. According to Molnar (2008), students with disabilities portray heterogeneity in terms of their habits, a factor that may be critical in the development of inclusive learning.

Another thing that comes out here is the complexity of inclusion, bearing in mind the wide range of differences in behavior and communication between the normal students and the disabled students. Students with physical disabilities portray some difficulties in learning, which may be different from the difficulties in learning that are portrayed by the students who are mentally challenged.

While the mentally disabled students portray antisocial and asocial forms of behaviors that are abnormal, the students who are physically challenged exhibit difficulties in learning due to their physical make-up. Again, this raises the question of whether inclusion combines the students with physical and mental disabilities in the same inclusive classrooms.

The concern here is about the possibility of capturing the different challenges that are exhibited by the different categories of disabilities, which denote differences in the needs of learning in such an environment. Addressing the issue of ability and capacity to learn as depicted by collective learning requires a deeper look.

The different aspects of variation in character and behavior are given attention by the developers of inclusive learning environments for students with disabilities. However, research shows that inclusive learning for students with disabilities pays attention to the wide range of differences in both the physical and mental attributes.

Planning for the establishment of inclusive learning centers involves the assessment of the disabled students who are to be incorporated into the collective learning environment (Molnar, 2008).

Critical developments in the inclusion of students with disabilities

The rates of development in the field of education and the paying of attention to the question and issues of inclusion and learning for children with disabilities vary with countries. According to Molnar (2008), the debate about inclusion for children with disabilities can be traced back to the last quarter of the 20th century when education was given attention as the main contributing factor in development.

Molnar (2008) brings out 1975 as the year when the inclusion debate in the field of education begun gaining momentum with the establishment of the Individual with Disabilities Act. The Act reiterated the need and duty to develop a learning environment that was less restrictive for students with disabilities.

It follows that this Act was meant to curb the enlarging gap in the learning environment, which seemed to separate the disabled students from the normal students and promoting the discriminatory act against the students with special needs in the society.

Therefore, inclusive learning is being incorporated in the education sector at different levels. However, the emphasis made by the proponents of complete inclusive learning for students with disabilities is an indicator that the levels of inclusion for the students with disabilities vary with the different learning environments in which inclusive programs are being rolled out.

What comes out here is that the genesis of the debate about the need for inclusion when it comes to students with disabilities begun with the focus on discriminatory aspects for children with disabilities. However, the debate has broadened with time due to the deployment of more research in the field (Kavale, 2000).

The contemporary developments in the debate denote the wider consideration of differences in behaviors between the students with disabilities and the normal students and the importance of placing the students with disabilities in general classrooms apart from the social aspect of discrimination.

Research has kept pointing to the increase in the learning competency of the students with disabilities when they are placed in regular classrooms, rather than their placement in exclusive learning environments (Salend & Duhaney, 1999; Pring, 2004).

According to Kavale and Forness (2000), the developments in the 1980s saw the efforts directed towards the institutionalization of inclusion through the development of critical structures that were meant to see the incorporation of students with disabilities in the regular education environment.

Until the end of the 20th century, most of the effort to embrace integration had been directed at bridging the gaps created through the developing and creating emphasis on special education as the best intervention mechanism for students with disabilities.

The last quarter of the 20th century was marked by logical arguments, the search for a clear definition and standardization of inclusion, and empirical verifications on the wider issue of creating inclusive environments and making a distinction between special education and inclusion as a modality of learning for students with disabilities.

However, other researchers view the issue of addressing the needs of students with disabilities through their placement in general classrooms as a moral subject that does not require justification based on the empirical stance.

These researchers insist on the development of inclusion for students with disabilities as long as it aids in eliminating the aspects of exclusion for such students as promoted by advocates of special education (Cook, Semmel & Gerber, 1999).

According to Pring (2004), empirical inquiries have dominated research in the field of education for an extended period. Thus, inclusion is an extension of the level at which empirical research is shaping the field of education, especially the broader look into education from the perspective of sociology and psychology.

A deeper look into special education reveals that it was developed as a substitute for general education in public schools because of the increase in cases of disabilities and the press for the rights to education among children with disabilities in society. Special education was pegged on special classes, which meant the availing of special competencies and tools to serve the students with disabilities.

