Inclusive Education for Social Change – Getting it right from the start

By Manishi Srivastava PhD

Lupton and Lipps, the designers of inclusive structures, believe in creating spaces for accommodating differences. Conventional buildings are typically designed for a set of people we call ‘normal’. They instead aim for ‘accessibility for all’. Their definition of inclusion however, is not limited to physical accessibility of buildings but extends beyond it. According to them (Lupton and Lipps, 2018):

‘Inclusion is a state of thinking and acting toward a shared purpose based on a commitment to iteration, refinement, and self-improvement.’ (

Here lies the belief that a person using a wheelchair is not disabled because they can’t walk because the building has no access for the wheelchair. This belief can be extrapolated to the field of education where educational structure represents the buildings. We need to see inclusive education design in an empowering light just as an inclusive building design. Mass production of curriculum, just like buildings, can only result in something designed for an abstract average body and mind. Learning something specific, specialized for one can fortify the neural networks required for learning something else entirely. Thus, differentiated and specialized learning integrated with diversity-compatible pedagogy can help us move towards inclusive learning environments.

Several developing countries have recently produced policies for inclusive education. However, translating them into classroom practice has been a challenge (Sharma & Deppeler, 2005; McConkey & Bradley, 2010; Xu, 2012). Practical complexities of including disabled students (Ellsworth & Zhang, 2007) have resulted in apprehensions about inclusive education. But what if we question not including everyone in the same classroom? Has labeling students and putting them into categories helped in any way? Perhaps in a few isolated cases. But does it look like it’s necessary? Absolutely not. It is often argued that having a classroom of children with differences can aggravate the problem as the inequality will be made more obvious. This is in concordance with studies of air rage, where more cases of air rage are reported if the economy class passengers are made to walk through the first class while entering the plane, making them acutely aware of the social inequality (DeCelles and Norton, 2016). This is a legitimate view but the solution is not to have only similarities around but to learn to live while accepting the differences because it is not possible to live in an all-are-the-same environment. Emotions are definitely central to tolerance and inclusion, and handling emotions can be learned by children and adolescents alike. 

Another argument against an inclusive learning environment is that the attempts to make each learner achieve equally are a waste of effort because learners are not ‘blank slates’ and inherited qualities can not be ignored. Undoubtedly, if educational excellence is solely measured against examination results in a typical educational setting of today, this holds true. However, in an enabling environment, genetic influences are much weaker in hindering individual learning processes.

The following examples challenge the notion that inclusive education is not a realistic goal:

In Finland, a short period of additional support is provided to all students on a proactive basis without waiting for them to ‘fail’. Interestingly, students are not ‘diagnosed’ with a problem to be eligible for this support, and this support is open to any student who might encounter problems. This makes the system ‘a more inclusive system by default’ (Graham and Jahnukainen, 2011).

Another example I would like to cite is from my experience at a campus located in a small village in Himachal Pradesh, India (Aavishkaar Yaatraa, a center for STEM education). A variety of groups with different socio-economic backgrounds come to the campus for week-long educational camps. Initially, differences in speaking time, expressiveness and confidence may be seen. But within a few hours of the first day, these differences are overshadowed by the hidden curiosity and playfulness in each individual. When students sit together to speak the language of mathematics, the discomfort of not knowing each other’s local language dissipates. As they attempt to solve a fun math puzzle, we see productive failure in action (Kapur, 2008) where solving challenging problems with their peers can help students learn, even if they do not reach the solution. Or, when a question such as ‘can you see light?’ is posed, one cannot help but connect and reflect over it, ignoring distractions. 

Such approaches that do not advantage the privileged by requiring prior knowledge or practiced answers, allow students from all backgrounds to help in problem-solving and contribute to the discussionAdditional circles and energizer sessions facilitate bonding and let unique strengths and abilities of individuals unfold. Interestingly, there is no administrative decision on making this classroom inclusive. There are no special education services. There is no committee even talking about inclusion. The curriculum does its magic. The inclusive pedagogy adds to the magic. The additional sessions create a conducive environment. It is important to note that this is in the midst of a village where segregations on the basis of caste, income and race are typically rampant. 

This shows that an inclusive classroom does not have to look different from any other classroom. It also demonstrates that inclusive education may not always be expensive. Also, a successful inclusive learning environment does not involve educators smiling excessively at the less privileged or disabled, but does require the understanding that they are equally capable of pursuing knowledge. The disabled or underprivileged don’t want to hear that their efforts are inspirational. They just want to be acknowledged for what they are. 

What should be the Focus Areas of Inclusive Education ?

Ainscow et al. (2006) contends that ‘Inclusion is concerned with all children and young people in schools; it is focused on presence, participation and achievement’. 

This definition is notable for its focus on all children and its combination of the three concepts of presence, participation, and achievement. Booth and Ainscow (2002) define participation as: ‘…learning alongside others and collaborating with them in shared learning experiences. It requires active engagement with learning and having a say in how education is experienced. More deeply, it is about being recognised, accepted and valued for oneself’

In order for learners to be able to communicate and thus participate effectively, simplification of language is of utmost importance. The simplest way to achieve that is by using a language that is understandable by everyone. In order to do that, we need to create a language that is both inclusive and specific, in the sense that the words and expressions used should be able to encompass the widest range of human experiences, and yet not cause confusion and ambiguity in the process. In the current context, language should be free from all the negative connotations that are attached to it today. The ease of language should also be accompanied by context-based learning which is the basis for aforementioned differentiated instruction.

