Torrie at SxSWedu!

Last week, our amazing CEO, Torrie Dunlap, spoke at South by Southwest’s education conference (SXSWedu) about the impact of inclusion and its growing capital in education and beyond. We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to partner with such an innovative and inspiring organization. Below, please read the transcript of Torrie’s talk at SXSWedu.

Transcript of the Future15 talk delivered by Torrie Dunlap, CEO of Kids Included Together at SXSWedu on March 8, 2016

You may have heard the phrase ‘growth industry’. The media has called solar power a growth industry; Cloud computing is a growth industry. Economists use that term to describe a sector of market that is experiencing a higher than average growth rate. Outside of business, a growth industry can also describe an interest or activity that is increasingly popular. So yoga is a growth industry; so is craft brewing (especially where I live in San Diego, and here in Austin). I’m going to add one more item to this list of growth industries….. inclusion. Inclusion is a growth industry.

What do I mean by inclusion? Inclusion is the attitude and mindset that welcomes and respects all children and families. It is the intentional process of ensuring that the programs, services and educational experiences we offer are welcoming and accessible to children of all abilities. Inclusion means that we are educating our students together, in the same classrooms as much as possible, with an individualized approach using concepts like Universal Design for Learning. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, first passed in 1975 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed into law in 1990, set the stage for inclusive practice, and now we see interest in inclusion picking up a lot of steam. Mindsets are starting to change, as society comes to recognize that our communities are stronger and richer when everyone is included. This has also fueled the growth of the business of inclusion, whether it is tech companies designing for a broader user base or the #ToysLikeMe campaign that has inspired companies to make dolls representing a variety of differences. The demand for inclusion has been increasing and has the potential for exponential growth.

I have argued in the past that inclusion is the right thing to do morally, and that negative attitudes toward disability have marginalized children, but today I want to concentrate on its growth and its potential for the future.

When I first discovered “inclusion” I was a drama teacher. It was in the 90s, and when a 10-year old with Down syndrome named Devon enrolled in my beginning acting class, I was clueless. I had no previous experience with individuals with disabilities. When I was a child, all the kids in my neighborhood who had disabilities got on a different bus and went to a different school. We stood at the bus stop, and we watched the short bus go by with a curious fascination. Who were those kids? What were they like? What did they do at that school? So, when faced with this situation as an adult, I was afraid. I was afraid that I wouldn’t measure up as a teacher. I was afraid that the rest of my students would suffer. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to give this student what he needed.

I reached out for help, and I learned. I learned to change the way I taught the class– and it made me a much better teacher. The other students benefited from his participation. And his mother called the experience “a turning point” in his education. It turns out that raising the expectations for students with disabilities has an outsized effect on their ability to achieve. Including this student did not have any negative impact- it only had a positive impact. That doesn’t mean that it was easy, and that it always went perfectly. It was sometimes messy, it was occasionally hard, and we all had to struggle through together… and therein lied the value. Other teachers started to notice, and they wanted to learn what I was learning, so we made sure that every teacher had access to the inclusion training. They wanted Devon in their class. Devon’s mom began to tell her friends how it was going at the theater, and more and more families started enrolling. The word was getting out that our theater company was a place where everyone was accepted. What started as an experiment of one teacher, one boy with Down syndrome in an acting class, became a movement. It spread like wildfire throughout our organization. Soon we were including kids of all abilities– kids with autism, cerebral palsy, kids who were blind and deaf. Parents of kids without any identified disabilities who were initially skeptical, came to see inclusion as a value. It became a reason they wanted their kids in our program. Inclusion became our competitive advantage. This had a very positive effect on our company. Our enrollment soared. Our shows sold out. We found was that inclusion actually made our program better. A lot better. Our teachers learned how to differentiate their instruction. The students had a richer experience, great friendships began to develop.

There was a definite network effect at work here. The more people who were committed and fluent in inclusive practice, the better results we got. Then, other companies in town started to hear what we were doing, and they wanted in on it. Inclusion in San Diego was becoming a movement.