Special education was also designed to help maintain a favorable or conflict-free environment for students with special needs (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1994). Thus, the change of focus from special education to the emphasis on inclusive learning for students with disabilities can be likened to the systematic research in the field of special education and the critique and improvement of the theories of learning (Pring, 2004).

According to Kavale (2000), the special class was deemed to be advantageous because of the low ratio of teachers to pupils, homogeneity, and individualization of instructions within classrooms, the greater expenditure of time and other resources per student, and the availing of teachers with special skills to handle the disabilities.

However, in the 1960s, questions were raised about the placement of the disabled students in a separate environment as portrayed by the special classes designed through the special education program. Volatile debates followed the questioning of alternative placement.

The debates sought justifications for the development of special classes for disabled students. However, such debates were flat in that they did not incorporate a scholarly rigor that would be critical in providing empirical support either for or against the alternative placement of students with disabilities (Kavale, 2000).

According to Kavale (2000), the debates were critical such that they invited a scholarly exploration of the issue of separating the learning environments between the disabled and the normal students and the impacts of such a practice on the disabled students and the normal students as well.

In other words, the scholarly works were expansive in nature and approached the issue from the broader perspective, rather than confining the subject to the field of education.

The focus was on the best way of serving students with disabilities in the field of education. It is critical to mention the passing of another important law in 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which was later referred to as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

As mentioned earlier in the paper, the law emphasized the provision of education for disabled students to meet their unique needs (Kavale, 2000). Education in the better part of the 20th century was centered on intellectualism and the development of the skills that were required for the development of the society.

Thus, the separation of students with disabilities was seen as a quick way of developing skills and competencies required in the industry (Toulmin, 2001). However, empirical research later pointed to the need to look at education not only from the economic perspective but also from the sociological perspective. This led to the consideration of inclusion (Pring, 2004).

Placing children with disabilities in a less restrictive environment as posed by the special schools was the priority of many schools. The challenge here was how to design the least restrictive learning environment possible. The implementation of the proposal to establish less restrictive learning environments for disabled students was based on the principle of incorporating disabled students in general classrooms.

The balance between incorporating the disabled students in general classrooms and giving them all the attention they needed to remain critical even as more schools began to embrace inclusion. However, the challenges of attaining fully functional inclusive learning environments began here as an issue of mainstreaming within the inclusive learning environment emerged.

Besides, the issue of mainstreaming was the issue of integrating the teaching needs of normal students with the diverse and complex teaching needs of the disabled students. According to Kavale (2002), the development of inclusion in the United States was based on the issue of mainstreaming along the lines of disability. The subject of inclusion was advanced based on three critical things: research, litigation, and legislation.

The three have been critical in the development of a policy framework in the education sector of the United States. The policy is aimed at ensuring that issues of mainstreaming are totally addressed through the establishment of a fully furnished inclusive atmosphere in the education sector (Odom et al., n.d.).

The idea of special classes under the special education initiative in the education sector seemed to work well until the later years of the 20th century. However, criticisms were raised about the ability of the education sector to embrace universality in the provision of special education (Meyer & Rose, 2000).

This meant that attention had to be paid to the special education system that seemed to embrace a system of learning that was slightly different from the learning system that was used in the discharge of general education (Kavale & Forness, 2000). One critical issue in the development of special education in the 21st century lies in confusion about the real meaning of inclusion, where inclusion is taken by a number of stakeholders as a new term for special needs.

This justifies the continued presence and maintenance of segregated settings of learning, irrespective of the formulation of policies of inclusion for children with disabilities. However, this could also be a pointer to the difficulty in crafting inclusive learning environments, given the complexities that underlie the development of highly inclusive learning environments (D’Alessio, 2011).

Critical analysis of the developments and issues in inclusive learning for the disabled students

Critical facts and issues about inclusion

Inclusion, when looked at from the broader sense, is a complex exercise. The complexity comes from the fact that designing inclusive learning environments requires the complete consideration of all aspects of variation in the behavioral and physical attributes of the disabled students when placing them in inclusive learning environments.

The most important consideration in the development of an inclusive learning environment is ensuring that care for both groups of students is attained. A caring attitude in such a social setting is critical for molding behavior (Toulmin, 2001). An example is the School Transformation Program that was developed in South Africa to help in bridging the gaps in the education sector that had been brought about by the apartheid regime.

