A Harvard graduate speaks: For inclusion to work education systems need to change


Simply allowing special needs students to sit in classrooms with typical students is not inclusion. Forcing students to change who they are, in order to “fit in” with the typical students, does not make an inclusive classroom. 

By Nina Fiore


If schools want to support the success of all children, then the education industry needs to drastically change how they view children.  Instead of seeking to test, sort, and diagnose everyone, educators need to see all children as a mix of strengths and weaknesses.  As humans, we are all a varying mix of strengths and weaknesses.  Children are no different, regardless of a diagnosis.  For schools to be inclusive, supportive, and thereby effective, all children should have their strengths fostered and encouraged, and their weaknesses supported.  Until that becomes the prevailing view in education, schools will continue to fail a great many children, especially those with special needs.

Currently, the education industry believes that special needs children cannot learn, cannot be taught, and that there is little need to bother teaching them.  Most special education master’s programs do little to make sure their graduating teachers know how to teach and focus mostly on behavior management. The resulting belief that special education students cannot learn age-appropriate subject matter is so deeply ingrained that it is very hard to convince most who come out of that industry otherwise.  This is a truly sad situation for special needs students, many of whom, despite their special needs, are very bright, and capable of doing the same school work their typical peers are doing, with proper support and accommodations.

In order to change this around, the entire industry that has built itself up around special needs children – from schools, teachers, and therapists, to graduate schools of education, to developmental pediatricians, developmental psychiatrists, neurologists, and psychologists – needs to stop fixating on the “diagnosing” of children, shift away from this “culture of evaluation,”[1] and focus on providing the supports every individual child needs in order to succeed at age-appropriate learning.

Many special needs programs focus on “socialization” – on training special needs children to sit in on typical classes.  They consider this inclusion.  Many say that “academics come later.” Yet, how on earth can a child be included if he or she is treated unequally and if so little is expected of them that they aren’t even given the opportunity to try to do the same work that their typical peers are doing?

Also, technically, how can “academics come later?”  By the time most schools get around to academics with special needs students (if that even ever happens), the special needs students are already far behind their typical peers, not because they aren’t smart, but because their educations have been neglected for so many years.  A recent study at Columbia University shows that many nonverbal students can learn very well but are simply not being taught because schools greatly underestimate their intelligence based on their limited verbal skills[2]. (see more here)

Not being able to speak well, or at all, is a disability related to the processing and production of speech.  It is not a reflection of someone’s intelligence or lack thereof.  Just as educated people do not view people with physical disabilities or the blind or the deaf as intellectually inferior, they also should not view people with speech disabilities as intellectually inferior.  Yet that is sadly the norm, in schools, every single day.

Tests administered to determine academic potential in the early years are based on verbal responses and therefore completely inaccurate for nonverbal children.  Most of the IQ tests given to young children require verbal responses and even the tests with nonverbal responses require the child to follow verbal instructions.  They therefore equate speech processing and production ability with intelligence, when, in this population, that is completely incorrect.  Many have intelligence that far exceeds their ability to process and produce speech.  There are IQ tests created specifically for deaf children so that their intelligence is not underestimated due to their inability to hear and speak.  There are IQ tests created specifically for blind children so that their intelligence is not underestimated due to their inability to see, yet similar tests are NOT regularly administered to non-deaf, nonverbal children, so that their intelligence is not underestimated by their speech disability.  It makes little sense.

As a result, most schools do not teach age-appropriate academics to special needs students.  They focus mostly on “life skills” and “socialization.”  They say things like “We need to work on language-building first,” but then never get past that, since the disability is language. Even in the special education schools that say they do age-appropriate academics, and in the inclusive classrooms and inclusive schools, when it comes to the special needs students, the actual education they get is far from equal and inclusive[3].  While typical students are taught age-appropriate subjects, most schools often do not feel they need to teach the special needs students much, if anything, at all.  Legally, they only need to fulfill the goals on students’ IEPs, which are, in many instances, poorly-written, inaccurate, and not age-appropriate.  And often schools do not even meet the IEP needs. This is in no way an equal, inclusive, or appropriate education.

Sadly, due to the rampant underestimation of the intellectual abilities of children with diagnoses, especially nonverbal and mostly-nonverbal children diagnosed with Autism, most people in education often see a diagnosed child as nothing more than their diagnosis.  The child stops being fully human in their eyes once the diagnosis is made, and instead, becomes a list of symptoms and behaviors, a list of what supports he/she does/doesn’t get as per the school district, and a line item on a budget that the school district is continually seeking to shrink. A blog post by a typical middle school child about how poorly the staff and teachers behave towards the Autistic child in her supposedly-inclusive classroom is disturbing and eye-opening[4].  The staff clearly does not respect the child as an individual. They only see the diagnosis.

This negative attitude towards special needs children was quite prevalent in many of the schools we visited for our son.  When we were interviewing at an inclusion school, which claims to be focused on acceptance, respect, and equality, we spoke with one of the founding members of the school who had a special needs son in attendance there.  She told us that she loved the school because being around typical kids encouraged her son to try and “be a better person”.  She went on to explain that her son, “like many special needs kids, sometimes does things that annoy typical kids, but when the typical kids in his class call him out on that, it makes him work harder to not do those things in the future.”

When she said that, my heart sank. THIS was her idea of inclusion, respect, and acceptance?  Her son deserves to be understood, accepted and respected for who he is.   A truly inclusive environment would teach the other children in the class to understand, accept, and respect his differences, not force him to try and change his neurology to better “fit in.”

Simply allowing special needs students to sit in classrooms with typical students is not inclusion. Forcing students to change who they are, in order to “fit in” with the typical students, does not make an inclusive classroom.  Ignoring students’ academic potential because they need different supports is not inclusion.  A child should not be required to change who she/he is to be included in a school.  Schools need to change their views in order to fully accept, embrace, and equally educate all children.

For inclusion to be equal and truly inclusive, special needs students must be respected and accepted for who they are, and be given the accommodations and support needed to learn all of the same things typical children in the classroom are being taught and included in all of the same things the typical children in the classroom are included in.  Acceptance, understanding, respect, and equality are the only ways to move towards true inclusion in education.


This article was originally published as “Creating True Inclusion in Education” on the Creativity Post website.

Nina Fiore is a graduate from Harvard College and from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. After receiving her Masters, Nina worked at Harvard University and McLean Hospital, teaching graduate classes, counseling graduate students, editing an Academic Journal on Developmental Psychology, and serving as Communications Director for a Harvard-based non-profit that provides inclusive school counseling services to Boston Public Schools.


  • As a Special Education teacher and business owner, I applaud you! A more beautifully written and accurate article I cannot find. General Education teachers, as a whole I am sorry to say, are not prepared for our special needs students and when the opportunity is presented for training or classes to help the student succeed, all we hear is criticism and complaints. Personally, for me in my classroom, I MUST make all of my kids activities so they can read, write, and complete math problems in the best way that they can understand. I jump for joy when I see them being successful. Again, thank you for a beautifully written article.

    Debbie Singer

  • Nina says:

    Thanks so much, Debbie!! I appreciate that you appreciate it and that you “get it”! And I applaud all that you do! How children learn (all children) is so dependent on their relationships with their teachers and how much their teachers believe in them. I’m so glad you are so invested in your kids. It makes such a difference for them, for us as parents, for society in general. Nothing is more important, in my opinion. I wrote this after a long search for a school that would respect and teach my son while supporting his needs. We were so disappointed in what we found, we decided to homeschool (with the help of a special ed teacher at home). The whole system needs a major attitude overhaul to make it what we know it can and should be. Best wishes to you!

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