Since that first experience I have spent 20 years fully immersed in inclusive practice. I am the CEO of Kids Included Together, a nonprofit that teaches inclusive practices in 220 programs in the United States and 49 internationally. We teach over 20,000 people a year, to change attitudes towards disability and teach the specific skills teachers and childcare providers need to meet the needs of diverse learners. We have seen increased adoption of inclusive practice over the past few years, and we are predicting reaching the tipping point, a critical mass of inclusion practitioners who will teach the rest of the field, in the next ten years.

We know that quality inclusive education works. We have 30 years of research that shows that it works. We know that it works for students with disabilities who, when included in classes with their nondisabled peers for most of the school day, have substantially higher on-time graduation rates. We know that students with disabilities who complete high school are 3 times less likely than non-completers to get in trouble with the law in early adulthood. They are more likely than dropouts to spend their early adulthood years engaged in school, work, or preparation for work. The more students who graduate, the more students who contribute to our economy, and the fewer students who draw down resources through incarceration, and through enrollment in social welfare programs.

We also know that quality inclusive education works for students without disabilities. We know that it builds character and increases qualities like empathy and confidence, but we also know that non-disabled students in inclusive classrooms show increased test scores. When students are helping each other succeed in a peer-learning model, everyone does better. Inclusion is a growth industry because it offers the opportunity to increase the humanity of every student in the classroom, while also increasing their academic achievement.

Unfortunately, special education often means separate education. In order to realize the potential that inclusion offers us, we need to move away from the special = separate paradigm, and begin to view students with disabilities as valuable and important members of the school community. We need to raise expectations, so that all students graduate proficient in the skills that will allow them to participate in the 21st century global economy. And we need to ensure that our school cultures are intentional about inclusion, so that students with disabilities are welcome as participants in all the school’s activities, like band and choir, clubs, dances and extramural sports. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama said “We are stronger when America fields a full team.” It’s time for students with disabilities to come off the bench, and onto the playing field, and when that happens we will see our schools strengthened by diversity.

Children growing up in inclusive settings today will hire their peers with disabilities, and when faced with someone who learns, communicates or moves differently, they won’t be afraid. Individuals with disabilities now go to college, start businesses and serve in their communities.

For us to realize the potential that inclusion offers us, we are going to have to do some things differently. We need to prepare all teachers to teach all students. In this way, inclusion is a growth industry for University teacher education programs, and for organizations like mine, that teach inclusive practices to people who work with children. The teachers of tomorrow will use Universal Design for Learning principles to ensure that all students have access to grade level curriculum. Inclusion is an opportunity to elevate the teaching profession. We also have an opportunity to provide more and better training to educational aides, who play a critical role in the inclusion process. We need to develop educational materials that are accessible to all students. This is where inclusion is a growth industry for technology companies, who can help us provide learning customized to the needs of each student. Virtual reality systems are already showing that they can enhance collaboration among students, increase success in group work and support peer teaching models. Education and technology are interconnected, and our opportunity is to design technology with the needs of diverse learners in mind.

There are a lot of positive signs that inclusion is truly a growth industry. From a federal level, the recent reauthorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act, places new emphasis on students with disabilities in inclusive settings. At the global level, the United Nations has an “Agenda for Sustainable Development by 2030” and goal 4 is quality inclusive education for all. And when I see things like LEGO creating a figure using a wheelchair, I know cultural perceptions are shifting. Companies create products where there is consumer demand.

The disability rights movement has been called the final frontier of civil rights in the United States. Even though the first laws that support inclusion were passed 30 years ago, there is still an opportunity for our schools to be pioneers in this movement. Schools are the heart of a community, a place where we prepare the innovative thinkers, leaders and doers of tomorrow. But, are we doing all we can do to ensure that students with disabilities can realize their full potential? I believe that inclusion is a growth industry. Focusing on creating inclusive schools will make us better individuals, will enhance the quality of our schools for all children, and will ensure a future where more of our children contribute positively to society.

— Written by Torrie Dunlap, edited by KIT staff

View the post, published on LinkedIn, here.

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at

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