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Segregation, integration, inclusion: what is the history of educating children with special needs?

Serge Thomazet, a researcher and specialist on the subject of educating special needs children, has worked for a long time in Quebec (Canada) and then at the university of Clermond-Ferrand in France. His writings1 and talks2 have helped to clarify the stakes involved with each of these options. To begin, a brief historical review will enable us to better understand the reasons for the emergence of the term “inclusion” and the advantages of adopting it.

Looking back at three periods: segregative, integrative and inclusive

A hundred years ago, in most parts of the world, children showing any major peculiarities were not sent to school at all and were, in general, excluded from society. In France or in Switzerland, in the 20th century, specialized institutions like IME (Institut Medico Educatif) or CMP (Centre Medico Pedagogique) were progressively developed and offered children learning conditions which were adapted to whatever handicap they might have. Although the idea behind the development of such options came with good intentions, it still meant, for these young people, a situation of segration, relegating them to the margins of society.


Picture of the So'Lille association :

Beginning in the 1970s there was a new policy adopted for assuring the education of these young people. It was decided to integrate them in ordinary schools, to “mainstream” them in subjects where they were able to follow the subjects and then to add special education classes to respond to their added needs. But this plan had its limits. It was asking the child to adapt to the school rather than having the school adapt to the child so that, when the child couldn't follow what was being taught in the class, he or she was taken out of the class, and this had significant negative effects. (Will, 1985)

In most European countries, following the publication of reports from UNESCO which maintained the right of handicapped people to actively participate in social life (conference of Salamanca, 1994), this concept of integration has permitted more handicapped children to be included in normal schools. However, even if simple adaptations were possible to compensate for sensory or motor problems and allow children to follow normal schooling, it was not so easy for children who were mentally retarded or who had problems like autism, or else behavioral problems. In such cases integration was limited to things like recess and lunch time, or even a simple integration in the same building but in a separate classroom.

collectif inclusion scolaire

With inclusion, everyone benefits from what he or she needs.

Picture of Collective for inclusive schooling :

Faced with the limits of both integration and segregation, American specialists returned to their debates about the efficacy of the different options for special education. From these discussions there emerged a new concept of integration called inclusive education or inclusive schools. This involved the integration of young people with special learning needs into normal schools, without taking them out of the classroom (except in very exceptional situations), but by setting up teaching experiences adapted to all of the children, whatever their needs.

In this way, over the past ten years, a movement has been growing in the West which asks schools to make a bit more of an effort to accommodate children with special needs. The inclusive school proposes individualized teaching strategies, carried out in the normal class setting in order to respond to the needs of all children « be they normal, gifted, part of an athletic elite, artists or in some way handicapped. » (DIP, 2015)3. This makes it, over and above being a pedagogical strategy, a new way to look at life in our society. This model aims to include each individual, with whatever makes him or her special, in what is truly a school for everyone.


1 THOMAZET Serge (2008), « L’intégration a des limites, pas l’école inclusive ! ». Revue des sciences de l’éducation, volume 34, numéro 1, p. 123-139.

2 THOMAZET Serge (2015), « L’école inclusive, des mots aux actes ». Journée de travail et d’échanges « Sur le chemin de l’école inclusive ». 21/11/2015, Genève, DIP.

3 Commission consultative transitoire de l’Ecole Inclusive (2015), « Séance introductive du lundi 5 octobre 2015). Genève, DIP.