There was a time when students with disabilities were segregated in schools from student who did not have a disability. In 1975, Public Law 94-142 was established by Congress. That law required that all children be educated in “the least restrictive environment.” Now we hear the terms least restrictive environment, inclusion, and mainstreaming. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they do not mean the same thing.
Least restrictive environment refers to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, which replaced Public Law 94-142)) mandating that students with disabilities should be educated to the maximum extent appropriate with peers without disabilities. The least restrictive environment mandate ensures that schools educate students with disabilities in integrated settings, alongside students with and without disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate.
Inclusion refers to placement of students with disabilities in the general education classroom with peers without disabilities. The intent of inclusion was that students with disabilities would be educated in regular classrooms with no discrimination by the students, teachers, or administrators. Inclusion recognizes that students with disabilities do not need to be in the same classroom as students without disabilities if there is evidence that a student with a disability would benefit more when placed in self-contained classrooms. Inclusion doesn’t always mean someone who has a disability, it also refers to students who are performing above their class level (referred to as gifted students), and students who speak English as a second language.
Mainstreaming means moving a student out of special education self-contained classrooms (and pull-out programs) and putting the student in a “regular” classroom – in the “mainstream” of schooling (regular classrooms are considered mainstream).
IDEA requires that school districts have a range or continuum of alternative placement options to meet the individual needs of all students with disabilities, while making good faith efforts to place and maintain students in less restrictive settings.
Schools which systematically accept and support all students are better prepared to support students with disabilities. That means that communities and school systems need to consider all students as members of the school community and should be part of the input and decision making process with the support of the entire school community, including key administrators.