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Inclusion: Creating School and Classroom Communities Where Everyone Belongs

National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #14

By Gillian Parekh & Kathryn Underwood

In 2013, ‘A Case for Inclusive Education’ was released by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and explored the many reasons why inclusive pedagogical approaches to education are important. The TDSB has just released a new research brief on inclusive education that explores the questions: What is inclusive education, what it is not, and how can inclusion be achieved? Below is an excerpt from the latest research report entitled ‘Inclusion: Creating School and Classroom Communities where Everyone Belongs’ (pg. 3-5).

“All successful education environments are caring spaces. For more than 25 years, the centrality of care, based on the recognition of interdependence of all students and educators, has been identified as a critical part of effective teaching (Noddings, 1992, 2011; Gibbons, 2007). Caring classrooms are ones in which pedagogy and structural decision-making are defined by the individual students and their interactions in the classroom (Wood, 2015). Thus at the heart of inclusion are educators who understand that differences in students are part of what they bring to their social interactions and that interdependence of students is a natural part of the educational process.

In 2013, Underwood authored a document for the Ministry of Education entitled Everyone is Welcome: Inclusive Early Childhood Education and Care. In addition to covering critical areas of inclusive programming, such as how to promote equitable and inclusive access to services and supports, program design and implementation, as well as monitoring and assessment, Underwood identified key shifts in perspectives that are important to successful inclusive practice.

The social model of disability explores the complex relationship between an individual’s perceived impairment and the physical, structural, and attitudinal barriers encountered in society (Oliver, 1990). While an individual may have impairment, barriers in society can disable their full access and participation. Underwood (2013) notes that disability is now understood as “the interaction between the individual and their environment; it is not solely a characteristic of the child” (p. 5). Environmental barriers or lack of support resulting in restrictions of students’ ability to participate is how disability is, in part, currently conceived by many international organizations such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF (2012). “The complex interaction between a health condition or impairment and environmental and personal factors means that each child’s experience of disability is different” (p. 7). In addition, some individual characteristics that are conceived of as disabling in the broader society are thought of as important cultural traits within communities, for example the Deaf community and the Neurodiversity community. Three imperatives that Underwood (2013) highlights as critical to creating successful inclusive learning environments are as follows:

1) Understand that teacher attitudes are key in creating a successful inclusive program and “[e]ducators who believe that all children have a right to participation are more likely to find ways to reduce barriers and to understand how each child learns” (p. 5).

2) Structure inclusive programming to ensure that equitable and meaningful engagement and participation is happening in the classroom.

3) Create space for diverse bodies and abilities – there should not be an expectation of sameness or normalization as a result of intervention or inclusion strategies.

Since the release of A Case for Inclusive Education, many educators, administrators, agencies, and parents have put forward the following questions, “What does inclusion mean, what is it and what is it not?”

What is Inclusive Education?
1) An inclusive classroom is a place where all students experience a sense of belonging and social citizenship (e.g., membership, inclusion, shared power, and value) (Parekh, 2014).

2) An inclusive classroom modifies the environment to fit the student, not the student to fit the environment.

3) An inclusive classroom is a space where all identities and cultures (including disability culture) are celebrated.

4) An inclusive classroom prioritizes the right to participation and focuses on setting a positive climate where social engagement and friendships can be promoted (Underwood, 2013).

5) An inclusive classroom rejects deficit thinking and does not segregate or organize students according to ability.

What Inclusive Education is Not…
1) Inclusion is not assimilation (Slee, 2008). The goal of inclusion is not to “normalize” students or create sameness within a classroom. Inclusive education celebrates diversity and creates a space where all students with disabilities can feel a sense of pride.

2) Inclusive education does not restrict opportunities and spaces where students with disabilities can be together. Students with disabilities should have the opportunity to meet, and to create networks and communities of support.

3) Inclusive education is not drawn from a template; there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula. Inclusive schools and classrooms are organized and responsive to the demographics of students in attendance (Artiles, Kovleski, & Waitoller, 2011).

4) Inclusive education is not static; there is no end point where the inclusive education project is complete. Inclusive education is a continual state of becoming. It is a project that requires continuous review, assessment and revision (Artiles, Kovleski, & Waitoller, 2011).”

To learn more about key research indicators of inclusion and how to implement in your school or classroom, click here to access the full report.

14.GillianParekhGillian Parekh, Ph.D. is a SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellow with the Centre for Urban Schooling, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. With a PhD in Critical Disability Studies and years working as a teacher and researcher within the Toronto District School Board, Gillian’s primary research focus explores structural barriers in accessing education, particularly for students with disabilities. Her research interests include students’ experiences of social citizenship, belonging and exclusion, academic streaming, inclusive education, as well as the institutional and relational construction of gifted and disabled identities. Email – Gillian.parekh@utoronto.ca

14.KathrynUnderwoodKathryn Underwood, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the School of Early Childhood Studies, Ryerson University. Kathryn’s research interests are in human rights and education practice particularly with regard to disability rights and inclusive education. Kathryn’s research experience includes work in family-school relationships, special education policy, and early childhood education and care policy, in both Canada and internationally. Recent research has focused on parent viewpoints of early years services in early intervention. Email – kunderwood@ryerson.ca