The Illusion of Full Inclusion is a series of essays about inclusion edited by James M. Kauffman and Daniel P. Hallahan. In it, Kenneth A. Kavale and Steven R. Forness wrote History, Rhetoric and Reality: Analysis of the Inclusion Debate. As I have read this book one rationale for full inclusion has appeared over and over- improving social acceptance of people with disabilities. The authors paraphrase a great deal of research saying that "findings generally revealed a tendency toward more tolerance with increased contact" (p. 247). We hear many heartwarming stories about people with disabilities achieving social heights such as prom king or a cheerleader prom queen. These stories hit the news with splash and we can say, "Look at what good inclusion has done for these wonderful kids." We are depressed when stories about bullying of similar students hit the news. When the boy with autism invites his whole class to his birthday and no one shows up, we celebrate the community efforts to try and rectify the wrong. Unfortunately as the authors point out, research suggests that "simple contact with students with disabilities does not in itself result in more favorable attitudes and improved social acceptance" (p. 254).
Peers may tolerate the student with disabilities. They may countenance the idiosyncrasies that a child may have, but that does not mean they will accept him. My experience with my son bears this out. He was fully included for most of his education. Everyone in school knew him. They would say hi and he sometimes responded. Some would look out for him, let him sit with them for lunch and not tease him. No one invited him to a play date or birthday party. He never received a phone call from a peer. My son's teachers insisted he had many friends at school, but he could not name most of his classmates. There were other students with disabilities who were not tolerated by their peers. They were bullied, teased and left out. Merely being in the classroom and not treated badly does not mean you have friends.
Justifying inclusion on the basis of social acceptance is ridiculous. This is especially true of students who exhibit negative and/or socially unacceptable behavior. If you think back to your childhood, you will remember knowing who were the class brains and the class dunces. We did not have formal labels for these kids, but we know who was strong and who was weak at all manner of activities. To think that kids will not discern differences because they are in the same room is also misguided. Kids will know. We need to teach them that those differences are part of the human condition. That people have different strengths and weaknesses. That humans are valuable for the sake of being human. We can teach how to treat people, but tolerance should not be mistaken for friendship.
Yes, some students with disabilities will be friends of peers without disabilities, but just putting them in the same room will not make it so. We can facilitate acceptance and friendship but cannot require it. We cannot say that one setting is right for all people anymore than we can say that we will be friends with everyone we work with. Kavale and Forness have it right that any program that puts all students in one setting is misguided. These decisions need to be made on a case by case basis with input from parents, school staff and children. We need to not present parents with a Pollyannish view of inclusion. There are costs and benefits to it. Some students will thrive around typical peers, others will not. Peers may not become friends with those with disabilities. Some will. Some will see these students with differences as targets. Some will defend them. Others will simply ignore them.