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Inclusive Education: Perspectives on Implementation and Practice from International Experts
Jennifer A. Kurth
University of Kansas
Amanda L. Miller
University of Kansas
Samantha Gross Toews
University of Kansas
James R. Thompson
University of Kansas
Colombia Coordinadora Red de Familias por el Cambio
Mukunda Hari Dahal
National Association of Intellectual Disabled & Parents
Inés de Escallón
Paula Frederica Hunt
Disability, Education, & Development
Inclusive Education Canada
Indiana María Fonseca Salgado
Nicaraguan Association for Community Living
World Bank Group
Rolando Jr. Villamero
Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation
Kenya Association of Intellectually Handicapped
Citation: Kurth, J. A., Miller, A. L., Toews, S. G., Thompson, J. R., Cortes, M., Hari Dahal, M.,
. . . Wangare, F. (2018). Inclusive education: Perspectives on implementation and practice from
international experts. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 56, 471-485.
Access to a public education is a right of all children, including children with disabilities.
Mandates providing accessible, inclusive public education can be found in national policies and
international agreements as well as supported by research from countries across the globe. This
paper explores the perspectives of 11 international experts on the state of inclusive education in
countries spanning 5 continents. Experts participated in a focus group discussion at Inclusion
International’s 17th Annual World Congress 2018 in Birmingham, United Kingdom. Participants
shared multifaceted factors impacting inclusive educational practices. Based on their
experiences, participants also discussed strategies that were deemed effective or ineffective
depending on varied contextual elements. Implications for policy, research, and practice are
Key words: inclusive education, international perspectives, intellectual and
International Perspectives on Inclusive Education
The right to receive an education exists for children and youth in many countries across
the world; this right is affirmed in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO) position statement, originating in 1948 and updated in 2015. From
Canada, to Colombia, Comoros to Croatia, children have the opportunity to receive a public
education with their peers. Yet, millions of children are deprived of this right as a result of social,
cultural, and economic factors (UNESCO, 2018). One factor impacting equitable access to
education is the presence of a disability. Children and youth with intellectual and developmental
disabilities (IDD) are often systematically excluded from schools altogether, and general
education classrooms in particular (Aruna, 2016; Peters, 2003). A 2018 World Bank World
Development report indicates, “even in countries with high overall primary school enrollments,
children with disabilities are still significantly less likely to attend school” (p. 63). Children and
youth with disabilities are much less likely to attend school than children without disabilities,
particularly at higher grade levels (Kuper et al., 2014). The United Nations (UN), national
governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), advocacy groups, and citizens across the
globe have been advocating and producing legislation to support access to inclusive education
for children with IDD for over 30 years (Inclusion International, 2017; UNESCO, 1994). This
paper explores the perspectives and experiences of several international experts on the state of
inclusive education in countries that span five continents. Factors impacting inclusive
educational practices as well as strategies that are seen as effective and ineffective are explored.
Defining Inclusion and Inclusive Education
Special education emerged from a medical model of disability, in which disability was
viewed as a pathology and problem (Fisher & Goodley, 2007), and at a time when specialization
was heralded in much of the world (Sailor, 2008-2009). As a consequence, developing means to
separate students and implement specialized services was valued by many professionals (Kafle,
2014). Thus, the practice of special education today tends to reflect this process of separating
students with disabilities from the setting, activities, supports, and curriculum available to
students without disabilities. Moreover, the practices and processes of special education have
traversed geographical boundaries across national and international contexts.
However, the position that students with disabilities should be educated in regular
schools, with supports provided, has existed since at least the 1960s. The ‘principle of
normalization” emerged in northern Europe (Nirje, 1969), and advocated that the patterns of life
and conditions of everyday living for people with disabilities should be as close as possible to the
regular circumstances and ways of life in the broader social community. This idea was soon
applied to schools in Europe and beyond; by the 1970s, countries such as France and Canada
prioritized the ‘integration’ of students with disabilities in public schools, although separate
schools remained (Thomazet, 2009). Often, however, integration was in reality ‘mainstreaming,’
in which students with disabilities were only integrated when they were thought to be able to
complete the same curriculum as their peers (Abosi, & Koay, 2008; Hotulainen & Takala, 2014).
Thus, terms such as ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusive education’ emerged to differentiate practices.
Inclusive education is “a process that helps overcome barriers” to presence, participation,
and achievement in general education classes; inclusive education “strengthen[s] the capacity of
the education system to reach out to all learners” (UNESCO, 2017 p. 7). Inclusive education
refers to all students, including those with identified disabilities, as well as those who have been
historically marginalized, and refers to full membership in general education classes through
provision of supports and services to enable youth to be successful in that place (Waitoller &
Kozleski, 2013). Importantly, however, inclusion is not defined as a place; rather, it is a process
and practice of designing schools to support and benefit all learners (Artiles & Kozleski, 2016).
For the purpose of this paper, we use the definition of inclusive education outlined in the
Salamanca Statement (1994): “all children should learn together…Inclusive schools must
recognize and respond to the diverse needs of their students…ensuring quality education to all
through appropriate curricula, organizational arrangements, teaching strategies, resource use and
partnerships with their communities.”
