Italy Presses Forward in Educating Students with Learning Disabilities: Inclusive Educational Opportunities in Italy Are Bolstered by Classifying Fewer Students as Disabled and by the Expectation That Classroom Teachers Will Be Supported to Assume Ownership for Their Instruction

By Giangreco, Michael F.; Doyle, Mary Beth | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2015 | Go to article overview

Italy Presses Forward in Educating Students with Learning Disabilities: Inclusive Educational Opportunities in Italy Are Bolstered by Classifying Fewer Students as Disabled and by the Expectation That Classroom Teachers Will Be Supported to Assume Ownership for Their Instruction


Giangreco, Michael F., Doyle, Mary Beth, Phi Delta Kappan


Italy is a favored destination of travelers from around the world for good reason! Visitors flock to Rome's ancient treasures, marvel at the Renaissance art and architecture of Florence, and enjoy exploring the canals of Venice. Whether hiking the Dolomites, strolling the hill towns of Tuscany, wandering among the Greek ruins of Sicily, or admiring the ever present coastline, many guests to the Italian peninsula look forward to tasting their way through the gastronomical diversity of regional cuisines for which Italy is so well known. While these and innumerable other opportunities are reason enough to visit Italy, what is less well known to most Americans is Italy's distinction of being world renowned for its more than 40 years of including students with disabilities in general education, known as "integrazione scolastica" (school integration) (D'Alessio, 2011). We were introduced to "integrazione scolastica" in the late 1980s and followed the limited amount of English-language literature on the topic with interest until 2011. Then we began studying it in earnest, including three months visiting schools and universities in five regions of Italy--Lazio, Lombardia, Puglia, Sicilia, and Veneto (Giangreco & Doyle, 2012).

Although "integrazione scolastica" first emerged in the 1970s, its roots can be traced to the democratic constitution of the newly formed Italian Republic following World War II, with its emphasis on social dignity and equality of all citizens. It established the responsibility of the Republic to remove economic and social obstacles that limited freedom and equality or impeded the full human development of citizens and their participation in society. The constitution declared schools open to everyone and explicitly stated that persons with disabilities were entitled to education.

During the 25 years following World War II, Italy established a segregated system of public education for students with disabilities (e.g., residential institutions, special schools, special classes), much as we did in the United States. Political and social unrest in the late 1960s spawned a grassroots, anti-segregation movement centered on guaranteeing fundamental human rights. "Integrazione scolastica" emerged from those turbulent times as a key social policy initiative. Beginning in the 1970s, Italy passed legislation that rapidly eliminated most segregated schools and classrooms for students with disabilities in favor of placement in typical classrooms. The relative speed of this change led to several years that some characterized as chaotic. Others considered this rapid change necessary; they persuasively argued that, without the widespread presence of students with the full range of disabilities, schools would not have had a sufficiently compelling impetus to pursue inclusionary changes, thus delaying students' access to their educational and civil rights (Canevaro & de Anna, 2010). Over the past four decades, Italy has enacted a series of national laws to refine and strengthen its commitment to including and supporting students with disabilities (Kanter, Damiani, & Ferri, 2014).

A slower incremental approach to including students with disabilities occurred in the U.S. over the same period, vividly illustrating a counterpoint to the Italian experience. In the 1970s, both Italy and the U.S. reported placing about 20% of students with disabilities in general education classes. Since the 1980s, Italy has been reporting that about 98% of students with disabilities attend general education classes. In contrast, the U.S. has inched up about one percentage point annually, not surpassing 60% of students with disabilities in general education classes as their primary placement until 2010 (Giangreco, Doyle, & Suter, 2012). These differences may not be quite as wide as they appear due to definitional differences. The U.S. statistic is based on students with disabilities being placed in general education classes 80% or more of the time, whereas the Italian statistic does not include a corresponding parameter, so the percentage of time Italian students with disabilities are in general education classrooms is unknown. …

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