A few days ago Tim Loreman, an internationally respected researcher into inclusive education from Canada wrote a thoughtful and challenging reply to my posting titled “Words of wisdom keeping us on our toes” (7th February 2014). He raised an issue that many of us have been aware of for many years but still have some difficulty resolving. I had written a piece inspired by comments from Professor Peter Mittler, a leading researcher and campaigner for the rights of people with disabilities, in which he had been critical of the UNESCO Report on Education for All. Peter had suggested that children with disabilities were largely invisible in what he conceded was an otherwise excellent report. His criticism implied that whilst the report had dealt thoroughly with issues related to poverty, gender and economic circumstances, all significant influences upon denying children access to education, disability which is an equally pernicious cause of exclusion was given very limited attention. In response I had agreed with him and expressed the view that a lack of data related to disability, cited by the report’s authors was not a legitimate reason for the failure to provide a more detailed discussion of what is undoubtedly a critical issue.
Tim Loreman responded by posting a reply that expresses a concern that many of us working in this field share. Is it possible that when we conduct research or write about children with disabilities or special educational needs are we emphasising their difference and contributing further to their exclusion from mainstream educational provision? Or are we raising awareness of the need for teachers and others to adopt practices that ensure that they are better included in learning? Tim expresses this dilemma very effectively when he writes:-
“On one hand there is the argument, based on solid logic, that if we conduct research that refers directly to children with disabilities we only emphasize their difference [and] perpetuate notions of their ‘otherness’. I agree with that argument, but by the same token I am worried that if we sanitize our research of direct reference to disability then what we do is help make these children invisible – just like in the UNESCO report”
The point that Tim makes here is an important one and is certainly deserving of the attention of all of us working in this field. No matter whether we are teachers, researchers, advocates or special educators we need to consider what it is that motivates us and leads to behave as we do. It is this issue of motivation that I feel is at the heart of the challenge. We need to be constantly asking the question, who am I working for and why? Reading further down Tim’s posting he observed that:-
“So, on one hand I would never want to contribute to the oppression of kids with disabilities, but on the other hand I think we need to be realistic about the differences that exist and be pragmatic about it. So, should I do research on teacher attitudes towards disability? …you can argue that just doing the research validates whatever views a teacher might hold. But on a more practical level I want to know what those attitudes are and how they might be improved, especially if they are negative. So, I choose to do the research and make the issues visible, but it must be said not without misgivings and there are certainly people who think I should not do it”.
Tim’s point about wanting to know how teacher attitudes can be improved seems to me to be at the core of this issue. His work is about improving the lives of children and teachers, and his motivation comes from a recognition that some learners have been marginalised and excluded from gaining opportunities for appropriate schooling. The misgivings that he expresses are surely an important safeguard that we all need to maintain.
Last year, along with colleagues with whom I work in Bangalore on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education programme, I attended the Asia Federation on Intellectual Disabilities (AFID) biennial conference in Delhi. This conference sets an important tone for the debate around who should be involved in the promotion of inclusion and the roles that we play. This was the second AFID conference that I had attended and the reason I find it uplifting is simple. The podium at the conference is given to a range of speakers, mainly from Asia who are making an important contribution to the creation of more inclusive services. Foremost amongst these speakers are those who themselves have experienced marginalisation and discrimination as a result of the labels of learning difficulty or disability applied to them by others. The conference provides a shared forum for parents, children and adults with disabilities, teachers, health care professionals, academics and others who have a shared concern to understand the barriers to inclusion and how these may be overcome. The mutual respect that was in evidence across all parties who have a shared motivation was clear.
Disability groups across the world have quite rightly adopted the slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us”. The onus is upon those of us working in this area to make a commitment to work and research with the very individuals for whom we express concern and with whom we would wish to demonstrate solidarity.
The words that Tim Loreman used to express this dilemma are important and demonstrate why his own motivations for researching in this area enable him to contribute so effectively to the current debates surrounding inclusion. There are times when we all need to take a pause in order to examine our work and ensure that we are maintaining those principles that we claim for the actions that we take.
This is an important area for debate and a significant opportunity to increase our understanding. Do feel free to join the discussion.