Ecological systems theory is used in this article to account for the varying
contextual factors impacting students with disabilities. Bronfenbrenner (1977, 1994)
explained how relationships across various interdependent social structures affect
individuals, and how interactions with these systems shape student experiences and
opportunities. Ecological systems theory places the student at the center and identifies the
overlapping and interrelated systems that effect the individual. We use ecological systems
theory to consider how micro-, meso-, exo-, macro-, and chrono-systems influence the
experiences of (inclusive) schooling for students with disabilities.
Student. Student characteristics reflect those that are assumed and factual, each of which
can influence placement decisions (Ruppar, Allcock, & Gonsier-Gerdin, 2017). A student’s race,
gender, and age are all known co-variates of student placement in inclusive versus separate
settings. For example, a recent global analysis reported structural inequalities resulted in the
over-representation of ethnic minority, immigrant, and Indigenous youth receiving special
education services (Cooc & Kiru, 2018). Similarly, research in Bangledesh, revealed students
with intellectual disability who experience challenges in literacy were most likely to face
exclusion with only 16% of schools reporting they were prepared to support youth with
disabilities (Šiška & Habib, 2013). Likewise, research from the World Health Organization
indicates students with IDD across many countries, including those with high rates of school
attendance, are more likely to be placed in more restrictive settings or not attend school at all
(World Health Organization, 2011). Nevertheless, broad international support exists for the
practice of inclusive education when child outcomes are considered. For example, the Canadian
Council on Lessons in Learning (2009) found students with disability progress at least as well as
students taught in separate settings and may even have small academic benefits from inclusive
education. Similarly, in an analysis of 280 research studies in 25 countries, Hehir and colleagues
concluded, “the evidence presented…provides a clear message that inclusion should be the norm
for students with disabilities” (2016, p. 26).
Microsystem and Mesosystem. The microsystem refers to the environments where a
student immediately interacts with others on a regular basis and includes families and teachers.
Teachers are greatly impacted by inclusive education, because inclusive education usually means
“changing the way things are normally done” (O’Rourke, 2015, p. 231). When teachers consider
inclusive education, they tend to contemplate practical difficulties rather than the benefits to
students (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1996). Perceptions of inclusive education, then, have
significant consequences on local school level implementation (Beacham & Rouse, 2012). There
is growing international consensus that teachers have general dispositional support for inclusive
education at the pre-service (Avramidis, Bayliss, & Burden, 2000; Cameron & Cook, 2007) and
in-service levels (Ahmmed, Sharma, & Deppeler, 2012; Dupoux, Wolman, & Estrada, 2005).
However, this support is often mediated by professional expertise and experience (Čagran &
Schmidt, 2011), as well as the extensiveness of students’ supports (Haq & Mundia, 2012).
The family unit is also deeply impacted by the presence or absence of inclusive education
within the mesosystem (Piškur et al., 2016). For example, Human Rights Watch (2018) found
children with disabilities in Lebanon were excluded from school “due to discriminatory
admission policies, lack of reasonable accommodations, lack of inclusive curricula, and
discriminatory fees and expenses” (paragraph 4). Consequently, families provided necessary
supports for their children that schools did not. For example, parents in India may be expected to
hire “Ayahs,” or assistants, to support their child to gain physical access to schools, such as
climbing stairs and using toilets (Naraian, 2013). In other instances, families are expected to
provide the physical and academic supports to their children while they are at school.
Exosystem. The exosystem consists of social structures, events, and processes which
indirectly impact the student in their immediate environment. Teacher education and experiences
are considered here (Ruppar et al., 2017). Teacher education and experiences teaching students
with disabilities in general, and inclusively, necessarily vary considerably across and within
nations and states. For example, some teacher preparation universities include coursework
specifically focused on inclusive pedagogy (e.g., Spratt & Florian, 2015), whereas teachers in
other situations report receiving no pre-service preparation for inclusive education (e.g.,
Westbrook & Croft, 2015). Yet, teacher ratings of self-efficacy and attitudes about inclusive
education improve, while concerns decrease, following courses related to inclusive education
(Sharma & Sokal, 2015). Similarly, motivation and previous experience with inclusive education
improve teacher self-efficacy for inclusive education (Schwab, Hellmich, & Görel, 2017). And,
teacher attitudes toward students with disabilities have a significant impact on student academic
success and behavior (Oluremi, 2015). Together, these findings suggest significant positive
impacts of pre-service teacher preparation for inclusive education (Robinson, 2017).
