I never know if it is an easy task to define Inclusion or it is a challenging one. Inclusion is, by definition, the act of being including or including an individual or group with a group or structure. It seems pretty simple- so why isn’t it simple when it comes to education?
To answer this question, I believe we have to look back at the historical context of Inclusion and how that context shaped the journey today. I am going to keep this light and shy of detail, but, if you are interested, there are many amazing academic articles and publications that shed light on the timeline of Inclusive Education. Please keep in mind, that this is a general timeline and not specific to any one country or area.
How did we get here, to 2018?
Generally speaking, prior to 1960, any school-age child with various physical, cognitive, or sensory disabilities was segregated and kept home or sent away for ‘schooling’ to a residential school or institution or asylum. Without a medical diagnosis, a child was educated in the ‘mainstream’ school system. During this timeframe, children were deemed able or disabled. Children with significant disabilities were sent away (of course there were exceptions).
The decade between 1960-1970 was filled with discourse about how to appropriately integrate children with disabilities into the school system. Though educators operated under the notion of a child with medical limitations being diagnosed and then placed in a specialized institution, this decade still led to groups of specialists arguing for a separate, but parallel, system that grouped children based on the diagnostic category of their disability. Due to the categorization of children, many governments started to act in the area of human rights and education. At the same time that local discussions led to actions, global discussions and actions where taking place too. UNESCO’s Convention against Discrimination in Education 1960 called for equal opportunities and equal treatment of all students in educational settings.
The following decade, 1970-1980, introduced integration into the mainstream system. Special Education was introduced to ‘neighbourhood’ schools. This meant children were identified as having ‘deficits’ from the expected and ended with these children having individualized programming in a specialized class, with or without access to a mainstream classroom. Human rights became a focus in the education of children, both locally and globally. On an international level, the 1975 UN Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons called for elimination of discrimination and exclusion as a basic human right. On a local level, specialized schools were being closed and children with disabilities were being integrated into the mainstream school.
The next decade, 1980-1990, led to the realization the introduction of Special Education had fundamental flaws. It was not working! Governments started to change their funding schemes for schools and educational assistants were being hired to support student needs. Special Education policies were being created and released. Human rights, education, and appropriate schooling continued to be discussed on both local and global levels.
1990 to 2000 is an important decade in the introduction of Inclusive Education. UNESCO released the Salamenca Statement in 1994 calling for governments to create schools that are welcoming and inclusive environments and these schools should respond to the unique needs of each individual student. 92 countries participated in the discussions that created this powerful report. Also, during this decade the shift from viewing disabilities from a medical lens to a social lens started to take place. In other words, the view of some children working at a deficit was moving towards what can society due to support each individual’s capabilities and potential. In this decade, Inclusive Special Education started to transform into a concept that takes into consideration the unique needs of each individual as part of a community. Many Inclusion policies were created, released, and implemented.
In the following decades, Inclusive Education has transformed, developed and grown. In 2006, the UN released the Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is an important report for solidifying Inclusive Education by promoting, protecting, and ensuring all human rights and freedoms of all persons with disabilities. Many local reports, reviews, and more reports have taken place on education systems and on Inclusive Education. These last two decades (2000-2018) have not only seen the release of reports and reviews, but they have seen the rise in dialogue and action in the area of Inclusion and Inclusive Education. For many people, a generational shift took place from viewing some students as having deficits to viewing all students as members of the one school system.
Here we are in 2018 still debating Inclusive Education. Why? When Inclusive Education was introduced in the decade of 1990-2000 it was primarily concerned with including students with disabilities into the mainstream school, in other words it was Inclusive Special Education. Our shift from viewing students as having deficits to full members of the school system has not shifted far enough. Often our systems and structures continue to be based on an Inclusive Special Education model rather than an Inclusive Education model. In other words, we are still looking for ways to include the excluded into our mainstream system. When, in fact, that may never happen- Inclusion is about a mix of diversity and variation in people in one community or in society. Inclusion is not about making people fit into a traditional system or one-size-fits-all system.
The historical journey of Inclusive Education lays the foundation for where we are today- Inclusion is concerned with including students with special needs (or students with behavioural challenges). This is not a bad thing, but it will limit our Inclusive Education journey. Rather than viewing Inclusion as a way to bring in a group of people, we need to start seeing it as a principled approach to society (big or small). How can we support a system that celebrates, welcomes, and benefits from all individualities within one society?
As teachers, we cannot easily change the big picture items. As the generational shift continues to transform our thinking, our policies will catch up to the dialogue. The systems and structures beyond the school community will continue to transform and grow. However, we can affect change through our practice. We can demonstrate our understanding of Inclusion as an approach to society by doing three simple things.
If I had to simplify the definition of Inclusive Education into one sentence, it would be hard, but I would say: It is an approach that allows each and every student to participate, be present in a school setting, and to achieve. An Inclusive community is open, welcoming, and creates opportunities for all individuals to particiapte.