The difference between access and inclusion? Access is an invitation to a party. Inclusion is an invitation to dance at the party.

Leadership is very similar. Many may be invited, but how many of our student leaders get a chance to dance? How many truly get to participate and be seen by peers and school leaders for their strengths and talents, and be heard with their voice and opinions? Students who have disabilities or special needs are sometimes unseen in schools, especially in school leadership positions and activities. Both access and inclusion are needed to ensure such students are integral to the school community.

Building a Case for Membership

Students with disabilities—whether they are physical, intellectual, or developmental—can most certainly be considered for membership and become full, regular members of NHS and NJHS, provided they meet the selection criteria and go through the selection process like any other student at a local chapter.

When the national office gets inquiries or requests for support regarding regular membership or exceptions for students with disabilities, we ask the following question to learn about the dynamics of the chapter and its core activities:

What, if anything, is restricting the student’s ability to access or fully participate in the local chapter of NHS/NJHS?

Sometimes, after discussion, we find out that the answer is “nothing.” If this is the case, the local chapter adviser works with student leaders to make reasonable accommodations for the student(s) to fully participate and thrive in NHS or NJHS.

Sometimes the restriction involves the ability to lead and execute an individual service project or participate fully in meeting the service-hour requirement for maintaining membership in the chapter. However, if a student with a disability can still fulfill the requirements to be a full member with reasonable support and modification (often with help from the adviser), the national office encourages advisers and the faculty council to support regular membership for that student.

The question of “regular” versus “honorary” membership in NHS or NJHS is really about the values of student leadership and service for that chapter. Make sure that the chapter’s bylaws and requirements are not so restrictive that students needing accommodations could not participate. It is a benefit to include members who can serve and be actively involved. Both the NHS Handbook and NJHS Handbook describe honorary membership as simply a means to grant a “recipient all of the privileges of membership without the obligations associated with active member status.”

The other common discussion we have with local chapters as they work with students with disabilities is the minimum GPA requirement for eligibility as a candidate to NHS/NJHS. We ask schools to consider this:

Is the GPA requirement and/or academic guidelines set by your local chapter so exclusive that students in particular coursework or programs could never be eligible for NHS/NJHS?

This is a good question to explore and examine using the basic bylaws of the local chapter. Eligibility for NHS and NJHS at a school should not be defined by a student’s participation in a particular track (advanced or gifted) or by taking a set curriculum of courses (e.g., AP or IB). A student’s nonparticipation in such tracks and courses also should not exclude them automatically from consideration based on GPA. For the schools that use weighted GPA heavily in determining eligibility for candidacy, it’s important to examine and possibly adjust systemic favoring of a particular track or group of students. After all, NHS and NJHS are more than just an honor roll. High academic standards are important, but the other values and pillars (service, leadership, and character—as well as citizenship at the middle level) are not exclusive to precollege students who take AP and IB courses. These students tend to have higher-weighted GPAs—which is great—but they shouldn’t be the only students at the school eligible for the National Honor Societies.

NHS and NJHS recognition are available to students at vocational schools, those enrolled in Career and Technical Student Organization programs, in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, dual-enrollment programs with community colleges, and even online schools. Students who are also primarily in life-skills coursework and related program designations are also eligible for NHS membership.

Anyone Can Be a Leader

A big part of being inclusive means that the students themselves see that they are leaders or possess emerging leadership skills. Students with disabilities, like any other students, may not really see themselves as eligible or a “right fit” to be a member of NHS or NJHS, student council, or other formal school leadership opportunities. It may seem intimidating or something that is not meant for them. If a group’s leaders only promote the opportunity to a select few, that limits the call to leadership and service to just those students.

A final note about inclusion: Inclusion doesn’t mean that everyone may have membership in a formal organization, but the National Honor Societies are meant to be recognition programs that bring students together through the common values of scholarship, service, leadership, and character. This fall, we debuted the Everyday Pillars—a series of guiding statements that emphasize the universal values of scholarship, service, leadership, and character (as well as citizenship for NJHS members)—to help guide students as to whether or not they have been selected for the National Honor Societies or are a regular or honorary member (

Program Spotlight: Training Student Leaders to Be Inclusive Through TIES

One way to bring inclusion to your group is through TIES—Together Including Every Student—a program of Starbridge Inc., which was begun in New York state by Kathy Costello 21 years ago to teach outreach through leadership organizations such as NHS, NJHS, and NatStuCo. Costello, operating within the Finger Lakes Developmental Disabilities Regional Office and the Western New York Developmental Disabilities Regional Office, recruits peer volunteers to work with students like her own son who needed social support to access service projects as well as activities in and outside of school.

