Inclusion - a social paradigm shift

Inclusion goes a step further than integration (Wikicommons/WhiteHotaru)

Should the rights of the strongest apply or should inclusion be given priority? Walter Beutler is looking back and looking ahead.

How mature a society is can be observed by looking at which traces have been left behind by the rules of the mightier. A particularly good indicator of this is the way society copes with its "weaker" members, such as the children, the elderly and the disabled. Inclusion, meaning the social belonging of people who do not fit in the norm, such as people with disabilities, is an important step in overcoming the rights of the strongest.

Is exclusion a thing of the past?

Until not so long ago, people with disabilities were kept apart from the so-called normal life. Often enough, this was even done out of good will. In 1959, I contracted poliomyelitis while at the Children Hospital in Basel; after my legs were paralysed, I stayed at the hospital until I reached school-age, that is 5 years old, for supposedly medical reasons.

Afterwards, the medical staff believed that the hospital was giving me the best care I could possible receive. Moreover, with my special needs, I would most likely turn out to be a surcharge for my family (I had three older siblings). Against such arguments, my parents could only give in. This was taking place in the last century…

Exclusion instead of integration

Some years later, integration became an issue. A whole care industry emerged and was carrying the word integration on its banner. Educational homes, residential and rehabilitation centres started to appear, which seemed to fulfil a certain need. Nonetheless, integration remained rather an exception, whether in the workplace or in homes. Not only society was not yet ready to welcome people with disabilities, but the assistance sector had, in the meantime, developed to become a notable, state-financed sector which possessed its own dynamic but which partly failed to recognise the needs of the disabled for autonomy. Wicked tongues were talking about an industry of exclusion.

The next main step to be taken by society was to achieve the noble aim of integration. For this however, the foundation was previously laid by the equality legislation for the disabled, which came into force, in Switzerland, in 2004.

Meanwhile, awareness about equality and participation had evolved sufficiently and people with disabilities had increasingly begun to be more present at different levels of society. They were becoming more visible in public places as well as holding positions of responsibility. They were also becoming increasingly self-conscious and were demanding for more participation within society.

Circle diagram
A two-class system (Wikicommons/WhiteHotaru)

From a two-class system…

However, even today, the concept of integration still starts from the assumption of a two-class system. Indeed, we have the people who still do not "belong" and who should be integrated within normal society, and - this is new - be welcomed by society, which in the meantime is making place for people with disabilities. The aim of integration is the normalisation of the living circumstances of people with disabilities. These should ultimately have the possibility to find employment. They should also have the choice not to live in a home, if this is their wish.

Public places should also be made fully accessible to them. In parallel, society should also become increasingly aware that people with disabilities are considered as such not mainly because of their deficits but rather in varied, often subtle ways, to which their environment contributes.

…towards inclusion

The foundation is now laid for a social paradigm shift. Or is a quiet revolution taking place? The measure for social participation is no more a norm, such as physical integrity or autonomy in daily chores, but takes place on the background of a linguistic-cultural context or the social heritage. More and more, each person, with his individuality and his particular competences and restrictions, will be accepted as an enhancement to society.

Diversity makes a society more colourful and stronger as well. A special person will no longer be excluded in the first place and later be re-integrated. He will rather be welcome from the beginning and be perceived as an important part of society. This is what is called inclusion. It also needs courage, and is still, for the moment, an ideal, a dream of the future…

However, it is also a logical step in the development of society. Exclusion leads to a weakening of the individual as well as of society as a whole. An unsuspected potential still lies idle as long as society does not create equal opportunities for all. I emphasize: for all. Indeed, people suffering from exclusion are, either way, a part of our society, at the very least in a physical way, and, luckily most of the time too, much beyond it, but still today not an integral part of it.

The UN Convention - a step in the right direction

The ideal of inclusion should be filled with life itself - a long process, which cannot simply be prescribed. Inclusion can only be fulfilled at the focal points of life, and nowhere else: at school, at work, in public transport, in the cinemas, the museums, in neighbourhoods or at events. Inclusion can only be fulfilled from people to people.

All the same, the social and political issues must be placed in the right direction. The UN Convention for the rights of Persons with disabilities can give impulses to this process, since their requests go exactly in the same direction: non-discrimination, equal opportunities, full participation to social life, accessibility. The Convention came into force in May 2008 and has, as of today, been ratified by 127 countries.


Text: Walter Beutler - 09/2012
Translation: MyH - 01/2013
Photos: Wikicommons / WhiteHotaru