A question of motivation?

"Nothing about us without us" is a slogan adopted by many campaign groups, including those organised by people with disabilities.

“Nothing about us without us” is a slogan adopted by many campaign groups, including those organised by people with disabilities.

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.

8 thoughts on “A question of motivation?

  1. Hi Richard,
    I really appreciate your sensitive treatment of the topic, and as usual, you have a very wise perspective on it. I suspect you are quite correct – an examination of intent can tell us much. I look forward to reading other responses to your post.

  2. Hi Tim,
    I really think that this is a very complex issue and one that some of our colleagues appear reluctant to debate. There are parallels all of the time with work that we do internationally. Who am I to advise teachers in India or Georgia or anywhere else where the cultural and contextual situation is so different from my own? I can justify the work I do only by being respectful and continually questioning my own motivations for the work. You use the term “intent”. I like this because it brings to the debate a moral dimension. Is our intent built around trying to see the world from the perspectives of those with whom we work and claim to be supporting? We cannot live the lives of people with disabilities but we can learn from them and take that learning forward in our work. This is most effective when we involve those from whom we learn as partners in the process of teaching and learning.
    For me one of the greatest safeguards is built around partnership. It took several years to develop our MA programme in Bangalore. We managed this by appointing local Indian tutors, by working with schools across several Indian States in order to identify need and gain an understanding of context, through the development of local resources and by maintaining schools at the heart of the work. However, I still find myself questioning everything we do and looking for assurance that this is not some kind of imperialistic approach to developing educational justice built entirely upon a western model. Maybe discussions like this can be part of a safeguard against such dangers. Encouraging others to join the debate may prove more of a challenge.

  3. Hi. This is a topic close to my heart. I’ve undertaken research with children and young people on the autism spectrum, looking into how the differences and difficulties they face impact on the consultation process. The intent of this research has been to enable their voice to be more effectively heard (hearing what they are really saying rather than what we think they are saying/choose to hear. One of the potential problems with inclusion (as with ‘normalisation’ before it) is the potential to pretend that the real differences that exist, and to minimise the challenges faced both by ‘the researched’ and the researchers. This can result in research that is either wishful thinking or that only captures the voices of those most able to contribute. So I carry out my research, developing my research tools in conjunction with ‘the researched’ in the hope of improving practice – but aware also that highlighting the issues might make some others decide that it’s just too much hard work.

    Richard raises the issue of imperialism in research. At an individual and interpersonal level there are also real issues in undertaking research with children/young people/adults with disabilities. To a certain extent research is ‘doing empathy’ or ‘doing friendship’ – you as a researcher are seeking to develop a relationship (however fleeting) to elicit ‘the truth’ of ‘the experience’ of the research subject. And after the interview? The researcher may well move on to the next interview with nary a thought. For the interviewee, this may be the most interest that someone has shown in their opinion for a long time/ever. How can we as researchers be sure that giving ‘informed consent’ beforehand has really prepared the interviewee? Is it ethically appropriate to ‘up sticks’ and move on?

  4. Hi David,
    Much food for thought in your posting. I think Tim Loreman’s discussion of “intent” in the earlier posting is deonstrated here when you state that part of the purpose of your research is to “enable their voice [people with disabilities] to be more effectively heard (hearing what they are really saying rather than what we think they are saying/choose to hear.
    The motivation of the research is well articulated but the concerns you express are genuine. The need to collect data from viable samples often means that we move on to the next “subject” and have limited opportunities to establish relationships. I am not quite sure how we avoid this problem. However, maybe we need to ensure that as researchers we have other commitments to the people with whom we engage in research. This may be through supporting them in campaigning activities or simply through giving time to support social activity. Certainly I feel that as researchers in this field we need to take responsibilities to make a positive contribution to the lives of those with whom we form research partnerships.

  5. Agreed, Richard and David 🙂

    With respect to the imperialism issue, in working with others overseas I’ve always been cautious in engaging in what I’ve considered to be ‘cognitive colonialism’, or trying to impose my ideas on others. To some extent that is unavoidably what we are doing when we work internationally – and often our different perspective is the very reason we are invited. But I totally agree that along with this we need to have local partners – real partners – who can contextualize what we bring to the table and then eventually take over, leaving us redundant. I think this is how real change is sustained.

  6. The point made by Tim about bringing a different perspective is important. In my experience the recognition of differing perspectives and being prepared to share these is critical to the ways in which we work. The vital point here, it seems to me, is the respect with which we approach this task. Never believing that our reputations or expertise give us the right to assume superior knowledge is essential. Key to this is entering into partnerships where we accept that we are all learners as well bringing our unique perspectives to the table.

  7. Sorry, was completely drowned in work, this is definitely something I have been discussing and dwelling on. Are we increasing exclusiveness by talking about “it”. Now, if we do not talk about it, how are we going to equip ourselves and others to handle in a way that will enable learning for all. The other day I had a parent who came for a tour and asked, ” do you have those kind of children also in your school?” I did not know whether I had an image and pre conceived notion or whether she was actually asking em about children with special needs? I looked at her with a puzzled look that was actually a put on by me. She then said ” I mean children with Autism and all that”. I said that we have an inclusive programme and we take in every child who can learn which means every child is taken in as long as we have the ability to provide the required environment. She did not get back to us and when my colleague called to follow up, she said she is not interested a s she does not want her child to be in an inclusive school. Now, in such a situation, the only way forward is that every school in the city should be inclusive, then parents will have no choice and yes it will be a forced situation or a “choicelessness” but don’t we come across choiceless situations even otherwise?

  8. Hi Savitha,
    Such situations are always disturbing. Do we want children to grow up in an exclusive society? Having established your principles it is important to follow these through, as indeed you have with this parent. Sadly their child will be denied the opportubity to learn important lessons about the diversity that is an important feature of our society. The challenges that you are facing at Pramiti are being replicated everywhere at present and need to be confronted. I can only commend you for the stance that you continue to take.

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