Macrosystem. The macrosystem refers to policies, structures, cultural, and social values
impacting students with disabilities and their access to inclusive education. On the policy level,
the UN has been a strong proponent of every child’s right to education. Beginning with the 1948
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signatory countries have agreed to provide a free,
compulsory education to all children regardless of race, gender, language, color, socioeconomic
status, national origin, or birth order (UN Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; UN Convention
on the Rights of the Child; 1989). However, it was not until The Salamanca Statement in 1994
that there was a stated urgency and necessity to provide access to the education for children with
disabilities (UNESCO, 1994). This commitment was solidified in 2006 with the UN Convention
on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which asserts all signatory countries
ensure an inclusive education system at all levels (UN, 2006, Article 24(1)) and further stipulates
that no child should be excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability
(UN, 2006, Article 24 (2)(a)). As of June 2018, 177 countries have ratified the convention and 11
countries have signed to indicate they are considering ratification pending further review
(UNCPRD, 2018). Recently, the Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable
Development, further asserted a commitment to inclusive education, suggesting countries “build
and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive” as one way to
ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all (Resolution A., 2015, (4)(a)). The 2017
UNESCO Guide to Equity and Inclusion further supports implementation of goal four of the
2030 Agenda by presenting specific guidance for integrating inclusive practice into national
policy (UNESCO, 2017).
Other cultural and social values further impact children with disabilities and their access
to inclusive schools, including how societal members view the etiology of disability. Causes of
disability have been attributed to a range of sources, including witchcraft, family curses, and
blessings and gifts from a higher power. Causes of disability have also been attributed to genetic
factors, medical interventions (e.g., birth circumstances, illness; Grech, 2014), and
environmental factors (e.g., war, natural disasters; Mills & Fernando, 2014). These beliefs are
based on a combination of ethnocultural, economic, and personal considerations (Lamichhane,
2013) and have influences across ecological systems (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998).
Chronosystem. The chronosystem refers to changes over time that affect a student.
Numerous international policy changes, as described previously, have certainly impacted access
to inclusive schools for students with disabilities. Other chronosystems impact inclusive
education as well. Many countries have deep histories of discrimination based on race, ethnicity,
and gender. Such practices inevitably influence on-going cultural norms and practices
(Engelbrecht, 2006). The historical segregation of people with disabilities into institutions and
special schools is likely a significant factor in the persistent lack of equitable inclusive schooling
today (Slee, 2013). As a consequence of this, dual programs of education have emerged: special
and general education. These competing systems have proved difficult to disentangle and merge
into unified, inclusive systems that support all students (Naraian, 2013), and continue to serve as
barriers to equitable inclusive education worldwide.
Research Purpose and Question
The purpose of this research was to gain an international perspective on the state of
inclusive education (i.e., the education of students with disabilities in general education
classrooms with appropriate supports). The specific goals were to understand the (1) contextual
factors impacting inclusive education and (2) status of inclusive education in represented
countries, including perceived successful strategies for promoting inclusive education and
exiting barriers. The following research question is thus addressed: What are the opinions and
experiences of particular international experts on the status of inclusive education for youth with
intellectual and developmental disabilities in the countries and/or provinces they work in?
The purpose of this study was to describe the perspectives of 11 international experts
attending Inclusion International’s 17th Annual World Congress 2018 in Birmingham, United
Kingdom regarding the state of inclusive education in the countries and provinces they worked
and lived in or felt they could speak to regarding recent past work- or life-related experiences.
Participants and Settings
The participants represented nine home countries: Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic,
India, Kenya, Nepal, Nicaragua, Philippines, and Portugal. They shared experiences related to
said home countries in addition to experiences they have had working and/or living in the
Balkans, Comoros, Ethiopia, Ghana, Italy, Mali, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, U.S., and Zanzibar as
well as the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick. Four participants were parents of
a child with a disability and two were family members of a person with a disability. Their
positions varied and included educator, school administrator, governmental position in disability
services, private organization in disability advocacy or services, and university faculty member.
Years of experience ranged from 10-47 years (Mdn = 23). None of the experts identified as a
person with a disability.
Role of the Researcher
The research team consisted of two university faculty members and two doctoral
students. The research team was entirely from the U.S. and all identified as white. One team
member had worked with teachers and youth overseas and one had spent four years of her
childhood in Western Europe. One team member was a parent of an individual with a disability
and two had siblings who identified as having a disability.
All research team members had assumed various roles in school settings prior to working
on or completing their doctoral studies in special education in the U.S. The team shared common
research agendas focused on inclusive education and individuals with IDD. Based on the
literature as well as our teaching experiences and research interests, the team hypothesized that
experts would share dynamic and diverse experiences concerning disability and inclusive
education. We aimed to better understand their multifaceted experiences at local, regional, and
country levels across policies, practices, structures, and belief systems.
Data Sources and Collection
The focus group took place in person and was conducted by one member of the research
team, also an attendee of the conference. We obtained informed consent from each participant
prior to the start of the focus group. The semi-structured interview was guided by an interview
protocol (Merriam, 2002). The conversations that ensued were open-ended, but the guiding
questions focused on inclusive education for youth with disabilities. Prompts included: What is
the current status of inclusive education in your country or in countries in which you are
familiar? Are there any means to measure, or monitor, the status of inclusive education? What
are some possible cultural norms or expectations in your country or other countries with which
you are familiar that might serve to either encourage more inclusive education or discourage it?
The focus group was audio recorded and sent to a third-party transcription service.
