One of the main motivations for striving to support students with additional needs without segregation of space (or anything else) was to try to foster greater equality-rich diversity within the school community. Everyone learns, eats, socialises, transitions from A to B, celebrates, and is sanctioned together. It seemed logical to me that this would be enhancing and enriching for everyone involved. What new and exciting can come from sameness? Creativity and learning occur at the boundaries between things that are different. For children with additional needs, I hope that truly being part of the main will give them access to the best quality resources, empower them to feel entitled to that, and that they grow up and enter adult society demanding that it is made to work for them too. For our students who do not have an additional need, well I have hopes for them too. That, as a minimum and among other things, an opportunity to live and work alongside those who might seem different to you will feel as normal and routine and mundane as it should feel and that the enhancements and improvements to the structures and systems we make to be more truly inclusive will be beneficial to everyone in the school. It makes sense to me that better knowledge, understanding and empathy must come from experience.
Having an ‘us and them’ approach, based on the notion that there are able and disabled people or students and SEND students, is what facilitates us to not use qualified teachers for some of our most vulnerable learners. Beyond the school gate, it is what allows us to turn some people away from public spaces because adaptation to meet their needs was not deemed to be ‘reasonable’. It is clear to me that both the immediate and long term interests of some students would be hindered, even halted, by this approach. The risks of this way of working run deeper than just access to resources, though. That same lack of access, to both education and to experiences, could deskill and distance people and make it harder for them to fight back. In schools, I fear that our currently prevalent approach to inclusion literally teaches our children that some people sit outside of the systems that we are told time and time again are the best, are right, and are their entitlement. It’s an old adage, but we might talk the talk of inclusion but it is our actions that speak loudest. Having segregated systems, whatever we call them, sends a message – it confirms, consolidates and perpetuates an ‘us and them’ mentality. Not spending time with people you perceive to be different to you generates misunderstanding and apathy, even mystery and fear. At best, it’s a ‘not my problem’ problem but, at its worst, it’s the underlying cause of the harmful demonisation of people with disabilities as scroungers and a burden on society. We all benefit from diversity, but if we aren’t living it then how would we know?
I wouldn’t exactly say that the findings are surprising, but if you haven’t seen Scopes 2018 ‘disability perception gap’ policy report, it’s certainly an interesting read, albeit somewhat jarring. From the outset, the findings show that most people significantly underestimate the prevalence of disability in society and this then, of course, has a knock on effect on all the other results. If the majority of people surveyed don’t, by their own admission, see disability in their day to day lives, how can they form an opinion that’s balanced and fair? It does also raise the question, why are they underestimating in the first place? Why are people with disabilities missing from so many people’s lives? One of the starker (darker?) findings in the report is that the perception that people with disabilities ‘get in the way’ either some or most of the time quintuples with distance from disabled people, i.e. people who do not know anyone with a disability are five times more likely to have this belief than those who do.
Another question asks about whether attempts to give equal rights to disabled people have gone too far or not far enough and shows the same pattern, although there’s a lot more that surprises me about this data than just that, if I’m honest. And it is their typo, not mine, by the way.
I agree, of course… but what are we doing in education – whilst our students are so receptive to new information, learning how to function in a community, and preparing for successful and happy adulthoods – to help achieve this? What do our students learn about themselves and others through, not our words, but our actions, systems and structures? And, maybe more importantly, what opportunities to learn are we denying them?