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Commentary – Inclusion Flu: Time to Inoculate From This Grave Affliction!

Gordon Porter and little boy smile at the camera in classroom.By Gordon L. Porter, Director of Inclusive Education Canada

Is it possible to change the focus of the recurring attacks on the opportunity for children with disabilities to attend their neighbourhood/community school in Canada? It seems that the skeptics and critics have declared open season on the very idea of inclusion with the predictable regularity of our country’s flu outbreaks. Although we can be protected by getting a flu shot from the local pharmacy or the family doctor no such protection is available to students who are disparagingly said to be “included” who shouldn’t be. They are portrayed as a grave threat to the effective functioning of our public education system.

These recurring attacks on students with learning and behaviour challenges and the alleged danger they represent to other children and school staff is destructive on a number of counts.

First, it attacks some of the most important assumptions we have about Canada and the kind of society we are building. Since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted in 1982, we have prided ourselves on the values it represents – tolerance, equity, respect, equal rights and freedom from discrimination on the basis of ‘mental and physical disability’ among other factors (Section 15-1). Human rights legislation, education law and policy, and international obligations, including the CRPD (see Article 24), anchor this commitment. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s support for inclusion, diversity, and indeed his ‘sunny ways’ perspective reflects this Pan-Canadian mind-set.

Second, the attacks on inclusive education present a major assault on the confidence parents of children with disabilities have about the way others see their children. They feel threatened and consider the citizenship of their children at-risk every time the ‘Inclusion Flu’ breaks out in their community.

Third, the assaults on the very idea of inclusive schools weakens the efforts of school leader and teachers to make the changes, improvements and adjustments needed to make schools a place that welcomes all our children. It strengthens the nay-sayers; it supports those who suggest teachers and schools are not competent enough to make inclusion work; and, it flies in the face of the research that shows that inclusion works and that there are many examples of classrooms, schools and school districts where it is working.

Fourth, this ‘Inclusion Flu’ is situationally driven, often based on specific incidents that criticize an individual teacher or school. The teacher and school are almost always unable to respond to the media attack as a consequence of privacy policies. There is little effort to look at the issue in a systemic way.

If the story is not just based on one incident about one student, it might be a ‘he says’, ‘she says’ piece with a spokesperson for each side set up to induce conflict and debate. Intense, deep research needed is rarely if ever done. Critics gloss over the systemic challenges of making our schools successful for all our children is neglected.

Some recent comments about inclusion are below:

“There can be anything from unbelievable language to violence. Violence towards others or themselves. Not only throwing things but also biting or pinching or head-butting. You name it, they can do it.”

“At any moment, something could happen,” she said. “And they’re quick. You just don’t know when they’ll decide to grab somebody or flip their desk.”

Note the use of ‘they’ in the comments. Do we assume that these comments apply to every student provided with support by this source? Are all students with special needs the same? Do individual differences not manifest themselves in this school?

It is time we put an end to ‘Inclusion Flu’ in Canada. We can do that by joining hands – teachers, educational assistants, unions, parents and advocacy groups – and working together to make our schools the force for equality they can be. We can work together to put in place policies, funding, programs and practices that enhance our school system in Canada.

We can rid ourselves of this scourge of ‘Inclusion Flu’.

This commentary originally appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Education Watch.