The program utilized what is referred to as practice-based inquiry as a way of ensuring that all the critical issues appertaining to personal, professional, as well as institutional development, were addressed. Similarly, the practice-based inquiry is critical when it comes to the development and enforcement of inclusion in education across the globe.

Incorporating the students with disabilities in regular classrooms brings about a lot of issues of adjustment in the education environment. These issues can only be addressed by embracing a deeper look into the challenges from the personal level (the students and the individual tutors) to the institutional level; that is, the structures that are critical when it comes to addressing the challenges of integration and continued development for all students (Lawrence, 2007).

Lawrence (2007) observes that the introduction of change in the education environment, which is largely social in nature, is a complex exercise. One concern that is raised about the enhancement of a new system of education that incorporates the disabled students and the normal students in a general learning environment is the ability to withstand the challenges that have been present in general education and special education.

Inclusion furthers the complexity of the educational environment by integrating the challenges that are inherent in the general learning environment with the challenges that are inherent in the special education environment in that these challenges have to be managed in one environment.

According to Ulich (1999), learning is a complex issue and can be further complicated when the needs of the learners are not captured. Therefore, one of the main objectives of inclusion should be to capture and address the needs of all the learners.

Challenges of developing and implementing inclusive learning programs

According to Soto, MĂĽller, Hunt, and Goetz (2001), the development of inclusive learning programs is highly inhibited by several factors. These factors are spread throughout the entire programs as exhibited by the findings of their research.

Moreover, the factors are generated from the development of such programs, as well as the targets of the programs. One of the factors that have prevailed in the realms of developing inclusive learning that, perhaps, enhances the complexity of attaining efficient and fully functional inclusive learning environments for students with disabilities is the attitude.

Research reveals that attitude, which combines a wide range of factors, is a critical factor when it comes to the development and implementation of inclusive programs.

Aspects of attitude that are inherent in the development of inclusive learning programs for the disabled students include low morale, the fear that such programs can fail, discomfort with the disability, personal insecurity, and the failure to pay attention to the contributions that are made by different stakeholders (Soto et al. 2001).

Soto et al. (2001) observe that technological impediments are inherent in the inclusive learning environment where technological equipment is deployed to facilitate inclusion. Among these impediments are the failures of the technology and the limits of the technology when it comes to the relay of psychological attributes like humor and anger, among other vital aspects of learning in such an environment.

Technology deployment in the inclusive learning environment also requires skills and competencies that may be largely absent among the people who are supposed to enforce the programs.

According to Salend and Duhaney (1999), the inclusive learning environment that has been so far developed depicts a mixture of results because of the complexities that are associated with the learners and the teachers. However, the varied range from one intervention mechanism to the other means that there are mechanisms that are working and those that are not workable.

Cook, Semmel, and Gerber (1999) ascertain that the difficulties of attaining fully functional inclusive learning classes for disabled students begin with the challenge of identifying and rating the different levels of disability among disabled students.

The most important question here concerns how the special classes can be constituted owing to the fact that the disabled students may portray variations in their physical and mental attributes. Can students with mild disabilities be treated differently when designing inclusive programs? This concern is highly pegged on other critical issues as far as the advancement of inclusion in the field of education is concerned.

These are the issues of attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions. Most of the challenges of establishing workable education programs under inclusion are pegged on these issues. However, research denotes that it is quite daunting to address the pressure that is generated from these issues when implementing inclusion for the students with disabilities (Cook, Semmel & Gerber, 1999; Kavale, 2000).

According to Kavale (2000), attitudes and beliefs on the issue of inclusion are mostly generated from the trainers or teachers. The same observation is shared by Cook, Semmel, and Gerber (1999), who observe that it is difficult to measure and shape the attitudes of the teachers. Most times, these attitudes are reflected in the outcomes of inclusive programs.

Attitudes towards full inclusion vary, thereby affecting the implementation of inclusion programs. The variation in attitudes implies variations in the level of support for inclusion by the teachers, thereby depicting the difficulty of sustaining inclusion.

This is cited as one of the reasons why it is extremely difficult to mold an environment that fully supports inclusion. Variations in attitudes also imply variations in the level of commitment from the teachers, which in turn points to a lower degree of success for inclusion.

According to National Center to Inform Policy and Practice in Special Education Professional Development (2010), there is a high level of uncertainty among teachers when it comes to the complement placement of disabled children in general classrooms.