Three of the four research team members participated in the analysis and met at least
once a week throughout this phase. First, the team read through the focus group transcript while
listening to the audio recording. Any transcription errors were edited at this time. Then the team
read through the transcript a second time to begin looking for small meaningful units of
information as conveyed by the participants as related to the research question (Maxwell, 2013;
Rodwell, 1998). The units (sometimes entire quotes) were sorted into categories and the
categories were then defined. The team members used structural coding in this first round of
analysis. Structural coding helped the research team look for similarities and differences across
participant perspectives pertaining to each interview question (Saldaña, 2013). While presenting
representative units, categories, and definitions to one another, the team looked for overlap and
disagreement in how members had conceptualized their categories by staying close to the data
and returning to the transcript (Rodwell, 1998). The team sought consensus on disagreements,
reorganized the emerging codes, and created a code book by using causation coding in the
second round. Causation coding lead the team to focus on the participants’ perspectives around
the causes and outcomes as they pertained to the status of inclusive education (Saldaña, 2013).
Then, team engaged in codifying as the codes were reapplied to the data (Saldaña, 2013).
Credibility and Trustworthiness
The team sought credible qualitative inquiry through several means. First, the team
engaged in collaborative work which involved multiple team members in the analysis of the
participants’ realities (Brantlinger, Jimenez, Klingner, Pugach, & Richardson, 2005). Second,
when possible, the team used the language of the participants to name and define the categories
(Charmaz, 2006). Staying close to the data and using the language of the participants increased
the credibility in the analysis. [Finally, the team engaged in second-level member-checking
wherein the analysis and interpretations were presented to the participants prior to publication for
support of the research teams’ conclusions (Brantlinger et al., 2005).]
Focus group participants discussed contextual factors that impacted inclusive education
as a dynamic construct based on their experiences. Contextual factors included spatial,
historical/temporal, ideological, social, political, and economic elements. First, we discuss how
these complex factors intersected and lived out across diverse and dynamic contexts. Then, we
explore strategies for promoting inclusive education. Finally, we discuss barriers to inclusive
education from the participants’ perspectives.
Political and Ideological Dialectics
Focus group participants often discussed how political and ideological factors impacted
the status of inclusive education in nuanced and dynamic ways. Moreover, participants also
described ways in which political and ideological factors intersected and in doing so, influenced
the status of inclusive education in tandem in particular countries. We defined political factors
as: “Participants discuss political factors that impact the status of inclusive education including
local and national governmental policies, decisions, and implementation strategies.” Political
factors were also represented when participants discussed competing agendas across
organizations and governmental structures. We defined ideological factors as: “Participants
discuss how there are different perspectives on, beliefs about, and definitions for what inclusive
education means and therefore how it is enacted.” Ideological factors were also represented when
members described who inclusive education was for and how disability was (or was not)
conceptualized in their respective countries.
Beliefs about inclusive education were impacted by policies from within governmental
structures. For example, in Nicaragua, students with disabilities were supported by the
government to attend school. Indiana, the director of an organization promoting the advancement
of inclusive practices in Nicaragua, explained, “Children have support, we have a structure from
the Ministry of Education that supports [children with disabilities participating in inclusive
education], but the concept of support is with a special focus. Not with an inclusive focus.” Here
Indiana explained how a dual system was operating in Nicaragua. The idea of inclusive
education was supported through governmental policy, but the act of inclusive education lived
out as a traditional separate entity.
Ruchi, an inclusive education specialist at the World Bank, had a similar sentiment. She
explained how most countries at the policy level are “found to be having the right words.” In
fact, she would generally “hear people saying the policy is good.” However, when you dig
deeper, the definitions and meaning behind the policy was unclear. She questioned, “What are
the definitions and what is the actual understanding about the policy?” Ruchi then complicated
this further explaining how certain types of disability categories were completely left out of
policy documents. For example, some policies did not hold the belief that youth with intellectual
disability were part of the inclusive education conversation and thus, intellectual disability was
not mentioned in the governmental documents. As Indiana discussed earlier, Ruchi was also
experiencing how ideologies that were left unfinished or misunderstood at the government level
had lasting impacts on actions and planning within local communities and schools.
As the group members shared the complexities of the status of inclusive education across
countries, another political-ideological interaction was shared through Jan’s experiences. Jan, an
academic in The Czech Republic, spoke about consulting with the Ethiopian government. He
described how Ethiopia, as one of the only countries in Africa that was not colonized, had
recently developed a ten-year master plan for inclusive education. He further explained,
“Ethiopia does have two strong policies on inclusive education.” While he noted this was a step
in the right direction from a political standpoint, two ideological factors arose. First, was the
“unwillingness of special schools to turn into, to be open to inclusive education.” And the second
was that youth with intellectual disability were placed on a hierarchy of access wherein they
would be “the last to have access to education.” In other words, Ethiopia’s government was
preparing policy documents that would guide the country’ schools in become more inclusive.
Yet, beliefs about what inclusive education was and who it was meant for persisted in practice.