In a typical family function in my place, ‘all’ are invited. Family, friends, acquaintances and ‘staff’. This includes servants, gardeners, drivers and their families, and is a mark of generosity of the members organizing the function, who did not forget to include this low-income class which also tend to belong to a lower caste in the country. The day arrives, and we see each of these sections sitting separately, often with no seating arrangement for the ‘staff’. Attending to them or talking to them once during the entire function is an act of the ‘big-hearted’. On analyzing the situation you would agree that they were ‘invited but not included’. This reiterates a point that a lot of people make when they see something similar happening in society: Inclusion is not merely access.

Something similar is also being observed in many organizations where the focus is on increasing diversity but not strengthening the foundations that enable diversity. It is a struggle to retain diversity even after a lot of ‘diversity hires’. This has been attributed to the organizational culture not embracing different perspectives. Perhaps, the environment does not enable individuals to have the opportunity to perform their best and advance. What seems to be missing in each of these situations is acceptance. Acceptance in society is not a luxury but a necessity. It is socially painful to be disrespected and rejected by our peers. 

Structural exclusion leads to marginalization

The deep persistent disadvantage of social exclusion can be seen in the way that people treat others in the workplace or in society in general. We are dealing with a legacy of exclusion and marginalization that has been going on for centuries. It might not be a modern issue but it remains a modern reality. This can be attributed to the absence of what has been considered the foundation of a fair society: mutual respect. Thus what we need to strive for is not only diversity but also inclusion and equity so that everyone feels like they belong. 

If this ideology of inclusion has been expressed for so long, then what is preventing it from happening? Perhaps, because our brain is programmed to consider those with looks and habits similar to ours as familiar and prefer them over the strangers. This is why favoritism is robust even in the youngest of individuals. Feeling threatened by the presence of an outsider is an instinct which probably originated when humans lived in very small groups and had to be careful of out-group members. But following every one of our instincts has not always led to good outcomes. For example, instincts prompt us to use aggression as the best way to deal with threats and from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense to do so. However, in a present day scenario this can often lead to negative consequences and therefore it is best to override such an instinct. A societal structure can remain stable only when people learn to reflect before acting on their instincts and one can be made to practice this. Similarly, we can only ‘learn’ to override our instinct of acquainting only with the familiar and such learning is what inclusive education strives for. 

Evolutionary theory in social science suggests that cultural variability is a major distinctive feature of the human species. The goal should be to reach beyond the level of tolerance. Tolerance is to abide by something that you don’t like. What we need is individuals feeling fortunate to have differences around. We could also leverage our knowledge of neuroplasticity to find ways to inculcate and grow inclusion. Educators who understand neuroplasticity know that the brains of children in the classroom change every day (Bernard, 2010) and early experiences shape the developing brains of these budding citizens. 

Social exclusion and its consequences have underlying causes in lack of diversity around while growing up. Students who have grown up being included also end up including others. This is also why it is a challenge to address the issues of isolation and exclusion with adults who may not have been raised in diverse environments. Changing the paths of their normal neural processing would be necessary to develop acceptance for the unfamiliar, which is extremely difficult in later stages of life. Instead, interventions with youngsters who are still shaping their opinions may be more useful. This is the idea behind inclusive education. Thus, the 2015 Joint Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs notes that early childhood inclusion leads to inclusion “in all facets of society throughout the life course.” 

The need for Early Intervention

People are not born with a sense of social justice; it is learned. And it can be learned in classrooms. Classroom is a small space which imitates the world of adults. The negative consequences of the lack of mutual respect are also similar. School drop-out rates of students from ethnic minorities are higher if they face mistreatment by their peers (Umana-taylor, 2016). In addition to differences due to social structures such as race or class, stereotyping of physical nature can also have similar consequences. For example, overweight students, often lacking friends, are less likely to pursue higher education after school when compared to their classmates (Crosnoe & Muller, 2004; Crosnoe, 2007). Thus, exclusion, irrespective of its causes, can impair academic success. Cyclical patterns of exclusion and low achievement have also been observed as students with low performance often show signs of low self-esteem, which manifests in how they start victimizing their peers. Peer rejection in a classroom is equivalent to low social status in a workplace, both of which result in reduced engagement.

From a social developmental perspective, the presumption that acceptance by peers is a developmental necessity helps in moving towards inclusive education. The structure of school and instructional practices as well as the student body composition are factors in social exclusion (Juvonen et al., 2019). Recently, schools have been called to act as ‘agents of change’ in the fight against discrimination (Losinski, Ennis, Katsiyannis, & Rapa, 2019). Teachers and school administrators could play a critical role in encouraging social inclusion. Research on inclusive education in collaboration with schools has been a recommended approach to discover the best practices for inclusion. As Ainscow et al. (2006) argue, ‘collaborative ways of working,where researchers work alongside participants in schools, are intended to overcome the traditional gap between research and practice.’ Recent studies utilizing such collaboration have shown how a teacher’s attitude towards a student affects the acceptance that he receives from other students (Sette et al., 2020) and also how the views of students’ on socioeconomic status varies depending on whether they see it from the lens of fairness or in light of existing social hierarchies (Gruetter et al., 2022). 

To conclude, research and practices in the field of inclusive education can succeed by emphasizing the elimination of contextual barriers. Not blaming learners for their educational failure is not an opinion based on ideology but also a fact based on research in line with inclusive principles. A diverse but impoverished environment can impede a child’s chance of reaching her or his maximum potential. It is mainly the attitudes of educators and stakeholders in the education system that needs ‘fixing’ not one’s disability or impaired lifestyle. And with so many examples around we know that building school cultures that recognizes and values differences is possible.

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