The concept of diversity as it is applied to including people with disabilities in common community settings is well-understood and embraced by most people in principle. After all, no one wants to be seen as "anti-disability," and diversity is a highly valued buzz word these days. So, as a concept, inclusion is a nice, progressive idea to almost everyone… except when it requires effort or deep thought about what it truly entails.
I focus a lot of discussion on this blog on the harmful effects of obvious segregation – in institutions, large congregate residences, sheltered workshops, and other facility-based day programs. But what happens when an effort is made to provide inclusive experiences that fall far short?
Unfortunately, what often happens is that such effort disguises the original problem. What passes for inclusion is held up as an example, when in fact it is not inclusive at all, just a bit less segregated. This is dangerous for people with disabilities. It blurs the issue of "true belonging" into an incomplete "solution" that makes people think we have made segregation a thing of the past.
For example, a student with a disability is brought into gym class with other students without disabilities. Be she is not offered an opportunity to participate, and so "helps" the gym teacher, which largely means holding the teacher's clipboard during class. Or eight workers with disabilities from a sheltered workshop are given space in a business location where they can continue their sheltered work, but are now considered "integrated" because they work at a real business building.
The school then proudly talks about its inclusionary models, and the workshop highlights its integrated supported employment program. But are these examples of real inclusion? No, not at all. This is merely token inclusion, but these examples can make people believe that these types of approaches are useful ways to diminish segregation. One might argue these situations are "better" than where people were. But this is not the issue, nor should it be the standard. It is not even a compromise, as they provide little real benefit and mask the issue of non-belonging as somehow closer to being solved.
Segregation is not just a physical presence apart from others. It also is a social, emotional and psychological distancing. And being "included" does not just mean you are in the same physical space (see photo above). It also means you are participating to the fullest extent possible, in the same manner (with accommodations as needed) and with the same respect, privileges, and dignity as others in the situation. It implies the social role you are offered (i.e., I'm a member of the school choir) is meaningful, and you are a true peer among others in that setting, even if you require support or accommodation for your participation to be meaningful.
Another example of this issue can be found in the recent positive trends of corporate hiring of people with developmental disabilities. Unfortunately, some companies approached this by setting up new locations that are designed to contain a high percentage of jobs filled by workers with disabilities. Their efforts to include people with disabilities in their workforce is laudable, but the technique is flawed.
If a company is interested in supporting the hiring of a diverse workforce, then why not develop an approach at all your locations for more customized jobs that can support many people with disabilities, and not just one kind of job in a few places. Again, the argument is not whether the people working in concentrated business-owned centers are better off than before. I'm sure they are, if only because being in a workshop is so below the norm of a typical work expectation for anyone. But why replace a tragic solution with one that still congregates people, and also directs workers with disabilities into a small career wedge where a job location matters far more than one's vocational interests?
This illustrates the confusion of a faulty approach with an actual solution. The danger then lies in people focusing energy and time in "replicating" this new perceived solution, instead of focusing on developing full inclusion – and that is the real tragedy. We really should stop inventing new "models," and instead start customizing what is already in our communities so more people can access what all of us want – real jobs, homes, recreation, social opportunities, and more. It doesn't take more money and effort, just a different attitude.