Dr. Inna Stepaniuk on Inclusive and Equitable Learning to Ensure Social Justice

December 10, 2020

Inna Stepaniuk is an Assistant Professor in Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. Anchored in critical disability studies, decolonial theory, and sociocultural, constructivist approaches to learning and teaching, her research and teaching expose the politics of dehumanization embedded in educational systems and support schools and educators to become social justice-oriented educational leaders. She has authored and co-authored articles on inclusive education, equity-driven systems change in education, and disability policy in the context of intersectionality.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself including your academic and professional backgrounds.

Two inquiries have guided my academic and professional journeys. One question has been how to transform schools into inclusive and equitable communities. This inquiry is derived from my experience living and working in Ukraine. As a student pursuing an undergraduate and graduate studies in pedagogical science, psychology, and social pedagogy (i.e., social work in the North American context), I have learned how privileged I was. I was able to choose and received the education that I aimed for. I benefitted from the educational system that was designed for students like myself, i.e., white, able-bodied individuals. Learners identified with dis/abilities with whom I worked in orphanages and special education schools taught me about the inequities they experienced in access to quality education. My passion for social justice and those learners transformed to a desire to be an educator. To pursue this goal, I took a role of an assistant professor in psychology and social pedagogy and taught for six years at Zhytomyr Ivan Franko State University in Ukraine. The concept of inclusive education was unfamiliar to the Ukrainian educators, including myself, at that time as the country continued to carry Soviet, deficit-based legacies and orientations toward the human body within its educational systems. Thus, I sought opportunities outside Ukraine to expand my understanding of inclusive practices. First, I went to Switzerland where I worked with refugee communities. Then my inquiry brought me to a rehabilitation center in England where I supported residents severely affected by a dis/ability with various indoor and outdoor learning activities. I collaborated with researchers from the University of Bologna (Italy) on a project that aimed to implement inclusive education in my home city of Zhytomyr in Ukraine. These experiences in- and outside Ukraine allowed me to learn more about the needs of students identified with dis/abilities as well as the needs of educators who taught them.

To design and sustain inclusive and equitable learning environments requires having educators oriented to social justice. Thus, the second question that has been guiding my academic and professional journeys is how to support educators to become social justice-oriented educational leaders. In my search for answers, I applied for a Fulbright fellowship to conduct research in the field of inclusive education in the U.S. I worked with researchers and educators from several schools in Wisconsin and Illinois on programs to support the learning of students who have been historically marginalized in the U.S. After completing my Fulbright grant, I reflected that the knowledge gained generated more questions than answers, further compelling me to apply to a doctoral program in the U.S. I left my position at the Ukrainian university to become a doctoral student at the University of Kansas (KU) where I conducted research under the supervision of Professors Elizabeth Kozleski and Thomas Skrtic. I recently completed my doctoral studies and am looking forward to sharing what I have learned so far about inclusive education with the students and faculty at SFU.

Please share the type of research that you will be conducting as our new faculty member at the Faculty of Education.

I use my privileges of being white, able-bodied, female scholar to disrupt patterns and relationships of unjust education and to build inclusive, equitable systems which reflect multidimensional students’ identities. For example, in Ukraine, in addition to teaching at the university, I supported youth impacted by autism and Down Syndrome who were denied access to general education. I negotiated with a department to allow them to take classes I taught and be part of the student community. In Switzerland, I volunteered at a refugee camp and taught math, reading, and arts to Somali children. I insisted on having books and using materials that reflected Somalian culture and language. In the U.S., I co-taught courses to students whose backgrounds were different from mine in terms of abilities, language, sexuality, and country of origin. I asked students to participate in the selection of course readings and assignments. I served as a mentor to college students impacted by dis/ability who were attempting to navigate an education system designed for white, able-bodied individuals. I collaborated with professors and we worked to modify classroom environments for students I mentored at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and KU.

Working with diverse communities and watching their everyday struggles has taught me to acknowledge my whiteness, able-bodiedness, trilingualism, and femininity in my teaching, research, and service. As a faculty member, I will use my privileges and international experiences to strengthen inclusive, Indigenous, and equity initiatives prioritized at SFU. I employ participatory action research in my work with students and educators to design inclusive learning environments. For instance, in my dissertation project I used video recall reflective dialogues with educators to examine the degree to which their teaching practices reflected students’ backgrounds and needs. As a faculty member, I plan to continue this line of research to explore the benefits of using video-stimulated reflective dialogues in an effort to prepare educators to be critical and reflective with their professional practice. In this way, I hope to contribute to the teacher education programs by embedding video-stimulated reflective dialogues to support the development of practitioners’ inquiry. This is one of the areas that I am looking forward to working on. Overall, I will be collaborating with pre- and in-service educators, school, and district administrators to develop locally driven, equitable frameworks and tools for learning and participation inclusive of all members of the school community.

Your research focuses on inclusive education, equity, and special education. Why is it important to adopt a critical lens when evaluating special education?

I strongly believe that there is no need for special education once education is inclusive, Indigenous, and equitable. To me, special education is an appendix, an unnecessary organ, within the field of education. Historically, in many countries special education has been used to categorize and track learners within educational systems. It is time for educators, researchers, and policy makers across educational systems to move beyond labels and categories toward the interdisciplinary inclusive education research and teaching.

What impact would you like to see your research have on communities and society at large?

Inclusive, Indigenous, and equitable education is not an outcome; it is an ongoing, community-driven process. As long as I keep finding traditional educational tools and programs in classrooms and schools, my work will continue.

What suggestion would you like to give to educators?

Be reflective, develop a habit of questioning practices that are taken for granted, and remember that as educators we have the power to include as well as to exclude learners. It affects students’ life outcomes so use that power wisely.

What suggestion would you like to give to prospective graduate students interested in your field of research?

Ask yourself why you are interested in the field of inclusive education. Then use that passion to find likeminded scholars and stick with them as long as you possibly can 😊.