Placing the children with disabilities in the collective learning environment denotes extra duties and tasks for the teachers. This is depicted by the development of a wide range of instructional methods that can be used to fulfill the goals of learning in inclusive classrooms. This may require extra coaching and support for the teachers so that they can deliver under given models of learning under inclusion.

According to Whitehead (1967), the exchange of ideas, which is the key goal of education and learning, can only be attained through the emphasis on certain aspects of human development, like perceptions, hopes, desires, and feelings. The interplay is more evident when it is applied to the inclusive learning environment that combines a lot of psychological and social factors, all of which have to be addressed.

The variation in the mental and physical attributes of students in an inclusive learning environment makes it hard to impart knowledge on the side of the teachers who have to keep adjusting to the mental issues that are common when the disabled students are placed in a regular learning environment. The construction of knowledge for students in the classroom setup is generated from the teachers.

Therefore, the readiness of the teachers, as explained in the social constructivism model that was developed by Vygotsky can play a profound role in the development of a suitable curriculum to help all the students to grasp the content in general classrooms (Gerber, 1994). The modern environment in the field of education depicts a picture where there is a separation of developmental aspects when it comes to children with disabilities (Elkind, 1997).

Policy recommendations and conclusions about inclusive learning for students with disabilities

Pegged on the historical analysis of inclusion in the paper, it is worthwhile to argue that the subject of inclusion for children with disabilities was developed from the weaknesses that were inherent in the field of special education.

Inclusion sought to address the needs of the children with disabilities by focusing on the broader educational environment as opposed to special education that majorly focused on aspects of disability and how they portrayed divergence in needs between the normal students in the general learning environment and the disabled students.

From the analysis conducted in the paper, it is apparent that inclusion is desirable in bridging most of the gaps that are created between the normal students and the disabled students. However, as it appears, inclusion is faced with a wide array of challenges, especially when it comes to the development of completely inclusive learning environments.

According to Lawrence (2007), practice-based inquiry techniques can be deployed in the development of a complex learning system. Inclusion is a complex learning system that integrates different needs and behaviors, all of which have to be attended to ensure the success of the program. Practice-based inquiry entails the development of action plans.

This involves a higher level of integration among the participants, in this case, those who advocate for the development of a fully inclusive learning environment. This encourages the exchange of knowledge based on observation and critical thinking to address most of the issues of variability in inclusive learning through the development of effective learning models.

Just as it is reflected in the field of scientific revolution by Kuhn (1996), the presentation of facts and justifications should be based on principles and the justification of issues based on the principles. Here, a lot of attention is paid to the analogy of the critical facts behind the development of principles that act as the main basis on which the functioning of the entire invention works can be improved.

This also needs to be applied in the field of education, especially in the search for the mechanisms of attaining a fully functional learning environment with respect to inclusion.

Attention has to be paid to the foundational principles of inclusion that can then make it easy for the stakeholders in the field of education to assess the key attributes of inclusion. This can help in the development of effective mechanisms that can form the basis for addressing the hitches that prevail in any stage of inclusion (Kavale, 2002).

According to National Center to Inform Policy and Practice in Special Education Professional Development (2010), most of the gaps that prevail in the field of inclusive education for children with disabilities can only be dealt with by encouraging collaboration.

Institutions of higher education that have courses that appertain to disabilities and mainstreaming can partner with other stakeholders to address the challenges of inclusion from the root cause. Historical developments of inclusion depict haphazardness in the development of inclusive policies in the field of education.

The partnership between institutions helps to bring out all the critical challenges of enforcing inclusive policies. The policies can then be subjected to empirical research, whose findings should be incorporated in the policy environment.

According to Mahn (1999), the development of a fully inclusive learning environment in the education sector can be attained through the consideration of interaction attributes when it comes to the exploration of the physical, mental, and social aspects of the students with disabilities and those students without the disabilities.

Human beings have to be seen as human beings and not as disabled and normal as enhanced by special education. This is important in reducing the gaps that enhance the development of attitudes and perceptions about disabled children when placed in general classrooms.

The historical developments denote that there are a lot of changes in the field of education where empirical research largely guides the development of an inclusive learning environment for students with disabilities. Most of the efforts in the embrace of inclusion, depending on the models of learning, denote the diversion of most of the efforts on bridging the social gaps, thereby promoting understanding and high integration in the inclusive learning environment.

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