I have been considering the idea of inclusion a lot recently, so when asked to write a post, I decided to write on the subject with reference to someone else’s life, thoughts, ideas and research. However, I changed my mind and then my post, because I know a thing or two about inclusion.
So here goes…
This is my story.
What I've come to realise is that inclusion, or lack of it, has had a huge impact on my way of being and on whom I have become.
Before sixteen, I was going to be whatever I wanted to be. My future was an open book. Things were easy for me. Good at school, good at sports, good at making friends. I was a fairly ‘normal’ teenager with little care for any possible struggles amongst some of my peers. I was too busy making my own way. Being popular. Doing well. Becoming something. Inclusion wasn’t a consideration. I was able to participate easily and naturally in anything I put my mind to. The path I was on was clear of any foreseeable barriers. I was quite simply included, quite simply.
This was the person I was.
At sixteen, I had a berry aneurysm (stroke) that paralysed the left side of my body. I lost the use of my left side, my hair, my boyfriend, my schooling, my clarity of thought, my identity and my way of becoming. I stopped being quite simply included and became someone completely different in the matter of minutes and then years.
This event created a new pathway that led towards the person I was to be.
I quickly became good at other things, like re-learning how to stand, walk, use my left side and be what I perceived as ‘normal’ again. Not ‘disabled’, but ‘able’ to participate. To be included. Certainly not different.
Actually, I was very different. Because my left side was and still is partially paralysed. And it wasn’t just the physical difference that made me different. My entire demeanor, my personality, my outlook, essentially most things about me had changed. But I was still determined to participate in everything. I had big ambitions and I knew what it was like to be quite simply included. I wasn’t going to miss out on a thing.
However, I also learned how to assimilate. I deflected. I disguised. I tried my best to blend in and make myself invisible so people wouldn’t notice anything different about me. Any attention might have made me stand out for what I thought were all the wrong reasons and therefore leave me vulnerable to rejection and criticism. It might make me different. I think a lot of this anxiety stemmed from the fear of being labelled, because in the 1980s, if you were ‘differently-abled’, you were possibly called ‘a cripple’, ‘handicapped’, or at the very best, ‘disabled’. I felt that any label would have a negative impact on my capacity to achieve, or become, or simply be.
This terrified me.
And, although I had some very supportive, well meaning teachers, education in the 80s was (and some would argue still is) designed as a one size fits all and much of what I experienced wasn’t inclusive for anyone that was different. So education for me totally flipped. I developed strategies for fitting in, keeping up and generally surviving my high school years. Despite this, I was fast becoming an observer rather than a participant. I started to feel like I was on the outside looking in and I became frustrated.
Despite this, I worked hard and achieved academically. However, soon frustration at how difficult school had become for me turned into defiance. I became ‘trouble’, changed schools and went from being at the top of the class to being totally disengaged in the space of two years. My attitude towards school became blasê. I lost interest.
I still stuck it out to year 13, where a well-intentioned teacher advised me that I shouldn’t pursue my ambition of becoming a designer because of my ‘circumstances’, but should train as a teacher “to help other people realise their dreams”. So I went on to Teachers College.
In the words of Alanis Morissette, “Isn’t it ironic, don’t ya think?”
I didn’t go to Teachers College to make people's lives better, I went because someone had put me in a box and decided to tell me who I could or couldn’t become. And I listened! But people had been fitting me neatly inside a box for a while. So maybe I had just given up…
Once at college, I had to work again at being included and was able to further hone skills and strategies needed to keep up and blend in.
Fortunately, I loved teaching, however I still didn’t quite fit into ‘the system’. Even on the other side of the fence I was still the outsider looking in, wondering why we were teaching as if preparing children for a factory line. I didn’t get it. Eventually, disillusioned, I ended up leaving to work in the private sector.
The effort I have put in to ‘not be excluded’ has carried on into my both my professional life and my personal life. Now, I have become so good at strategising to blend in, keep up and appear the same that I don’t even know that I do it anymore. It has become ingrained.
I feel self-indulgent writing about myself like this, but it is not intended to be a sob story, nor a five minute claim to fame. I could have written a book by now. Neither is it an invitation for sympathy, nor do I welcome any. I am simply outlining my experiences in an attempt to capture some of the essence of what inclusion means. For me, it has meant moving from exclusion to opportunity. From being ‘differently abled’ to being ‘able to be different’. Or the same. Or just me.
