Inclusive Education

An article explaining inclusive education, that I wrote for students in mainstream schools and colleges. If anybody uses this article to read with students, please do share the responses from your discussions. It’ll be enlightening to hear students’ views.

What is inclusive education, and why is it a desirable pedagogical model ?

Inclusive education means that all students attend and are welcomed by their neighborhood schools in age-appropriate, regular classes and are supported to learn, contribute and participate in all aspects of the life of the school, in a common learning environment. The demographics of the classroom looks like a demographic of the society. This means every minority group should be visible in schools. Socioeconomically disadvantaged, both genders, religious groups, language groups, and students with disabilities would be a part of every class.

However, this is not always the case, is it? When was the last time you saw a wheelchair user at the cinema or the local restaurant? Have you ever seen a blind or deaf student?

In India, the reality is very different. Government run schools are naturally inclusive because every tax-payer is entitled to send their children to a government school, regardless of whether they are rich, poor, girl, boy, or have disabilities. However, many families in India, especially in urban India, send their children to private schools which are naturally exclusive; they only accept the kinds of students they want at their institutions. These private schools could be religion-based, sports-focused, arts-focused, alternate curricula, or for-profit. Each school has an agenda that excludes students that don’t subscribe to that agenda. It is, therefore, rare to find an inclusive model in private schools.

But why is inclusion important? Why should a student in a wheelchair attend a mainstream school? Shouldn’t there be a separate school for people with disabilities? Can such students with disabilities even attend school? Are they capable of learning?

This brings us to the definition of the word ‘education’. What is education? Is it the same as academics? Is academic knowledge the only thing one learns at school? I’ll leave you to ponder the following question to decide for yourself.

Food for Thought:

If the genie from the bottle allowed you one boon, to choose between academics and social soft skills, which would you pick? You are allowed all of one and none of the other. Which would serve you better in life?

 Think of these questions.

·        What would happen if I didn’t have an education?

o  This is reasonably easy to answer as we all have strong reasons to become educated.

·        Next think about how it would matter to you if your neighbor’s child or your relative was not educated.

o  This is a relatively harder question to answer, yet you’ll be able to come up with a few reasons for it.

·        Now think about how it would affect you if the vendor’s child, the maid’s child, the construction worker’s child and everybody else in society was not educated. Essentially the question boils down to, why is it education for all important?

o  This is quite a difficult question, and you may have to think hard about it. Could you justify the need for universal education?

 Food for thoughtWhy does every government in the world invest in free education?

Your answers to the last question might have involved altruistic responses – like the good of the world, the right thing to do, and such other moralistic reasons.

Educating the marginalized has been viewed from a charity model point of view. Accepting the marginalized, such as the poorer sections of society, the girl students (in some cases), various minorities, and children with disabilities is viewed as a noble gesture from the mainstream community towards the marginalized. As long as such a mindset is in place, the mainstream community loses out on a lot of potential benefit.

The Folly of the Charity Mindset:

Food for Thought: How can interacting with the disabled population benefit the mainstream population?

Our education can get us a lot of wealth and material goods. It also confers upon us the resulting happiness of acquiring such wealth, such as privileged status and connections. But can the richest man in the city breathe better air than the poorest man in the city? Can the rich drive on better pothole free roads than the poor? What then is one’s personal wealth useful for?

Personal wealth is rarely useful to create public wealth (clean air, clean water, crime-free cities, bridges and roads, etc). To develop public wealth, the resources of society have to be developed, and there is no greater resource than the people of the country.

Every single person’s potential needs to be developed fully in order for ALL of us to enjoy a high standard of living. We have to grow public wealth by educating every single person in society, and not just in academics.

However, why does such education have to happen in an inclusive setting?

Since many people think from a charity model mindset, the answer might seem counterintuitive. Inclusive education benefits the mainstream demographic as much as it benefits the rest of the population. Nothing develops understanding, character and people skills like interacting with the minority sections of our society. When that marginalized student is your neighbor in class, your own potential is further realized.

Food for Thought:

Have you heard of the zero-sum game? It states that for one to win, another has to lose. Is education a zero-sum game? Does including the disabled population in our schools take away from the neuro-typical students? Or does it enrich the character of all students?

General education students benefit a lot from including students with disabilities in school. Teachers use different teaching methods to teach students who struggle to understand, maybe due to a learning difficulty. These methods that work so well with struggling students work even better with all students. All students get the benefit of specialized teaching. Isn’t that a win-win for everybody?

In truth, students with disabilities are already in every classroom, whether we know it or not. Students with possible invisible learning difficulties, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hearing loss or mild autism might be in mainstream schools because they have not been assessed. They might be sitting in class, struggling with academics and failing in exams. Such students will benefit from being taught with some specialized methods, which will also help all other students in class too. 

Teachers will benefit from getting trained in teaching a heterogeneous class. While the addition of students with disabilities adds richness and diversity to the classroom, it also makes the class heterogeneous, and teachers need guidance in order to use effective pedagogical and behavioral strategies for every student. Differentiating instruction will become critical to ensuring the success of every student. This, in turn, will add to the professional development of the teacher.

Children with disabilities cannot be educated in artificially segregated settings, such as special schools, during school age, and then be expected to function in the real world as adults. They have to be taught in an authentic setting so that, as adults, they are able to interact in society comfortably. They need to work at jobs, take the bus, go shopping, and perform so many other tasks independently, that we take for granted every day. These skills can only be learned while interacting with neuro-typical peers on a regular basis. Suffice it to say, inclusion benefits every student – with or without disabilities.

This poignant verse from German pastor Martin Niemöller written after the gruesome 2nd World War underscores the tragedy of exclusionary policies.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 What if the poem ran like this?

First they came for the wheelchair users, and I did not speak out-because I was not a wheelchair user.

Then they came for the intellectually disabled, and I did not speak out-because I was not intellectually disabled.

Then they came for the economically depressed students, and I did not speak out-because I was not economically depressed.

Then they came for me-and there was no one left to speak for me.

 Spread the word on inclusive education! Live in an enlightened world!

Contact Samam Vidya to learn more about inclusive education.