Disability inclusion has been a stated educational and cultural goal for years. The concept did not suddenly appear, but has evolved in accordance with public attitudes and, in some cases, legislation. Recently, that evolution has been effectively illustrated using images similar to this.
The progression begins at a point of exclusion, with an established population of non-disabled people e.g., a school or church, occupying the inner circle. Those with disabilities were simply left out.
Next comes segregation, in which people are offered education and worship in a dedicated, self-contained albeit separate setting.
From there, we move toward integration which truly is a meaningful step forward. The concept provides for programs within the practices of a school or congregation, but are still regarded as a defined entity within the whole community.
Finally, we arrive at inclusion, where, presumably, people with disabilities are diffused among those of us without. So, have we arrived? I’m not quite convinced.
For years, inclusion seems to have been the goal, but is it really? Could there be yet another step in the evolution of the cultural relationship? It’s an important question to consider because, as a conceptual model, even inclusion has its limits, most having to do with who has the power.
The nagging issues with inclusion
Inclusion assumes that a particular group has ownership and extends an invitation to others. It is kind, cordial, and quite sincere. “Come and join us. We’ll make a place for you here.”
We’ll make a place.
The implication is clear: This is our group, but we’ll let you in. Please come in but, at least for a while (or maybe forever), you will be regarded as a guest among us. It could be that this notion is represented in the illustration by the circle itself, and it highlights a weakness. What inclusion often lacks is a more authentic sense of belonging and ownership. Depth of relationship will always be limited if there is an assumed inequity of personal stake in the community.
Achieving that step, a true sense of belonging, requires a certain surrender by the group. It requires a position willing to say to the stranger, “This is just as much your place as it is ours,” or, “We expect to become something different now that you are here,” or, “How can we live out our core values and vision with the change you have made by your presence here?”
A second issue, really having more to do with the illustration than the matter of inclusion, is the appearance of an homogenous group within the circle. Is that really who we are? That view ignores the many disabilities that remain invisible to us, of course, but there’s more. For all our talk about the “spectrum” when it comes to autism, we conveniently lose sight of the broader spectrum of abilities on which we can all be plotted. We are a pretty neuro-diverse group to begin with, and where we choose to draw the line is not an issue of same vs. different, but rather an issue of social control.
Perhaps it is a good thing that the best we can do is hold this question of inclusion and belonging in some unresolved tension. In doing so, we have the opportunity to ponder a more fundamental question: Who has the power? Chances are, it’s the one drawing the circle.