Working toward inclusion ‘without ifs and without buts’
Revisiting an interview with Profs Salvatore Soresi and Laura Nota, University of Padova conducted by Dr Elena Tanti Burlo’, University of Malta.
I conducted this interview for the Faculty of Education’s journal, Malta Review Educational Research, special edition on ‘Inclusive Education: Listening to the Disabled Students’ Voices.’ Revisiting the interview I conducted with Profs Salvatore Soresi and Laura Nota, from the University of Padova, after the appearance of COVID-19, further engages me with the essence of our work; promoting environments for inclusive education. COVID-19 has magnified the inequalities in our educational systems laying bare the marginalisation of many students, especially disabled students.
The following words sum up Profs. Salvatore Soresi and Laura Nota’s work as they continue to stress on the development of “the skills needed to identify diversity, to respect and celebrate it”. These skills can be learnt. They see “Diversity”, in its broadest sense, as being “part and parcel of life”.
For Soresi “Inclusion just does not happen on its own. It is up to us to create the right contexts” (page 169) and teach the necessary skills for us to be able to include each other.” There are no short cuts to inclusion. Cutting corners may easily lead us straight into segregating environments thinking they are the only way forward, as they lose hope and optimism.
Briefly, three themes can be identified in their interview:
- The first highlights the notion that the success of inclusive education depends on “The Other”. The necessary conditions for inclusive practices are creates for inclusion to exist and flourish;
- Secondly Soresi and Nota focus on the peers’ awareness and acceptance of diversity, in all its forms and shades;
- Thirdly they focus on developing positive attitudes like hope and optimism, concepts borrowed from Positive Psychology.
Who are “the others”? The success for inclusive education depends on many stakeholders: the teachers, the support staff, the school management team, parents, other professionals, the Unions, policy makers and, above all, ALL the students.
To create inclusive scenarios, Nota states that we need to focus on:
- “The engagement of all who work at school” to create that ‘inclusive culture’ which one breathes at every corner of the school;
- The engagement of all the parents;
- The engagement of classmates, so that they may learn how to manifest pro-social behaviour (acceptance, support, and solidarity) in their relationships.
The “engagement of class-mates” through the Peer Preparation Programmes (PPPs) is pivotal to their work. Soresi has advocated these programmes since the late 80’s creating a space for “students’ voices”. The early PPPs focused primarily on the inclusion of disabled students while those developed recently deal with diversity in its totality. According to Soresi “it makes no sense to talk about the inclusion of certain categories of people, for example disabled people, persons with mental health problems, immigrants and so on….this would have been valid when we used to speak of mainstreaming and of integration” (page 165).
Today we need to defend the achievements gained and protect those “conditions which characterise” the inclusive context. These conditions need to be safeguarded as basic human rights. Soresi is categorical here. A context cannot be inclusive for one category of people and not for another. “A context, in our opinion, either is or is not inclusive and it cannot demand any conditions for membership. (We like to say….inclusion with no ifs and no buts)” (page 165). Nobody has to prove to anyone else their right to membership. We strive to include all children in heterogenous classrooms
It is this engagement of heterogeneous groups of classmates that the peer preparation programmes address. Today the schools’ contexts reflect a “high level of heterogeneity and a plurality of situations”. Belonging to such classrooms benefits everyone. Children miss out when they are categorised according to gender, bands, levels, abilities, language, special needs etc.
Soresi and Nota contend that if one wants to strive towards an inclusive school where, everyone belongs with “no ifs and buts”, we need to identify and remove those “barriers and obstacles that still present risks of exclusion and discrimination, especially for persons who are particularly vulnerable notwithstanding the existence of policy declarations and current legislation” (page 166). We are, indeed, well aware what these “negative and penalising phenomena are”; “permanent and affirmative” “counter-measures have to be put in place” which deal with “the teaching and the education of all involved” in “how to act respecting diversity, inclusivity and solidarity … to combat injustices”(page 167).
