January 8, 2019

Trends in Childhood Disability Inclusion

A few years ago, I presented at the first annual YMCA Inclusion Summit in San Antonio, TX. The event took place at Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first ultra-accessible family fun park, and was hosted by The YMCA of Greater San Antonio. My presentation focused on inclusive design strategies, told through the story of the Mary Free Bed YMCA.

The summit's keynote speaker was Torrie Dunlap, CEO of KIT (Kids Included Together). Ms. Dunlap talked about the top five trends in childhood disability inclusion that have surfaced from an extensive research program. KIT is leading the field in disability inclusion and behavior support through work with more than 543 organizations in the United States, Europe, Asia and Canada. I found the information insightful and very relevant to the Universal Design work we'd been doing. Below is a summary of a few of the key points from her presentation:

Inclusion as an umbrella term

Inclusion has evolved into an umbrella term for embracing diversity across the full spectrum of human differences. How can we ensure disability is a part of the larger diversity, equity and inclusion conversation? The most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 95% of students with disabilities were served in regular schools in 2013. While we are moving in the right direction, we are still struggling to move away from a system built to serve students with disabilities in separate settings. Despite increased research and federal investments to serve students in general education, students with significant disabilities are still most often served in separate classrooms and schools.


Intersectionality is a way to acknowledge how disability intersects with a person’s other identity lenses such as race, gender identity and sexual orientation. Disability identities morph from one context to another depending on how individuals experience them and how people in different settings engage with them. In lockstep with an expanded meaning of inclusion is a growing recognition of people as multi-faceted, and sometimes multi-oppressed beings. Are there differences in how children experience our program or school based on their identity lens or disability? As intersectionality becomes part of the mainstream conversation in 2019, spend time thinking through the complexities of how identities interact and impact the children and youth in your community.

Reducing expulsion among rising behavior issues

What can we do to rise to the challenge of supporting children with increasingly complex needs in our schools and programs? In a national survey of over 20,000 teachers, 99% reported including students who need assistance or intervention for social, emotional, or behavioral challenges in their classrooms (compared to 72% who indicated that they included students with disabilities). Out of over 1700 calls to KIT’s Inclusion Support Center, over 75% were related to behavior over the last two years.

Emphasis on social-emotional learning

More than one out of every five students report being bullied and children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their able-bodied peers. Do we have a coordinated approach to social-emotional learning? How can we learn from other programs in our community supporting social-emotional skills? One increasingly popular approach is the 7Cs model, in which confidence, competence, connection, character, contribution, coping, and control are recognized as the assets and circumstances a young person needs for optimal development and resilience.

“Special needs” is a euphemism

Euphemisms, or expressions used in place of words considered unpleasant, abound in the field of disability. The term “special needs” is well-intended and often used by parents of children with disabilities. It is also widely viewed as patronizing, offensive, and stigmatizing by the disability community. The phrase “special needs” has recently been determined ineffective by researchers at the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison and Kansas, who found the phrase to be associated with more negativity and to evoke more unanswered questions than “disability.” Many disability rights groups are calling for us to use the words they identify with rather than words that reinforce stigma. #SayTheWord is a social media campaign started by disability rights activist Lawrence Carter-Long to raise awareness and get people to say the word disabled.

Impacting trends through Universal Design

How can Universal Design strategies applied to the built environment positively impact these trends? As a start, designers need to be aware of current childhood disability inclusion trends and their intersection with Universal Design as an innovative way of thinking. Only then can they create inclusive environments where all children feel embraced and accepted. Universal Design has much to contribute to solving social problems in which usability, health and wellness, safety, and social participation play a major role in design response.

Based on the seven principles of Universal Design, the Global Universal Design Commission has created strategies for the built environment. These have become a framework, recognizing the context in which design takes place rather than imposing an absolute standard to every situation. In short, Universal Design has the potential to make life easier, healthier, and friendlier and requires continuous improvement toward the ultimate goal of full inclusion.

Our clients who are implementing Universal Design strategies see it ultimately as an organizational benefit. Leadership within public and private organizations today are recognizing the importance of designing for diversity in creating inclusive places. They also realize that executing a skillfully designed environment allows individuals and teams to flourish by eliminating physical and social barriers. And finally, Universal Design improves safety measures by minimizing hazards that lead to accidents, lost productivity and related expenses.

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