Inclusion Resources

Current Debates: Part 2

Exploring support provision for disabled learners and the importance of international human rights in addressing barriers to inclusive education. Academic and ALLFIE trustee Dr Miro Griffiths MBE continues his three part series for education students on some of the key issues around inclusive education.

Miro Griffiths, smiling, using a wheelchair headrest

Inclusive education is a complex issue, with considerable resistance emerging from political, economic, cultural, and social structures in society. There is substantial support for inclusive education with activists, scholars, policymakers, and public officials showing their commitment to developing, promoting, and implementing inclusive education practices. It is not possible to capture the entirety of the debate; however, the aim here is to provide an overview of some of the central points. Please use this as an introduction, which, when combined with the list of suggested readings, provides you with substantial literature and points of reference to develop your own thinking.

Click here for part one of this series.

Support Provision for Disabled Learners

Support for disabled learners must be contextualised within the existing neoliberal agendas that plague the education system. Currently, education systems prioritise economic viability (Hazelkorn 2015), and competition is rife between learners as they attempt to achieve the highest grades (Verhaeghe 2014). This is deeply problematic for disabled people, as their inclusion within the education system (and the extent to which support is provided) is determined by how valuable the disabled learner is to the existing social structures within society. As Ball (2013, p.48) argues, “the school became in many respects an expression of humanity and a demarcation of the limits of humanity – who was and was not educable, of value, worth investing in”.

Slee (2019) provides a comprehensive analysis of how attempts to develop inclusive education are often undermined by an era that prioritises the exclusion of disabled learners. Support that should be available for learners is denied because educational institutions construct a system that holds the individual responsible for their participation within the classroom environment. To get support, the learner has to accept diagnostic tests and professional intervention (Harwood and Allan 2016). Support is provided on the basis that the student is unable to conform to the expectations of the existing education system, and that the purpose of support is to address the “additional” (otherwise understood as physical and cognitive) needs of the individual. This is significant because support is, thus, framed as a response to the student’s failure to conform to the existing practices of the educational institution. The provision of support becomes rooted in individual competency, rather than acknowledging that support forms part of a wider assessment to reorganise education and take account of the diversity within human existence and participation.

The extensive barriers encountered by disabled learners are well documented (Kendall 2016). It is argued that this will be further impacted by the onslaught of continued cuts to (local) government services, including education services (O’Hara 2014). In the assessment of barriers to accessing education, thought should be given to the mechanisms for examining and determining support levels for disabled learners. Literature highlights how the assessment procedures focus on performing specific tasks and an examination of medical conditions (Fuller, Bradley and Healey 2004). Again, this emphasises how the individual’s access to support is to participate in an education system that is designed by non-disabled people, for non-disabled learners. Nussbaum (2006, p.98) articulated it best, “[disabled people] remain an afterthought, after the basic institutions of society are already designed”.

Importance of International Human Rights

Disabled people’s rights to education are well documented under international law (read the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in particular: Article 24). The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has produced policy documentation for States to implement that would realise inclusive education (United Nations 2016). However, it is not uncommon for States to sign – possibly ratify – the convention but fail to deliver an inclusive education system. This draws attention to the disparity between what is articulated in human rights treaties and declarations, and what is implemented through policy-making. De Beco (2018) argues that it is possible to transition the ideas of inclusive education into practice but to do so requires a critique of political philosophy and the effect this has on key debates emanating from disability studies literature on inclusive education.

Whilst literature on inclusive education, and the sociology of disability more widely, is typically dominated by majority world scholars, literature from the global South draws attention to the persistent ambivalence towards developing inclusive education systems. Ngwena (2017), through his empirical research, illustrates a double discourse surrounding inclusive education. On the one hand, governments will attempt to show domestic commitment towards implementing the inclusive education approach, often through political rhetoric. This, however, leads to no real change because extensive policy practice continues with an exclusionary approach to disabled people accessing education.

Tools have been developed to understand how states are developing policy to realise the obligations outlined in international human rights frameworks. Priestley and Lawson (2015) introduced an online tool to map and analyse existing disability policies across Europe. This provides opportunities to critique and evaluate the progress made to design, develop, and implement inclusive practices throughout different areas of social policy – including education.

For inclusive education to become a reality, there is a need to consider how international human rights frameworks provide a conceptual basis to instigate a change in policy direction. A direction that moves away from exclusionary and isolating practices, and one that positions education as a matter of social justice. Disabled people, most notably children and young people, must be regarded as active voices in the policy-making process and should form part of the networks that influence the delivery and evaluation of education policy. Analysis of human rights legislation to realise inclusive education should not be at the expense of scrutinising social policy.


This completes Part Two of a three-part series on unpacking the current debates within inclusive education. Part Three will explore key arguments surrounding the purpose of education and the ways in which existing, exclusionary education systems can be resisted.



Ball, S. J. (2013) Foucault, Power, and Education. New York: Routledge.

de Beco, G. (2018) The right to inclusive education: why is there so much opposition to its implementation?. International Journal of Law in Context. 14(3), 396-415.

Fuller, M., Bradley, A. and Healey, M. (2004) “Incorporating Disabled Students within an Inclusive Higher Education Environment.” Disability and Society. 19(5), 455-468.

Harwood, V. and Allan, J. (2014) Psychopathology at School: Theorizing Mental Disorders in Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hazelkorn, E. (2015) Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The Battle for World-class Excellence. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Kendall, L. (2016) “Higher Education and Disability: Exploring Student Experiences.” Cogent Education. 3(1), 1-12.

Ngwena, C. G. (2013) Human Right to Inclusive Education: Exploring a Double Discourse of Inclusive Education Using South Africa as a Case Study. Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights. 31(4), 473-504.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2006) Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

O’Hara, M. (2014) Austerity bites: a journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK. Bristol: Policy Press.

Priestley, M. and Lawson, A. (2015) Mapping disability policies in Europe: Introducing the disability online tool of the commission (DOTCOM). ALTER – European Journal of Disability Research. 9(1), 75-78.

Slee, R. (2019) Belonging in an age of exclusion. International Journal of inclusive Education. 23(9), 909-922.

United Nations. (2016) General Comment No 4 – Article 24: Right to inclusive education. Geneva: United Nations.

Verhaeghe, P (2014) What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society. Translated by J. Headley-Prôle. London: Scribe.