It is in these heterogenous classrooms that children grow in respect, creating a “micro-reality and a laboratory of solidarity, pluralism, and compassion” (page 167). “Inclusion” does not happen on its own it “requires intentionality, investment in human resources and continuous care” (page 167). We need to ask to what extent have vulnerable children been included during this pandemic in online sessions, been in contact with their peers, attended visual contact with their educators? I would expect that the answers to these questions would depend on how included all educators, parents and peers are in the first place. This is certainly a topic, which needs to be researched. Are there differences in those schools, which implemented programmes like ‘Positive Actions’ (Le Belle Azioni) and ‘Hurray to Differences, Hurray to Participation’ in the students’ level of participation specifically during this pandemic? Did those participating in the training programmes develop: greater awareness about diversity; reduce negative stereotyped attitudes and acquire more refined interpersonal relationship skills, promote pro-social skills and “favour positive and hopeful attitudes when faced with problems and difficulties”? (page 167)
In the third and final core theme Nota explores the development of positive attitudes like hope and optimism, since these positive attitudes are involved when dealing with diversity and pro-social behaviour towards other. It is these positive attitudes that we need to develop in our students and ourselves. Here she introduces the workshop “Jujube of Optimism and Hope at school” (Nota, Di Maggio, Santilli, & Ginevra, 2014): “This workshop proposes to analyse, together with the children, the idea of optimism and hope, stressing the importance of certain strategies and ways of thinking and developing children who are optimistic and hopeful” (page 169). Jujube (Giuggiole in Italian and Ġuġu in Maltese) are colourful gummy sweats, which children love. The children are taught to identify positive thoughts, and characteristics associated with hope and optimism as opposed to negative thoughts and characteristics. This helps the children “formulate positive objectives for their own future, showing also the strategies they need to achieve them” (page 169).
There is no quick fix for inclusive education. We are in the business of developing relationships creating an environment where all children, teachers, other educators, and parents feel that they belong. This needs time. It needs nurturing and continuity to develop security, participation, hope and optimism and a sense of belonging. We need to identify and eliminate any systemic barriers to inclusion which favour segregating practices and introduce inclusive methodologies and positive attitudes on a whole school approach.
Soresi and Nota are masters in this and I thank them once again for continuing to generously share their innovative insights on how children may be prepared to become empowered and self-determined making their voices heard in an inclusive participatory environment.
The whole interview may be viewed here: www.mreronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/2-Elena-Tanti-Burlo%CC%80.pdf
Dr Elena Tanti Burlo, University of Malta
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Nota, L., Di Maggio, I., Santilli, S., & Ginevra, M. C. (2013). Nuggets of optimism and hope at school: A laboratory for middle school students.
Nota, L., Santilli, S., Soresi, S., & Ginevra, M. C. (2014). Employer attitudes towards the work inclusion of people with disability. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities. 27(6), 511-520.
Nota, L., Soresi, S., & Ferrari, L. (2014). What are emerging trends and perspectives on inclusive schools in Italy. In J. McLeskey, N.L. Waldron, F. Spooner, & B. Algozzine, (Eds.) Handbook of EFFECTIVE inclusive schools. Research and practice (521-534). London: Routledge Publishers.
Soresi, S., Nota, L., & Ferrari, L. (2006). Family setting in Down syndrome. In J. A. Rondal & J. Perera (Eds.), Down syndrome, neurobehavioral specificity (191-211). Chichester: Wiley. S
Soresi, S., Nota, L., Ferrari, L., Sgaramella T. M., Ginevra, M. C., & Santilli, S. (2013). Inclusion in Italy: From numbers to ideas… that is from “special” visions to the promotion of inclusion for all persons. Life Span and Disability, XVI(2), 187-217.
Inclusive Education in Malta
The National School Support Service of the Ministry of Education and Employment, Malta took exception to the article on Inclusive Education in Malta in the last issue of Inclusion Now (No.55). Richard Rieser, the author accepts he should not have identified an individual pupil and apologises for this. However, his article was written from his personal perspective and expertise and was drawing on talks with inclusive education experts in Malta, 40 LSEs, staff at the school visited and some parents of disabled children. He also had a briefing from the National School Support Services who have criticised the article. This magazine goes by the UNCRPD definition of Inclusive Education, but we welcome dialogue.