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Inclusion: What are we trying to change?

Inclusion: What are we trying to change?

by Dan Lukens

“Inclusion” is a philosophy that presumes that each of us is entitled to be valued and engaged as participating members of a community. Implemented as public disability policy, it’s when a child with a disability has the opportunity to attend a regular school instead of a special school or when a person with a disability can work along side people without disabilities instead of going to a program. It’s a powerful and potentially far-reaching idea but, I would argue, in many respects it runs counter to much of our prevailing culture.

For those of us who work with people with disabilities, inclusion is at the heart of our efforts to advance the rights and opportunities of the people we serve. The trouble is though, that America is not really in the business of including people. Mostly, Americans are libertarians by nature. We pull our own oar, stand on our own two feet and we make our own way. In America, what you have in life is what you deserve, or so our prevailing values would seem to suggest.

People with disabilities are, to some extent, an exception to these cultural expectations or at least, they have been. We help people who are special but historically we have also often manage to devalue them in the process. To our credit, our culture has not found a rationale for blaming people with disabilities for their disabilities. Nonetheless, by the logic of our prevailing culture, you really can’t be special and like everyone else at the same time and this is something that advocates need to consider if our plan is to assert that the people we serve are, indeed, just like us.

Of course, it’s only a dilemma if one accepts the notion that the value of a person is in their utility.

If bettering the lives of people with disabilities is our intent, then maybe what we ought to sell, I would argue, is not so much the economic benefits that people with developmental disabilities offer as a workforce, as it is an alternative value system. Yes, we can change our service milieu and tell the world that our people are just as productive as anyone else. And, in some cases, they will be, but unless the culture changes, all we would likely be doing for many, if not most, of our people is putting them in the same boat as the other 47% or so of Americans who are underpaid, overworked and mostly devalued. In a society where “only some people count,” it’s not likely that people with disabilities will be among them.

If we have learned anything from people with developmental disabilities it must be that the value of human life is intrinsic but also that people can change. When we first endeavored to take people out of institutions and put them in community homes, there were many parents who were concerned that their disabled children would not find an accepting place in the community. The fact is that moving our people into the community did not make them like everyone else. What changed was the community and maybe that’s the lesson here.



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