Marie Lynn Sweet, a 10th-grade teaching assistant at Livonia High School in Livonia, NY, is one of the many TIES coordinators in New York who trains students to become volunteers. She specifically trains youth in grades 8–12 to provide naturalized support to students with disabilities so they can do activities that they enjoy both at school and in the community. Sweet develops a support plan that details what the student with a disability needs the volunteer to do to help them be successful in the activity: Be comfortable, have fun, make new friends, increase independence, etc.

Sweet points out that the activities are always adult-led, so the adult in charge gets a copy of the support plan so they know what to expect. The volunteer is essentially another participant in the activity that comes along with the specific student, so that volunteer doesn’t necessarily plan or facilitate the actual activity. “The volunteer sits with the participant and repeats directions, helps get materials, helps make choices, gets other students involved … so the student is part of the whole group, not segregated by their disability/inability to follow directions,” Sweet says.

At a basketball game, a volunteer may sit with a student and might even invite their friends to join them in watching the game. If the participant needs help with money, choosing a snack, being understood when ordering, etc., the volunteer provides support, encouraging the participant to try while they are beside them. “There are specific safeguards and confidentiality rules in place. It makes amazing opportunities available to all our students that would otherwise not be: class trips, proms, sports teams, clubs, library programs, scouts, church youth groups, and music lessons to name a few!” Sweet says.

Schoolwide Ways to Be Inclusive

Be sure leadership opportunities, including Honor Society and student council elections, are made known to everyone at the school. Do targeted outreach to different students who may be eligible. (They may not think that leadership positions are for them.) Enlist special education teachers, coaches, and other faculty who may know different students better to help spread the word about opportunities to participate and lead.

Consider how clubs and organizations are represented in brochures, at activity fairs, info sessions, and even in emails. Language is important, so make sure the language is inclusive and welcoming to let students (and families) know that opportunities to lead and serve are for all students.

Think of ways to listen to and also lift up the voice of students with disabilities in student council or other student groups and programs. If you don’t have a representative or student leader with disabilities serving on student council, have your student officers be sure to reach out to students with disabilities and get their input on school improvement and culture.

Also be sure to create diverse ways to support a project, not just one type of activity. Some people may not be well coordinated or best equipped for helping out in physical ways (pouring drinks, serving food, setting up equipment). If your project tasks are not diversified, have your student leaders think of different ways for people to participate at varying skill and talent levels.

Train students to intentionally partner with participants and student leaders who have disabilities or may have other special needs and accommodations.

Creating an inclusive community takes a bit of forethought and planning, but it is something that benefits the entire school—not just students with special needs. Be sure to open up leadership opportunities to those with disabilities. Examine your whole school to find ways to build diversity into various programs, and watch how the students themselves will transform the culture and build inclusion.

Nara Lee is the director of student leadership at NASSP.

NASSP student programs celebrate school-based leadership programs such as the Special Olympics Unified Schools, which lift up their model of Inclusive Youth Leadership. Schools such Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, CO, have built a culture in which students with disabilities are supported, celebrated, and recognized all the time in the school and community. As Kelton Coppinger, coach and special education instructor, says, “Our students with disabilities are rock stars at our school!” Read more about these special schools in “Unified Champions.” 

Sidebar: Guiding Questions to Inclusion

  • What is the new student experience like at your school? What is that experience like for students with disabilities? For students who may not speak English as a first language? For students starting school in the middle of the year as opposed to the beginning?
  • How does your school create a welcoming environment for all students? Are there specific supports, programs, or behaviors you can identify? How do you know that they are effective?
  • What does it mean to be part of your school community?
  • Outside of membership and participation in activities such as student council, National Honor Society, or other student organizations, consider your student leader roles. Are your student leaders representative of your student body?