Space and Economics Intersect
Participants discussed ways in which elements of spatiality as well as economic
influences impacted the status of inclusive education. Spatial factors encompassed how inclusive
education was or was not enacted through and across varied settings, including physical school
structures and where children spent time during the day. We defined spatial factors as:
“Participants discuss spatial factors that impact the status of inclusive education including
physical structures, construction, and spatial infrastructure planning.” Within this complex
junction, participants also discussed economic influences such as neoliberal-driven decisions
wherein schools took up business models when considering the impact on change towards
inclusive education. We defined economic factors as: “Participants discuss economic factors that
impact the status of inclusive education including money, purchases, and costs.” While spatial
factors as well as economic elements impacted the status of inclusive education on their own,
participants also discussed ways in which spatial and economic factors worked in tandem to
influence the status of inclusive education in their respective countries.
Participants discussed ways in which spatial and economic factors operated together to
impact access to schools for youth with disabilities. Here, access included material, physical,
social, and academic access. For example, Monica, the director of a Colombian organization that
promotes inclusive education, stated, “We know how many students have registered in the
[school] system but we don’t know how many are out [of school youth]… We need to call it
what it is. In many countries maintaining a dual system of education is a business.” Monica’s
perspective echoed how different spatial factors including where youth were located (out of
school versus in school, in the register versus invisible) intersected with how schools were being
operated (based on a business model).
Later in the focus group, the complexities of space and economics arose when discussing
resources (material, economic, social) across countries. Gordon, the director of Inclusive
Education Canada, explained, “So in wealthier places, you can buy solutions that sort of mask
the problem in a way that you can't in poor countries. They can't buy that… You can ease the
tension in rich countries because you can buy temporary solutions.” Here, Gordon described how
money could ease the strain associated with advancing inclusive education by “masking” what is
actually happening in a particular location. In this way, monetary resources could be used to
preserve previously established educational practices in schools at local and national levels.
It was revealed through the participants’ conversations that change concerning inclusive
education for youth with disabilities is multifaceted. Paula, a consultant for Inclusion
International from Portugal, also responded to the question surrounding resources, “But then in
rich countries, you have a lot more segregation. Toronto is a rich city and it can have a school for
the deaf, a school for the blind because it has more resources.” Here, Paula complicated the
narrative that wealthier countries (economics) have more inclusive schools and communities
(space). Further, the participants’ responses exemplified the complexities intersecting within
economic and spatial factors across local, regional, and national geographies. Next, we discuss
strategies participants shared for promoting inclusive education, followed by identified barriers.
Strategies for Promoting Inclusive Education
Participants shared a number of strategies that facilitate the implementation of inclusive
education locally and nationally including using collective agency, using model schools,
contextualizing practices, and shifting ideologies.
Having collective agency. We defined collective agency as: “Participants discussed
working with political leaders, families, and other leaders to advocate for inclusive education.”
Collective agency was discussed by participants through examples of actions they, along with
others, have undertaken. For example, Fatma, with Inclusion Africa, discussed establishing a
working relationship with a newly appointed directorate in the Kenyan government: “We have
regular interactions with them. And there is a lot of discussion [about] moving towards inclusive
education.” Collective agency was not discussed by participants as a singular effort; rather, as
Indiana described in her work with families and the Ministry of Education in Nicaragua, it is a
sustained effort to “push the topic [of]…real inclusive education” across many opportunities.
The participants’ responses thus demonstrated the on-going need to work together, over time, to
advocate for and implement equitable inclusive education.
Using model schools. This group of experts also discussed the importance of making
inclusive education visually and tangibly real to stakeholders to make a very abstract idea real.
We defined the use of the model schools strategy as: “Participants discussed taking stakeholders
to visit model inclusive schools.” Participants considered strengths of this approach as bridging
theory into practice. As Jan noted, model schools “play a very important role in promoting
inclusive education [for] others on the regional or local level.” While participants identified
strengths of this strategy, they also acknowledged some of its complications. As Ruchi noted,
many of these model classrooms originated as pilot programs, and once the funding for these
pilot programs end, so do the inclusive classrooms. What is needed, then, as Ruchi further
described, is a focus on sustainability that incorporates the strengths and skills of the local
community to maintain these model inclusive pilot programs over the long term. Another
complication to model schools was explained by participants as a contextual fit between the
model school and the local community. As Jan noted, “an excellent school or model might be
completely different than the [local] context.” Thus, there is limited expectation that a model
school will contribute to creating further inclusive schools; instead, Jan suggested creating “case
studies” in which inclusive model schools share strategies that worked, and did not work, as a
strategy for bridging a gap between model school and local contexts. As discussed by the
participants, the potential benefits of using model schools of making inclusive practices real,
while also noting their potential pitfalls in terms of sustainability and contextual fit.
Contextualizing practices. The need to contextualize practices was a dominant strategy
discussed by the participants. We defined contextualizing practices as: “Participants discussed
strategies that accounted for situations in particular towns, cities, and countries that would move
processes and practices towards greater inclusivity in schools.” As Gordon noted, inclusion is
going to look and be different in diverse local and national areas, because conditions and
practices of schools vary globally. As an example, he noted schools in India may have 50
students in a class, whereas Canadian classrooms may have 25 students. The teaching practices
and supports in these contexts will necessarily vary, but students with disabilities can be
successfully included in natural proportions in both contexts. Similarly, Paula noted countries
like Ghana have “no special schools, no special education personnel trained. [There] are no
support services, and children with disabilities have never been in school. My approach to
[promoting] inclusive education is going to be completely different [there compared to places
like] Eastern Europe with a very solid tradition of special education.”
