Is inclusive education an unrealistic ideology?

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.

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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