When I read somewhere that the date to end all poverty had been extended I could hear the sigh of relief as policymakers returned to their numbers and budgets. We should be fair though. Goals to end poverty are extremely ambitious and we should congratulate ourselves for at least trying. Such is the case with the noble goals of inclusive education.
I had always understood “inclusive education” to mean that students with disabilities should have access to an education. The first image that comes to mind is the wheelchair-bound student and the ramps up to the classroom. Defining who is disabled, however, excludes anyone left off that list. Certainly we are considering the deaf and blind, but do we include the autistic and mentally challenged? As we try to include everyone, we start to suspect that doing so is impossible so we stretch the borders far enough to make the whole effort fuzzy enough. UNESCO uses the term to cover students potentially excluded because of religion, race, ethnicity, language, economic status, gender, HIV/AIDS, those who live in remote areas or who are immigrants. Rather than a strategy to address students with special needs, it becomes a non-discriminatory clause and sure enough, like to the sound of a politically correct slap on the wrist, teachers must be “culturally responsive” to achieve inclusiveness in the schools.
Contrary to what it might seem, this is no parlor game of words. The idea has bite and is substantiated by the Convention against Discrimination in Education (UNESCO), The UNESCO Salamanca Statement (1994) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006). How is inclusive education measured? Terms like “mainstreaming” and “integration” sound patronizing in this world of perfect diversity, but anything is better than the dirt attached to the word “segregation” so one convenient way is to simply count how many special needs students are sitting in regular schools. In most developing countries, such a student would be lucky to have space on a bench to sit on, much less expect that the teacher will be culturally responsive to their needs.
Though I’m not a proponent of cloistering special need students away in separate facilities, I also don’t see how increasing the number of mainstreamed students achieves the goals of inclusivity. Is the average education something they really want to be included in?
A deaf student is better off in a deaf school where signing is their first language than in a school where a teacher might shout or mime to communicate. Autistic students can thrive when provided with the right environment, but most mainstream classrooms would be a sensory nightmare.
What does this mean for resource challenged countries? Other than nice numbers on paper, how could they possibly achieve these goals? In regularly held formal conventions, time and thought shouldn’t be spend on how to craft words so that numbers can be met. Inclusive education should be discussed in a way that upholds the principal that education is for all and is not to be used as a tool to enhance privilege. The thought is almost counter intuitive, but when thinking globally while acting locally, policy makers could figure out how to make sending children to public schools a good choice, even for their own.