Participants discussed the need to contextualize practices in contrast with the top-down,
one-size-fits-all approach common from many governments and NGOs. Instead, as Gordon
stated, “people will develop their own good practice” to fit the local contextual strengths and
needs, and that doing so will require ongoing work, as “new problems are identified [and] new
[contextually relevant] solutions sought.” This idea of building on local capacity was expanded
upon by Mukunda, the president of The National Association of Intellectual Disabilities and
Parents in Nepal, who described a process for identifying strengths and opportunities: “What
infrastructure do we have? How can we make this classroom inclusive?” A further example of
contextualizing discussed by the participants related to understanding needs in a broader national
context. As Rolando, an expert on inclusive education from the Philippines working for UNICEF
Africa, noted, governments and NGOs are often forced to make decisions based on local and
national priorities, and because some countries grapple with repeated natural disasters, such as
typhoons and earthquakes in the Philippines, national leaders may be tempted to say “there’s so
[many] bigger problems… your issue [inclusion] is not as important as these other issues.” To
account for this, one strategy identified by Monica was to advocate that school resources are
used for all students, so that “everybody can be better.”
Participants also expanded contextualizing practices beyond physical environments and
related it to the people working for inclusive education. This form of contextualization related to
inclusive education experts needing to be both cognizant of their role as an outsider and to build
local capacity. At times, participants described being positioned as an outside expert as
threatening to the local community. Fatma described this tension, noting that colleagues have
told her she is “bringing Western concepts to Kenya.” Thus, the participants described a need to
address contextualization in their work, such as providing information assisting colleagues to
think through information rather than “imposing something.” Tapping into political goodwill and
flexibility in local communities who are interested in supporting members of their own
communities was also described: “Communities have come in to support [students with
disabilities]...[they] build ramps, accessible toilets, [provide] teacher aids to support teachers”
and generally provide substantive resources to support the children in their community.
Throughout the discussion, participants identified a variety of strategies to promote a contextual
fit for implementing and sustaining inclusive practices, including understanding the historical
and contemporary educational practices of the community and nation, building and engaging
local capacity with a focus on all students, and capitalizing on local systems of support.
Shifting ideologies. Just as contextualizing was discussed as a key strategy for
supporting inclusive education, participants reported the need to shift ideologies to reflecting
increasing inclusive practices. Shifting ideologies was defined as “Participants discussed
reimagining and reframing education as inclusive of all students.” Shifting ideologies, then,
meant “changing the lens” of how inclusive education is discussed and envisioned. Participants
noted that countries without established segregated models of education presented unique
opportunities to build inclusive schools from the beginning. As Paula noted, “what you are going
to have to do is create a system from the ground up. Which means that you are not going to
spend your money and time and effort in creating special schools and special education staff, and
all of those mechanisms that have been a barrier.” Participants identified this as an occasion to
expand the idea of inclusive schools to benefit all marginalized students. As Indiana stated, “we
have to [be] open with other groups…that are excluded for any reason...and [work together] for
inclusive education for all.” Participants discussed how forming alliances facilitates shifting of
ideologies to embrace the goal of inclusive education for all. Participants described how this
might require advocates to, as Ruchi noted, “simplify the message of inclusive education.” Ruchi
also reiterated, a simple message that inclusion means “all children [are] in school together, all
children learn together” might make the movement towards inclusive education more impactful
and sustaining. In their conversations, participants noted the opportunities for expanding the
focus of inclusive education to be truly inclusive of all students, noting the benefits such a
comprehensive, simplified definition would confer to stakeholders.
Barriers to Inclusive Education
Participants shared barriers to inclusive practices. We defined barriers as: “Any system,
practice, or thinking that promotes inclusive education for some but not all students.” In other
words, “taking baby steps” toward inclusion in ways that are unsustainable or that negatively
impact access to general education content and contexts act as a barrier to authentic, workable
inclusive education. A readiness approach to inclusive education, sustainability, and external
support were identified by multiple participants as barriers to the continued implementation of
inclusive practices. These barriers to inclusion were strategies or practices that inhibited progress
or promoted more segregated educational practices.
