Re-imagining the Future of Inclusive Education

March 09, 2023
Photo of Dr. Inna Stepaniuk, Assistant Professor

Dr. Inna Stepaniuk is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, who researches the nexus between educational policy, practices, and commitments to inclusivity, equity, and justice. Her work challenges educators to interrogate “taking-for-granted” teaching and learning practices and to create truly inclusive and equitable education for all learners. A recent article she had co-written with Drs. Elizabeth Kozleski (Stanford University) and William Proffitt (Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis) was reviewed on the Race, Research and Policy Portal of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project at Harvard Kennedy School. We sat down with Inna to discuss ways in which education can contribute to building a future that roots out ableism and racism and embraces people’s multiple identities.

Q: In your research, you apply DisCrit. Why is this theoretical framework so relevant?

A: DisCrit or Dis/ability Critical Race Studies offers analytical tools to start asking difficult questions and [bring to the] surface racism and ableism that have been historically hidden. It expands our understanding of race and dis/ability and ways in which they intersect and are co-constructed. The framework recognizes that each of us incorporates many identities and rejects the single-axis lenses that many fields of study have been utilizing for such a long time.

Q: What are the implications of this approach for education?

A: Unfortunately, the “one-size-fits-all” approach still dominates in education. Historically, schools have sorted students in and out, and we have different special education programs. Typically, such programs [ occur] outside of the general education classroom, and students are taken out to receive special services and to be… “fixed.” Who benefits from these arrangements and why are so many students who live at the intersection of dis/ability and race assigned to special education programs - this is the critical question that schools and educators need to be asking themselves.

Q: Clearly, this is not an approach you support. What is the alternative?

A: We need to shift the conversation from trying to “fix” a child and start questioning the system itself. I truly believe that special education is an appendix. If education is truly inclusive, culturally responsive, and equitable, then we don’t need “special” education. A child brings so much to a classroom in terms of cultures, backgrounds, interests, and needs. We need to look for the intersectional solutions and opportunities that would allow a person to say, “I belong here” not just because they get accommodation based on a dis/ability but because other parts of their identity are recognized as well.

Q: What voices are missing from this important conversation?

A: There is a mismatch between those who create policies and those who experience them. One thing that can be done is to bring to the table people for whom these policies are designed. [This requires] constant participatory engagement and monitoring - all the way through implementation.

Q: What is the role of teachers?

A: Teachers often do not see themselves as policy makers but they [actually] are, because it is up to them to interpret educational policies in their own classrooms. Inclusive education as a framework and practice can only work when it is designed by people who actually receive those services. Inclusive education is not an outcome. It is a process that requires reflexivity and leadership. Questioning “taking-for-granted” policies on behalf of historically marginalized learners as well as listening to and collaborating with families - this is what defines an inclusive educator. To practice inclusive education, schools and teachers have to re-think what constitutes human capacities, teaching and learning. It is a paradigm shift that entails normalizing peoples’ multidimensional identities and experiences within and beyond schooling.

Q: How can we, as individuals, contribute to this paradigm shift?

A: This is the question that students often ask, because they witness the outcomes for historically marginalized communities. Students keep asking the question, "What can I do as a teacher?" And my response always is, "In the province of British Columbia there are nearly 75,000 certified teachers [as of December, 2022]. Imagine the difference that those teachers make in students’ lives, knowing that each of them can educate at least one student a day.” I truly believe that education is a tool that has the capacity to challenge collectively assumed meanings, re-imagine futures, and create new, inclusive and equitable possibilities.