Are we done talking (about) inclusion?

I attended a conference on inclusion last week in Padova, Italy, and by doing so participated in writing a manifesto for inclusion ( written with the idea of call to action: it highlights the features that a context should have to be considered inclusive and the actions that should be taken for realizing it. Inclusion is a complex and multidimensional construct – a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary vision – which pegs the question whether the issue is too narrowly covered in Finnish educational discourse.

Inclusive education discourse in Finland is characterized by (special) needs ethos. In terms of education policy formation Finland undoubtedly is a predecessor for promoting inclusion; needs-based approach to support learning outcomes in general classroom setting whenever deemed possible as opposite to that of based on deficits (e.g., diagnoses) is internationally exemplary. However, this doesn’t give a reason to rest on one’s laurels. Discourses of inclusive and special education have strongly merged in Finland which doesn’t go un-criticized. Special educational knowledge domain has contributed to inclusive education movement by promoting the participation and learning of specific groups of student, such as students labeled gifted or those with certain impairments, that is absence of ability or lesser ability in comparison to ‘normal’ defined as that which is statistically frequent or that which is valued and desired. It is however the very grouping and labeling of students of specific kinds that simultaneously poses barriers to quintessential values of inclusive education regarding protesting against the status quo of schooling that creates and maintains dichotomies such as mainstream–special, able–disabled, and fundamentally, normal–other.

Contemporary needs ethos strongly, and uncritically, consists of discourses of normality and deficit nicely wrapped in the discourse of vulnerability. For instance, universities have courses coined erityisyys ja moninaisuus (special needs and diversity), although the concepts erityisyys and moninaisuus are fundamentally opposite to each other: the idea of the concept moninaisuus/diversity was to emancipate educators from using the language of labels, disorder and dysfunction (e.g., a child is “special,” “normal,” “gifted,” “ADHD,” “autistic,” “disabled” etc.) yet they are paired as if they represented the same discourse. Well, they don’t. In addition, universities have courses in which these so-called ‘special’ needs are explained through quasi-objective diagnostic labels such as ADHD. These labels are initially created to make experienced problems more comprehensible by describing set of behaviors/performance in certain environment in order to find ways to support both the individual and the environment, yet they tend to be reduced to descriptions of individual traits and deficits. Well, they are not.

When complex social and educational problems are reduced to pious (special) needs-based approach we often fail to ask what makes individual needs ‘special’ (e.g., issues of power, normalization, status quo), what and whose needs are we actually referring to (i.e., institutional vs. individual needs, teacher’s vs. student’s needs), and by what means and ends are these alleged ‘special’ needs catered to (e.g., forms of inclusion and exclusion). For instance, there is a definite difference between learning as an institutional objective imposed by others (e.g., teachers and parents) and demanded from the student, and learning as an endogenous need according to which an individual directs one’s actions.

So, perhaps we researchers who write and publish about inclusion in Finnish context could pay more attention on how we position ourselves within the paradigm in order to avoid neglecting the complexity of the issue at hand. Similarly, perhaps we teacher educators could revisit the concept inclusion and reconsider how we adhere to it in order to avoid building barriers to the very ideology we claim to protect. In the end, you reap what you sow.


Juho Honkasilta

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