Making Inclusion “Unremarkable”

Dec 03, 2015 at 8:00 am | Hits: 1724

By Justin Lee

People with disabilities and those with mental illnesses find it challenging to secure job interviews, much less employment. And when they do, these jobs tend to be low in prestige and are often low-paying. Due to their disability, they are often excluded from full participation in various aspects of social life — from school activities and access to media to free movement in public spaces.

An inclusive society is one where those with varying abilities are given an opportunity to participate and contribute in ways big or small, and to get rewards commensurable with those skills. Unlike a winner-takes-all market where top performers dominate, an inclusive society values diversity, including the diversity of talent. Therefore, a truly inclusive society is one where all can contribute.

In many ways, this is what the strengths-based approach in social work has been advocating in the treatment of marginalised groups. Instead of seeing impairment, we can see resourcefulness. In other words, instead of being fixated on what people with disabilities cannot do, and attempting to correct for that; the focus can be on what they are competent at, and building their strengths in those areas.

Inclusion can be problematic and challenging

While we aspire to create a more inclusive society, or even just inclusive services, there are many ways in which such initiatives can go wrong.

Research has shown that services that claim to be inclusive can be patronising or even oppressive. Scholars of disability issues like Paul Milner and Berni Kelly have explained how inclusion can be potentially oppressive in ways that may not be obvious to the non-disabled. For example, chaperoning people with disabilities to highly public spaces is simplistic evidence of community participation — as it may come at the expense of their comfort or choice. People with disabilities may feel like they are being put under the spotlight when they may actually want to avoid unwanted public attention.

This raises the question whether service providers should assume that the “publicness” of the spaces or their level of visibility are important requirements for inclusion. If volunteers were to visit a special school, is this somehow considered less inclusive than if the special needs children were brought into a mainstream school or even just a public playground? This is problematic because it assumes that “community” only exists in spaces that the majority occupies, and that mainstream settings are the only legitimate sites for inclusion. They argue that inclusion should also mean going into the spaces that are occupied by persons with disabilities, and challenge the “assumption that the path to social inclusion is unidirectional, involving people with disabilities making a journey to mainstream contexts without any expectation that non-disabled people need to make the return journey.”

It can therefore be challenging to get inclusion right: Policymakers and service providers sometimes simplistically assume that inclusion is better than exclusion, and more of it is better than less. While we do need to do more to accommodate people with disabilities, an inclusive social system is not one that simply seeks to include as much as possible, along all dimensions, across multiple contexts. In fact, inclusion as well as exclusion are part of the larger social mechanism of classifying, sorting and understanding people. If we were to say that more inclusion is better under all conditions, then we are simply removing our ability to exercise discretion, discernment and good judgment.

The problem is not exclusion per se, but problematic exclusion, where people are discriminated against based on unsound or unfair criteria. Therefore, the corollary is that we should not merely attempt to seek inclusion-at-all-costs but to figure out what counts as sensible inclusion. Is legislating a compulsory quota for hiring people with disabilities a sensible way of ensuring economic inclusion or a problematic form of affirmative action? This requires figuring out what types and dimensions of inclusion should be encouraged, and under what conditions.

How to achieve sensible inclusion?

In order to create better social inclusion, multiple values, principles and considerations are at play which should be taken into account. These are some key values and principles that we can use to better evaluate and design inclusive practices:

1. Is there an adequate number of viable options that reasonably encompass the diversity of preferences that people with disabilities have?

2. Are people with disabilities (PWDs) and their caregivers able to understand the nature and implications of those options as comprehensively as possible?

3. Are PWDs able to autonomously make decisions based on authentic preferences (free from unwarranted influence)?

4. Are PWDs given a chance like everyone else to access and participate in opportunities?

5. Social Justice. Where PWDs do not have a minimum acceptable quality of life, are they given some advantages to level the playing field in a way that does not overly burden others?

6. Does society have calibrated and conditional respect for PWDs based on an appreciation of the diversity of abilities?

These values are not a laundry list but form an interconnected whole. There is a sense of priority and sequence. For example, there is no point aspiring to autonomy if good options and choices do not exist. It is also pointless appreciating the authentic preferences of PWDs when there is insufficient knowledge about various options to allow PWDs to make rational decisions.

There is also an increasing degree of difficulty as we go down the list. Creating choice is simple in the sense that you can measure what and how many options are available. Measuring equity is much harder. For example, equal opportunity depends on the discretion of employers, who can claim to have “given a chance” to persons with disabilities by interviewing them, but assess that they do not measure up to the job requirements and are therefore not hired. Social justice is even more challenging, as it implicates some kind of affirmative action. It will be unclear how much support is considered reasonable accommodation, and how much is considered giving an unfair and unearned advantage to PWDs, resulting in resentment from others.

The list also shares attributes similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where areas that are highest in value are also paradoxically lowest in priority. We cannot meaningfully aspire to “higher” values such as respect when “lower” values such as choice and autonomy are not even satisfied.

Because respect is higher in value, it also means it is the most ill defined. It is therefore easy to go wrong here. For example, when well-intentioned people give encouragement to PWDs, they sometimes describe actions in heroic terms, proclaiming how proud they are of the PWD’s achievements. The hero reaction usually appears in the form of a compliment like, “I find you so inspiring” or “I am amazed that you can do that” or something similar.

Turning a person with disability into a hero is another common social reaction. This reaction is interesting — on the surface it appears to be positive, but it is actually a different type of negative reaction. These comments, though they show comprehension of the impacts of a disability, also serve to distance the PWD from the speaker. However, as disability scholars like Carolyn Vash and Nancy Crewe point out in the 2004 edition of Psychology of Disability, a disability is always there and living with it is not a heroic act — it is simply one way of living. To make a person with a disability a hero or an inspiration serves to distance the person from “normal” people. While being viewed as a hero may be better than being viewed as a defective wretch, both perceptions marginalise the persons in question and make them into outsiders.

When inclusion is unremarkable

Many of our services and policies are intentionally designed to be inclusive. There are inclusive playgrounds, inclusive gyms and integrated childcare. These are useful attempts to move one step closer to a more inclusive society. However, they are like the specially designed “reserved seats” in the public trains that indicate they should be given up to a senior, pregnant woman or person with disability when there is one present. This is a kind of noticeable inclusion, where accommodations are intentionally designed and clearly communicated to the public.

However, some forms of inclusion are less noticeable. For example, in the spirit of universal design, if regular toilets are wide enough to accommodate wheelchair users and have grab bars for seniors, it can certainly accommodate most users. There will be no need for specially designed services. In that sense, true inclusion is unremarkable.

We are still a long way from that, but imagine a future where there are no reserved seats on the public trains, but when a person with a disability boards, everyone is willing to offer up their seat. That would be remarkable.

Dr Justin Lee is a Research Fellow at IPS who does research on non-profits and social services. He is interested in disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, and has focused on the social inclusion of people with disabilities, proper end-of-life planning for vulnerable seniors and the re-integration of ex-offenders.

Justin is also featured on The Future of Us Ideas Bank Page (Dreamers)

 Top Photo from

Category: Young Singaporeans Series


Related articles