I realise now that this small, simple word ‘inclusion’, this concept, or way of being has had a significant impact on my becoming, or not becoming. I have limited my own options, but some of these limitations have also been brought upon me through labels, stereotypes and exclusion, albeit unintentionally. Looking back, I didn’t even realise I could have been more included. Exclusion is just what happened and one simply got on with it.
In my professional life I didn’t really get the positive impact I could have had on my learners if I had given inclusion greater consideration. Even after my own experiences. I was generally too busy ‘teaching’, or working or just getting on with it.
So, getting back to education…
WHY is inclusion so important?
In the classroom it may be difficult to ignore the learners that are at the extreme edges of the classroom, however, it can be easy to dismiss the learners who sit just on the fringes, like I did. It is very easy to not see that person. It is very easy to miss the cues. You may not recognise the vast array of strategies they have created in order to appear ‘normal’ (whatever that means) and fit into an environment that excludes them.
Some educators may use excuses like:
- “They’re too hard to cater for”
- “Someone else will be meeting their needs”
- “I dont have the time or the resources”
- “They should just get on with it”
- “They should try harder to be like the rest of us”
- “They need to fit in with my style of teaching”
- “It’s the parents’ problem, so it’s their responsibility.”
Therefore, the onus on being able to participate falls on the excluded person’s shoulders. It takes a lot of time and energy to constantly work at being included. It is tiring. It is also a drag. People working hard to be included could be using their time much more productively.
Every one of us is different. It is scientific. no-one else on this planet is exactly like anyone else. We also have differences in terms of our cultural backgrounds, gender, sexual identity and physical, emotional and intellectual ability. The list goes on and is extensive.
How can one size fit us all?
- How many people did/do I know who were excluded in their school environment as well?
- How many people have missed, or are missing opportunities to channel their energy into something far more positive and productive than working at being able to participate?
- How many of our learners are being/feeling excluded right now?
So how can we be more inclusive?
It takes some personal and genuine reflection, observation and effort to be inclusive. You need to consider how inclusion or exclusion has impacted on your own life and possibly helped to shape the person you have become. You also need to be conscious of the science behind your own “unconscious bias and the possibility this presents to unintentionally exclude others”. Helen Turnbull outlines this effectively in her TEDx talk.
It is hard work to ‘quite simply’ include everybody. It is not that simple. Not to start with anyway. I am still working on it.
Here are some first steps:
- really know your learners
- recognise, focus and nurture each individual’s ability, rather than any ‘disability’
- enable people to be who they truly are and therefore able to channel their energy into:
- helping others
- collaboration, etc.
- recognise and remove barriers to learning and consider ways that digital technologies can support you to do this
- start exploring ideas, principles and resources that underpin the concept of inclusive education, including ideas around universal design for learning.
I have been lucky to have a family who have supported and encouraged me to be whatever I have wanted to be throughout my life. A couple of my teachers were amazing too and went out of their way to allow me to participate as much as possible in an educational setting. This had a significant and positive impact on my sense of inclusion and therefore my sense of wellbeing. I recognise this for what it is now.
I also recognise that I need to be more mindful and inclusive in my own practice. Therefore, I am currently reflecting on the following and invite you to do the same:
- What is that I/you might do to unintentionally exclude others?
- Where are my/your ‘blind spots’ (what am I/you not seeing)?
- How can I/you help all of my/your learners quite simply feel included right now?
For more information on inclusive education and universal design for learning, select the following links.
Inclusive Education: guides for schools
This site provides New Zealand educators with practical strategies, suggestions and resources to support learners with diverse needs.
Universal design for learning
Learning facilitator Chrissie Butler discusses Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a framework for looking at how we plan our goals, our teaching methods, the resources and materials we use, and the way we design assessments.
About Universal Design for Learning
Universal design for learning (UDL) is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.
The National Center on Universal Design for Learning
Founded in 2009, the National UDL Center supports the effective implementation of UDL by connecting stakeholders in the field and providing resources and information.
The Universal Design for Learning Guidelines
The UDL Guidelines are organized according to the three main principles of UDL that address representation, expression, and engagement.
The Inclusion Curriculum Principle
Inclusion is one of eight principles in The New Zealand Curriculum that provide a foundation for schools' decision making. The principle of inclusion can be used to guide formal curriculum policy and planning, classroom programmes, and teaching practice.