Inclusive education: presence, participation, and learning

There are three components of inclusive education that matter a lot, which tend to get conflated:

  • Being present and welcome
  • Access to participation
  • Access to content

Being present and welcome means:

  • A person with a disability is in the room
  • Their right to be there is not questioned
  • People want them to be there
  • They’re seen as a student and treated as a peer by other students
  • They’re treated more or less respectfully
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re being taught the material, or that they’re meaningfully participating in educational activities

For instance:

  • A child with a disability may go to kindergarten, and spend a lot of time watching other children do educational activities.
  • Everyone might be very happy that they’re there.
  • Other children might like them, and play with them during recess or free play time.
  • They’re still left out of most activities
  • They’re still not being taught the same material as everyone else

Access to participation means:

  • When students are doing an activity, the disabled student isn’t left on the sidelines
  • They’re given something to do that makes them part of what’s happening
  • This doesn’t always give them access to the content, in and of itself.
  • They may or may not actually be learning the material the activity is supposed to teach.
  • They may or may not really be welcome in the classroom with their peers

For instance:

  • A group of third graders are being taught a lesson about sorting things into categories
  • The teacher draws a few giant Venn diagrams on big paper, with topic headings
  • The teacher writes a list of words on the board.
  • Students are told to draw those words, then tape them to the place in a Venn diagram category that they think it should go in
  • Then they’re given a list of words, and told to draw pictures of the words in the place in on the diagram that they think those things go
  • A disabled student’s aide gives them crayons and tells them to draw a couple of the pictures, then give them to the other kids to categorize
  • The typically-developing kids take the pictures and decide where to put them
  • Everyone is more or less happy with this. The student is participating and they are socially included.
  • But they’re not being taught the material about categorizing things. They’re just drawing pictures.

Access to content means:

  • The disabled student is taught the same material as other students
  • They’re given a way to engage with the material that they can understand
  • They learn the material, and develop their own thoughts on it
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re given a way to participate meaningfully in educational activities with peers
  • It also doesn’t necessarily mean that they are present or welcome

For instance:

  • A disabled student may attend a mainstream class, but be pulled out for one-to-one tutoring for most of their actual academic instruction.
  • If it’s good instruction, they’re getting access to the content.
  • But they’re not participating in educational activities with their peers.
  • They also may not really be welcomed in their mainstream class; people including the teacher may believe that they don’t have the right to be there (which is a factor that can lead to a lot of pull out instruction in and of itself).

This isn’t just about children, it’s true in every educational setting, including universities, grad school, and continuing education for adults.

Tl;dr Inclusion in school has many components. Three of them are being present and welcome, having a way to participate in educational activities with peers, and having access to the content being taught. All three of these things are important. Solving one problem doesn’t always solve the other two. It’s important to keep paying attention, and to work towards making sure students are welcome, that they are able to participate, and that they are learning the content being taught.