Readiness approach. A readiness approach to inclusive education was defined as:
“Practices that continually exclude children with disabilities from the general education content
and contexts until they meet prerequisite skills or levels of independence.” This approach
included systems and practices that considered inclusive education as a viable option for only
children who “fit” into the existing general education system without needing extensive
individualized supports. Monica described elements of the readiness model as, the view that “the
child is not ready;” acknowledging that this “tends to be the rationale people use” to explain why
certain students are not eligible to be included in general education classes. Fatma added that
many children are placed in special education classes based solely on a medical diagnosis or
academic assessment. As an example, she noted that if a student “has Down Syndrome, [they
are] placed in a special unit. [Student placement] does not look beyond the diagnosis to what
supports and services the child requires for them to be able to learn on an equal basis with the
others." The readiness approach seemed to extend out of schools and into policy. Ruchi
explained that, “children with intellectual disabilities [were] mostly not mentioned” in her review
of the education sector action plans for 59 countries. Instead, “the disabilities that [were]
generally captured in terms of implementation provision and action planning, are what I like to
call the “lowest hanging fruit." Ruchi defined “lowest hanging fruit” as, students who do not
require extensive supports to access inclusive educational opportunities. Other participants could
be heard agreeing with this definition. The readiness approach, or belief that children with IDD
are not prepared or do not have adequate skills to participate in general education content and
contexts, was a theme woven through the discussion by many participants.
Sustainability. A second theme identified across participants as a barrier to inclusive
practices was sustainability. Participants defined the barrier of sustainability as: “Practices that
are advocated for and implemented by individuals or short-term initiatives such as pilot
programs that are not able to be scaled up.” The difficulty of having only small pockets of
support for inclusive education was described by Diane, chair of Inclusion International, “There
may be children with disabilities who are included well in a particular class or in a school, but
that is so dependent on the particular teacher or the fact that a child does not need anything that
would require systemic support.” She added that when a child with disabilities who was included
moves to a different grade or school with less support for inclusion, they are typically placed
back in a more segregated learning environment. Inclusive pilot-school programs were identified
as a threat to the sustainability of inclusive practices. Gordon stated that pilot-schools “are a
waste of time” while Ruchi added, “At the World Bank there is research which says that none of
the bank [pilot school] projects have been successfully scaled up.” Gordon expressed, “Making
schools inclusive is an ongoing, everlasting challenge… and [short term] pilots are never going
to get you to where you want to go.” Instead, ongoing support from a systems level, with policy
makers, school administration, teachers, and parents, continually working together to sustain
inclusive practices is a necessity.
External supports. Lastly, external support in the form of foreign aid and NGO
initiatives emerged as a theme in the discussion of barriers to inclusive education. The theme of
external support as a barrier was defined as: “The integration of financial or material supports
that do not promote inclusive practices or intentionally integrate separate educational services for
children with disabilities.” Diane explained a frequent problem of external support occurs when
governments accepted foreign aid with no measure of what it will accomplish, “whether it is
another donor country, a multilateral institution, or international non-government organization, if
someone is bringing money into a country, they are allowed to do whatever they want.” The
problem occurred when there was “no standard in terms of what they are promoting in terms of
education of students with disabilities” because they may be perpetuating segregated support
models. While participants discussed positive impacts NGOs have regarding inclusive education,
their comments often came with a caveat such as Indiana’s, “I saw an international organization
supporting a primary school [where the] focus is special, and they do not know anything about
inclusive education.” Ines also voiced concerns about schools run by NGOs, “Even [international
and local NGOs] run some schools. Which, they are not schools, they are day programs for
people with disabilities.” Indiana suggested that this barrier may be best addressed by fostering
collaboration between advocacy groups, NGOs, donors, and governments.
A rich focus group discussion amongst 11 experts on inclusive education, representing
five continents. Analysis of the focus group transcripts resulted in the identification of factors
affecting inclusive education, including its barriers and facilitators.
Participants identified a variety of intersecting factors impacting inclusive education,
including policy, space, and economics. Education policy was described in terms of both its
written content and how it is enacted, with participants identifying ways in which these often
contrasted. While developing written policy is an important first step in creating innovative
practices, the capacity of policy to accomplish national and international goals remains uncertain
(e.g., Dauyoung & Dhungana, 2014). Participants similarly noted tensions between space and
economics when describing factors associated with inclusive education. While access to
physical and monetary resources may support inclusive practices in some locales, access to
resources can also serve as a barrier to inclusive education by facilitating the construction of
separate, ‘specialized’ facilities (Slee, 2008). Similarly, contexts with less access to monetary
resources may be rich in human resources, enabling communities to develop highly supportive
inclusive schools, which is less costly than building separate, specialized schools (World Health
Organization, 2011, Ch. 7).
Among the strategies for implementing inclusive education, participants highlighted the
need to focus on contextual fit when transferring successful practices from one setting to another,
collective agency, and focusing on all students. Contextual fit was described as using local
resources, strengths, and capacity to implement inclusive practices. International studies have
consistently recognized local teachers and schools require human and material resources to
implement inclusive practices, and that such resources are most effective when they align with
contextual needs and strengths (e.g., Ahmmed et al., 2012). When considered globally, the need
for contextual fit becomes even clearer, as resources, needs, and capacities in terms of teacher
preparation, policy, and historical contexts vary considerably and play important roles in
determining the most effective strategies for implementing inclusive education practices.
Participants also noted a shifting of the lens of inclusive education to be truly all-
encompassing of all marginalized students, not just those who experience disability. This was
identified by participants as a philosophical value (Shyman, 2015), but also a practical strategy.
