A rabid inclusionist

Dr. phil. Dóra S. Bjarnason, professor.

School of Education, The University of Iceland

e-mail  dsb@hi.is

I have never fitted comfortably into a “creed” or  “-ism” even though I have tried at different points in my life. I was never a good Christian or church member. I was a mediocre Marxist as a student, a lukewarm feminist in my adult years. Disability studies and inclusive education have presented me with new insights and challenges both in my private and academic life. As a British trained sociologist I am worried about the growing evangelicalism and political correctness in parts of our field. I embraced Tom Shakespeare’s  Disability rights and wrongs (2005) and felt his arguments as a healthy breeze sweeping away dogmatic clouds. I also loved Tom’s blog published here recently asking for plainer language and swifter action.

There is an exception to my pragmatic scepticism. Ever since my son, Benedikt, was expelled from his local preschool at the tender age of two and a half, I have been a rabid inclusionist. My son is significantly impaired and had at the time learnt to stand up and walk a few steps. He had also learnt how to open and shut doors. Most importantly, he had just made his very first friend, a little girl called Thora Karitas, now a beautiful and talented actress. They loved each other, but were kept apart as much as possible for some unexplained pedagogical reason. That left him with opening and shutting the classroom doors when he was not engaged in a specialised program, alone with a sleepy middle-aged teacher aid. One day I was summoned to a meeting. I did know “how to do meetings”, although I brought the relevant documents and arguments—but in vain. The decision had been made before the meeting! Hours later, the exhausted preschool head, the psychologist (who incidentally informed me that I was in denial) and the kind director of the preschool system ruled that Benedikt was guilty of disturbing professional preschool work. I was handed his bag and his red wellington boots and he was expelled.  

Much has changed in the past thirty years, but nothing has changed my belief that children belong together in schools and preschools and that society benefits from including each and every one of its citizens.  

My understanding of what inclusive education implies has changed. At first it had to do with placing disabled children in the same schools and preschools as those considered non-disabled. I saw the placement as a right but gave little thought to the pedagogical aspects. Later, in Syracuse, New York, in my son’s school Jowonio, I learnt that by celebrating diversity and changing pedagogical approaches and  bureaucratic school structures, children like my son could be fully included socially and educationally. This was 1986, and times were changing. More and more countries were embracing the idea that disabled children should have the right to education, and many parents and professionals in the so-called developed world were arguing for integration and later for inclusion. This was considered radical at the time.

The “Salamanca Statement and framework” (UNESCO) from 1994 shifted that perspective. The Statement furthered “the objective of Education for All by considering the fundamental policy shifts required to promote the approach of inclusive education, namely  enabling  schools to serve all children, particularly those with special educational needs” (UNESCO 1994 p. 3; EFA 2011). This statement was of unprecedented importance and opened up new possibilities and new horizons for the education of disabled children and youth. The term “inclusive education” gained respectability, but at the same time it gradually became an almost empty moralistic term implying a goal many “knew” to be illusionary in the real world.

The term “inclusive education” has been incorporated into government education policy in most countries since the Salamanca statement of 1994. Key international organisations such as UNESCO and the OECD have declared their commitment to inclusive education, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (2006) has recognized the right of all children to education, to be included in general education systems and to receive the individual support they need for that (CRPD article 24). I could go on but we all know that inclusive education is hotly contested and debated by all key players in the educational systems of the world.  

Disabled children are gradually accepted by ordinary schools in some of the rich developed countries. Iceland has for example less than 1% of its compulsory school population in special schools. Some are in special classes in general education schools, but most labelled children are in regular schools and classes. These percentages vary from country to country. Too often disabled children are still placed in special schools and classes. Even in Iceland, disabled students tend to be placed in regular education schools but as “add ons’” that is as  “social artefacts”, welcomed to school but on a different premise than the “normal children” (Jóhannesson, 2006). Often these students are gradually pushed to the periphery of the educational process, school culture and community as schools became more bureaucratic, academic and subjected to national and international standardised tests. My son was subjected to all of this, and some of the lessons were hard to learn both for the mother and the academic.

Gradually I began to realise that inclusive education is not just about the schooling of disabled children nor even about the schooling of all marginalised children. As I understand inclusive education, the term refers to striving towards creating a school and a school system that is flexible, focused on democratic practices, human rights, social justice and the provision of appropriate quality education for each and every child.  

I believe that changing our schools and educational systems towards becoming more inclusive may be one of the most important tasks of the 21st century. Inequality is growing within our societies and globally. That threatens the very existence of human society. We need to learn to think of the other, respect difference and embrace diversity. We need to build social capital and bridges of understanding between immigrant groups and local populations and across creed, cultural diversity, gender and disability within and between our countries. In the so-called developed countries, schools are the only organisations that children and youth are obliged and have the right to attend. Thus, by changing our schools and making them more inclusive we could begin to address exclusion, marginalisation and selfish greed.

Globally the number of out of school children is declining far too slowly. Currently some 67 million children out of school and many more drop out of primary education each year. According to the UN Millennium Development Goals Report of 2010, “the link between disability and marginalisation in education is evident in countries of all levels of development.”

We know from research what might work if we focused on making schools more inclusive. There is no one way, but the framework drawn up for making the educational systems of the world more inclusive, in the World Report on Disability (WHO and the World Bank 2011) may take us steps forward. Also as Roger Slee (2011) reminds us in his excellent book The Irregular School; Exclusion, Schooling and Inclusive Education, we need to understand exclusion a lot better and we need also to stop talking about special and regular schools. Let us try and put aside the hot, sometimes angry debates about inclusive education and why it does (or does not) work and think why it is important that schools should strive towards providing “an apprenticeship to democracy” and how to do that with in the “irregular school”.