Inclusive education means different and diverse students learning side by side in the same diversity and the unique contributions each student brings to the classroom. In a truly inclusive classroom, they enjoy field trips and after-school activities together. They participate in student government together. And they attend the same sports meets and plays. Inclusive education makes every child feel safe and have a sense of belonging. Students and their parents participate in setting learning goals and take part in decisions that affect them. Also, school staff have the training, support, flexibility, and resources to nurture, encourage and respond to the needs of all students. Similarly, an inclusive society is a society that overrides differences of race, gender, class, generation and geography. It ensures inclusion, equality of opportunity as well as enhances the capability of all members of the society to determine an agreed set of social institutions that govern social interaction.
The Social Summit defined that the aim of social integration is to create an inclusive society, in which every individual, each with rights and responsibilities, has an active role to play. But what makes some societies more inclusive than others? What are the critical elements for creating and maintaining an inclusive society in practical terms? An inclusive society is based on the fundamental human rights value, that is, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. “It is a society in which all members, regardless of their backgrounds, are able and motivated to participate in civic, social, economic and political activities.” For this to happen, legal, regulatory and policy frameworks must be inclusive, and uphold and promote just and inclusive processes in all areas of implementation, so that equal access to basic education, public space, facilities and information are ensured, and diversity and cultural pluralism are respected and accommodated. As a pre-requisite, respect for all human rights, freedoms, and the rule of law, both at national and international levels, are fundamental. Every member of society, no matter what his or her economic resources, political status, or social standing are must be treated equally under the law. Legal instruments ensure the guiding principles that will guarantee equity, justice and equal opportunities for all citizens. Violators of human rights should be brought to justice. The judiciary which serves to protect just societies must be impartial, accountable and inclusive to giving weight to the opinions of those who defend the inclusiveness of the society at the local, regional and national levels. Maintaining the security of all individuals and their living environment is paramount in creating a feeling of inclusion and an atmosphere of participation in society. To create and sustain inclusive societies, it is critical that all members of society are able and motivated to participate in civic, social, economic and political activities, both at the local and national levels. A society where most members, if not all, feel that they are playing a part, have access to their basic needs/livelihoods, and are provided with the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives, is a society that will best foster principles of inclusiveness. The existence of a strong civil society is fundamental to active participation and making public policies and institutions accountable. It fosters a respect for the rights, dignity and privileges of all people, while assuming that they fulfil their responsibilities within their society. There must be freedom for people to express diverse views and develop unconventional unique ideas. Members of society must have the confidence to engage and interact with each other, and build mutual trust while acknowledging their differences.
In order to encourage all-inclusive participation, there must be universal access to public infrastructure and facilities (such as community centres, recreational facilities, public libraries, resource centres with Internet facilities, well-maintained public schools, clinics, water supply and sanitation). These are the basic services which will create, when partly or fully put into place, conditions for people to have a sense of belonging by not suffering the painful consequence of being unable to afford them. As long as both the advantaged and disadvantaged have equal access to or benefit from these public facilities and services, they will all feel less burdened by their differences in socio-economic status, thus alleviating a possible sense of exclusion or frustration. It is important to note though, that access alone does not necessarily ensure use of public facilities, as unequal relations within communities and households may inhibit the use of facilities by vulnerable groups. Addressing the unequal power relations is therefore a necessary step to increase participation.
Similarly, equal access to public information plays an important role in creating an inclusive society, as it will make popular participation possible with well-informed members of society. Information that pertains to the society such as what a community owns, generates, or benefits from should be made available to all. Collective participation, through accepted representations of all classes and backgrounds, in the planning, implementation and evaluation of community activities should be sought after. Publication/information sharing and increasing the accessibility of the community’s activities will eliminate doubts and suspicions which could otherwise create a sense of exclusion. The mass media can be used as an effective tool to educate and enlighten members of society.
Equity in the distribution of wealth and resources is another critical element of inclusive societies. How the resources are allocated and utilised will significantly affect the orientation of a society, either towards a more integrated, inclusive society, or an exclusive, polarised, and disintegrated one. Therefore, socio-economic policies should be geared towards managing equitable distribution and equal opportunities. Inclusive policies, instructions and programmes that are sensitive to and cater to the less advantaged and vulnerable need to be put in place in all areas/sectors, including public health, and should be effectively implemented.
There is a need for a strong monitoring and evaluation tools to demonstrate whether inclusiveness was actually achieved, as well as highlighting areas for improvement. Another dimension of inclusive societies is tolerance for and appreciation of cultural diversity.
Education plays a critical role in this area, as it will provide opportunities to learn the history and culture of one’s own and other societies, which will cultivate the understanding and appreciation of other societies, cultures and religions. Particularly for young people, education provides the opportunity to instil values of respect and appreciation of diversity. At the same time, education can empower those who are marginalised or excluded from participating in discussions and decision-making. Learning about the historical processes and changes allows people to understand the way in which they and others have been affected by socially inclusive or exclusive policies, which ultimately influence the values, choices and judgements of individuals, in particular of those who are in decision-making positions.
Effective leadership is crucial to the development of an inclusive society. Where leadership is not representative of the society, a disconnection between the people and their leaders may eventually result. The most common way of addressing this critical element at the local level is by engaging in open consultations with members of society about issues such as the budget, and enhancing the free and timely flow of information to citizens and other stakeholders. Popular participation in decision-making and policy formulation processes could be sought for at all levels of governance. At the same time, there must be an effort made to achieve transparency and accountability by all decision-makers and stakeholders.