Combining advocacy resources allows stakeholders to work together towards a common goal of
quality, inclusive education for all students, preventing the fracturing of messages and resources.
Participants noted this will require collective agency, but also a uniform definition of inclusive
education. The movement towards inclusive education has long been plagued by lack of
consistent definition of the term globally (e.g., Thomazet, 2009; Waitoller & Kozleski, 2013). To
make progress, then, a definition of inclusive education that is comprehensive in its focus on all
students, and easy to describe to others, is needed.
Three barriers to inclusive education were identified consistently across participants.
Barriers included a readiness approach to inclusive education, sustainable instructional models,
and external support. A readiness approach to inclusive education was described by participants
as practices in which students must attain certain skill levels before being included. International
research corroborates the participant discussion, noting schools and education systems typically
situate the barrier to inclusive education within the student, rather than addressing the
educational resources and accommodations necessary for students (Daeyoung & Dhungana,
2014; De Los Ríos, 2007). An equity-based approach that adheres to the UNCRPD call to
provide effective supports that maximize academic and social development is necessary to move
away from the exclusionary practices of a readiness approach (UN, 2006). Additionally, it will
be important for teachers, administrators, and policy makers to shift beliefs that highlight student
deficit to a more strengths-based approach (Oluremi, 2015, Johnstone & Chapman, 2009).
Sustainability of inclusive practices emerged as a barrier described by many focus group
participants. Focusing on pilot programs, or individual teachers or schools, rather than systems
level change embodied this barrier. While pilot programs have been effective in changing local
attitudes toward inclusive education, without explicit local and national policy in conjunction
with systems level support, it is unlikely pilot programs will have a lasting or far-reaching impact
on inclusive practices (World Health Organization, 2011). Rather, multi-level, systemic support
for inclusive education has been identified as a necessity to ensure sustainability of inclusive
education for students with disabilities (Johnstone & Chapman, 2009).
External support in the form of donor aid or initiatives also emerged as a barrier to
inclusive practices. Participants reported countries often accept financial or material aid for
education without ensuring the implementation of that aid reflects inclusive practices.
Consequently, multiple international NGOs, bilateral agencies, multilateral agencies under the
UN, and the national government may all run separate educational initiatives (Kafle, 2014).
Thus, there is a need for all initiatives to have a common philosophy of inclusive education.
Limitations and Future Directions for Research
The limitations of the present study inform future research. The single focus group as the
corpus of data analyzed is the most significant limitation. Future research investigating
international stakeholder perceptions ought to include additional data sources, such as analysis of
policy documents. Similarly, the viewpoints expressed represent only a small portion of the
stakeholders working to promote inclusive education globally. Future research would benefit
from increasing the diversity of perspectives shared, including those working for governments,
NGOs, and in local schools. Moreover, focus groups provide a limited perspective and would
benefit from in-depth observations of inclusive education in action. Finally, future focus groups
and observations should include students and adults with disabilities, along with family
members, as participants, as these perspectives were largely absent in this study.
Implications for Policy and Practice
Findings from the current study provide a variety of implications for policy and practice,
each of which must be interpreted within the context of the limitations of the present study.
Three policy implications are considered here. First, responses from the focus group highlight
the need to specifically include students with IDD in policy documents referencing inclusive
education. Without such a direct reference to include this population, their continued exclusion
from school, and school inclusion, is at risk. Secondly, policies must reflect contextual factors at
the local, state, and national levels. Simply copying existing, albeit well-crafted, policies from
one nation or context to another jeopardizes the ability to implement the policy given local
cultural norms and practices. Finally, policy “in the books” must better reflect policy “in
practice.” In other words, written policies should be enacted in real schools, in consideration of
the current education practices, resources, and expectations of the setting. When written policies
are dramatically out of touch with current practices or expectations, professionals on the front-
line of service delivery may continue to create different, less-inclusive policy by their daily
actions and decisions (Lipsky, 2010).
We further consider two practice implications of the current study. First, advocates
promoting inclusive education must be cognizant of their role, and place, as an outsider. That is,
advocates must recognize any effects of their positions and ideologies, including how these
match, or fail to match, local cultural norms, practices, and ideologies. Supporting local capacity
to encourage inclusive practice is essential. Second, advocates working for inclusive education
would benefit from a focus on sustainable, reciprocal partnerships (Darling, Dukes, & Hall,
2016). As described by participants in this study, many inclusive education endeavors risk being
short-term pilot programs, supported by outside groups without a clear focus on sustainability.
Engaging local communities to enter partnerships that center reciprocity, sustainability, and
building of local capacity is thus a potentially useful step in disrupting this trend.
To continue to ensure the development and sustainability of inclusive education for
students with IDD at a global level, recognition of the factors contributing to inclusive education,
along with strategies and potential barriers to its implementation, are needed. The focus group
research described here offers preliminary evidence that can be used to promote inclusive
education across the globe, with specific structures and strategies for stakeholders to consider.
We hope this study will support the continued efforts of international inclusive education
advocates and those taking up this effort so students with IDD, and all who are currently
excluded from schools, might receive quality and equitable inclusive education.
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