Terell Richards languished at the public middle school in Queens for students with severe disabilities that he attended a few years ago.
It wasn’t just that he found the work so easy he sometimes fell asleep in the back of the classroom, his sister, Kya, said. It was also that he felt so out of place he would sometimes dissolve into tears.
“Just crying and saying how much he just felt like he was in the wrong place and completely lost,” said Kya, who helped her brother, now 19 years old, switch to a private school for students with special needs.
Now, New York City — and districts across the country — have started sending more students like Terell into classrooms alongside their non-disabled peers. But while some research has shown students with disabilities can perform better in mixed-ability settings, a crucial concern has been whether the new environment makes students with disabilities actually feel less isolated and out-of-place.
A new first-of-its-kind study based on surveys of more than 250,000 New York City middle-school students between 2007 and 2012 tries to answer that question.
The study comes with some important caveats: The surveys are conducted annually by the education department, meaning they weren’t written by the study’s authors nor did they oversee how they were administered. Also, the survey period ended just as the city was beginning its major push to move most students with disabilities out of separate classrooms.
It finds that middle-school students with disabilities tend to feel welcomed in schools with non-disabled peers, though their experiences vary by their type of disability. But, more surprisingly, special-needs students in separate classes don’t feel more excluded.
The study, which was funded by the Spencer Foundation, is set to appear in the peer-reviewed journal, Educational Researcher. Here are three big takeaways:
Students with disabilities generally feel included in mainstream schools.
The study tracks whether students feel included at over 500 traditional schools by looking at how students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers responded to five questions from the city’s annual survey: whether students feel welcome at school, whether students with disabilities are included in school activities, if teachers know students’ names, whether students are bullied, and whether they see harassment.
Generally, students with disabilities reported slightly higher levels of inclusion in school activities than non-disabled students, and feel only marginally less welcomed — though they also reported slightly higher levels of bullying and harassment.
About 60 percent of students with special needs either agreed or strongly agreed that students with disabilities are included in all school activities, about two percentage points higher than non-disabled students. A slightly smaller share of special needs students felt welcomed at school compared to students without disabilities — though 92 percent said they felt welcomed. (The patterns are relatively consistent even when controlling for differences in student characteristics like gender, race, or socioeconomic status.)
Advocates said they were both surprised and encouraged by those findings.
“We do worry that in the hands of an unskilled teacher that kids will not necessarily feel welcomed and they’ll still be separated out and made to feel different” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children. “It’s pretty exciting to me to see that’s not necessarily true.”
Feelings of inclusion vary widely by disability type.
Although students with disabilities generally reported feeling about as included and welcomed as their peers, there are significant differences based on the type of disability a student has.
Those who were classified as having an “emotional disturbance” — often students who have significant behavioral problems — felt among the least included. They were about 4 percentage points less likely to report feeling welcome or included, compared to non-disabled students, and were also more likely to report harassment than students in any other disability category.
“The emotional disturbance kids are the ones who stand out in their classrooms,” said Leanna Stiefel, the study’s lead author and an economics professor at New York University, adding that they may feel less included because their disabilities are more difficult to hide.
But students with “low-incidence” disabilities such as multiple handicaps, autism, or intellectual disabilities reported more positive feelings than any other group. They were about 10 percentage points more likely than non-disabled peers to report that their schools include students with disabilities, and were slightly more likely to report feeling welcomed.
Students who are segregated based on ability don’t necessarily feel excluded.
Surprisingly, it made little difference whether students with disabilities were in “self-contained” classes — essentially classes comprised only of students with disabilities — or were in classrooms that included non-disabled peers: Both groups reported similar feelings of inclusion. (The findings don’t include students in District 75, a separate set of schools that are even less inclusive, since the schools themselves are only for students with disabilities.)
Moroff, the special education advocate, said the finding surprised her and noted it could reflect that students in more segregated settings aren’t necessarily aware of more inclusive models.
“It’s very possible there that there’s a level of interaction they’re not having,” Moroff said, “that they don’t even expect to be taking place.”