Inclusion Now 65

Joe Whittaker was an amazing teacher and campaigner for Inclusive Education

By Richard Rieser

Photograph of Joe Whittaker, smiling to camera and wearing a red shirt with the slogan: 'We Know Inclusion Works'

When I first met Joe in the late 1980’s, he was a teacher of teachers, particularly in Further Education at Bolton Institute. Joe was a great catalyst of the burgeoning Inclusion Movement in the UK. He had gone to a couple of Inclusion Summer Schools at McGill University in Montreal, and formed vital links with a group of presenters who had developed an important range of tools and methods for de-segregating Disabled people and developing integration, as it was called in those days.

Purposive inclusion had started in the wake of desegregating metal health institutions in some parts of Canada in the 1960/1970s, and tools such as MAPS, PATHS and Circles of Friends had been developed to break down isolation of ex-inmates and were extended to integrating schools. Advocates included Marsha Forest, Jack Pierrepoint (Inclusion and Human Rights campaigners), Judith Snow (Disabled institutional survivor), John O’Brien, Herb Lovett (psychologists) and George Flynn (School Board Principle in Waterloo, Ontario).

Joe, along with psychologist John Hall, had facilitated this Team coming to the UK and delivering 3 day participatory workshops in Cardiff and Manchester in the summer of 1990.

This was about the same time the Alliance for Integration was set up. Joe then went on to be the main organiser of the Bolton Conferences on Inclusion and these were held regularly during summer half-term holidays. The years 1993 and 1995 stand out. These brought parents, Disabled children, Disabled adults and educational professionals together and provided real support for the local struggles going on all over the country, to end segregation and get Disabled children and young people fully included into school and college. The flavour of these events is captured in 2 online videos of the 1995 Bolton Conference 1995(1), and 1995(2).

Joe, along with John Kenworthy (psychologist), set up the Action Research Centre for Inclusion at Bolton Institute with money from Barrow Cadbury Trust. As well as training and developing Data for Inclusion (an example on the impact of segregation can be found here), the Institute supported local campaigns for Inclusion.

One such campaign against Lancashire County Council was to get Nicky Crane and Zak Lewis into mainstream school. This led to Joe and John occupying Council Offices in Preston from 22nd to 23rd July and their arrest. The adverse publicity led to a more favourable outcome.

Joe has written many articles as a proponent for inclusion over the last 35 years and was heavily involved with ALLFIE campaigns and Executive Board. The extract below, arguing against Snoezelen(1994) therapy, shows the power of Joe’s writing.

“We take young children, we label them as having severe physical impairments or we label them as having severe learning disabilities. The labels can be many and varied, once they have been successfully attached, they provide a licence to have children removed form their local schools and communities. Having done this we prevent them from developing friendships with other youngsters from their neighbourhood. We put them in separate schools where we surround them with a multitude of “experts” who succeed in restricting their curricular activities. We segregate them from learning environments within which their peers participate, we collect them together with other youngsters with similar labels and make “statements” about them having the same “special needs”. Once this has been done we gather together another batch of professionals who will tell us why some children may get frustrated and angry and fail to respond positively to the “special environment” we have created just for them. But the solution is at hand because we can now add to this special environment a new therapy – The Snoezelen!
“Jewel-bright lights”, “perfumed air”, “coloured bubbles” and “soft music”, we are told, can “artificially” re-create many of the sensations and experiences we put so much time, money and energy into removing in the first instance. The “Snoezelen Experience” will get people to respond in a way they never have before. Snoezelen is a Dutch word, meaning “sniffing and dozing” and the cost of getting learners to sniff up and doze off in such a specially designed room will cost around £50,000.”

In 2015 Bolton University shut down a thriving Education Department with a good reputation on Inclusive Education and Joe lost his job. He went on pursuing Freedom of Information to show irregularities of University money by the Vice-Chancellor.

Joe struggled as many of us do against oppression, first coming out, leaving his family, living with a partner as a gay man, and then developing Diabetes that increasingly impacted on him. This did not stop him staying true to the principles of inclusion and being a well-informed critic of the absurdities of Government Policy. We will all miss Joe and celebrate the leading role he played in the ongoing human rights struggle for Inclusive Education.