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Inclusion: A Matter of Social Justice

Mara Sapon-Shevin


Picture this scenario:

John, a quiet 12-year-old sixth grader at your local middle school goes through the cafeteria lunch line at noon. After he pays for his food and drink, he goes to put his tray down at a table already occupied by other students. One of the boys at the table tells him to “Go away.” John leaves the table and approaches the students at another table. There he is told, “Get out of here.” John walks away and puts his tray down at a third table, realizes he’s forgotten his straw, and goes back to the lunch line to get one. When he returns to the table where he left his lunch, he finds his tray gone.

How would you assess this situation? Is there a problem here? If so, whose problem is it? What should the school officials do about this situation?  Should John be removed from the school because others don’t want to sit with him? 

Perhaps your assessment is that the social climate in the school is highly problematic and that something should be done to build community and develop more appropriate social skills among the students. Perhaps you would extend this analysis to issues of race, class, language, sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity, questioning what might be operating in the school and how these issues could be addressed. Probably, you would find the other students’ behavior inappropriate, unacceptable for future citizens of a global community. 

What if I told you that John is a student with a wonderful sense of humor, a love of mystery books, an impressive golf swing and also (by the way) Downs syndrome? Would your analysis change? Would you now see the situation differently? Would you say, “Oh, he’s special ed!”  Might you conclude, as did the hearing officer at John’s due process hearing on inclusion, “Well this shows conclusively that inclusion doesn’t work and John should probably be in a special school with others like him where he won’t be treated like that”?

The above story is true. John is an amazing golfer and he does have Down’s syndrome. And the hearing officer at did issue the outrageous exclusionary statement above. 

This situation raised other questions for me as well. I wondered, “If this is how the students treat John, how do they respond to the girl who is overweight, the boy with severe acne, the student who has two lesbian mothers, or the girl just arrived from Cambodia whose English is limited?” Do I believe that students at this school are welcoming and accepting of all forms of diversity except disability and that this is a special education issue? Or does this story help us think about the ways in which schools both mirror the broader society and create it? How might we use the story of John’s mistreatment to think about the policies, practices and norms in our schools that encourage or impede positive responses to difference?

Those engaged in dental education give students a red “disclosing tablet” to help them see where their tooth brushing is still inadequate; we can use John’s presence as the “disclosing tablet” of our schools. We can view John’s school experiences as indicators of imperfections in our schools’ curriculum, pedagogy, social climate and teacher preparation, a needs assessment and a progress report on the road to creating inclusive schools and an inclusive world (Sapon-Shevin, 1996).

This story is a telling indication that inclusion is not about disability, nor is it only about schools. Inclusion is about social justice. It is about asking, “What kind of a world do we want to create and how should we educate students for that world?” “What kinds of skills and commitments do people need in order to thrive in a diverse society?”  Removing John from his middle school will not teach his classmates understanding, generosity of spirit, nor any of the skills they will need in order to successfully work, play and interact with the wide range of people they will encounter in their lives. Removing John will not teach students to be active allies to those who are experiencing discrimination or oppression. 


There are four important lessons that can be drawn from inclusive classrooms, principles and commitments that go far beyond individual students and specific settings.  Each of these can be used to help us articulate and create the inclusive, democratic society we envision for our students and ourselves. We can use our experiences with inclusion to learn to ask a different, broader set of questions about our educational system and our goals. 


“You can’t be in our group!” “Let’s not let Lilly be on our team/in our club/at our party”; “You’re not my friend – I don’t play with people like you.”

It is rare to find an adult who hasn’t experienced exclusion at some point in his/her life. Many of us have experienced exclusion on the basis of race, age, sex, family background, class, sexual orientation, religion, language, physical characteristics — the list goes on and on. And, in a way, it is false to attribute the exclusion to the putative “difference.” Exclusion is not about race or language or gender, it is about a culture of exclusion that posits that different is bad and that it is appropriate, acceptable and sometimes laudatory to isolate and marginalize the stranger, the outlier. From our earliest experiences hearing the children’s educational television song, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things doesn’t belong,” we have internalized notions of difference and exclusion. Exclusion is not about difference; it is about our responses to difference. 

Inclusive classrooms can help us to challenge practices of exclusion. I conducted an extensive research program with classroom teachers using Vivian Paley’s wonderful book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (Paley, 1992).  Teachers implemented the rule in their classrooms and documented the consequences (Sapon-Shevin et. al, 1998). Not only did students learn active ways to include other students in games and activities, but more importantly, issues of inclusion and exclusion become topics for discussion, openly accessible issues within the classroom: “Let’s talk about what happened today during free play when Matthew wanted to join the girls in the housekeeping corner.” “What shall we do about the contradictions between your right to choose whom you play with and other students feeling left out and sad?” “What should you do if you can tell someone wants to play with you but doesn’t know how to ask or asks inappropriately?”

Many teachers are afraid to initiate such discussions because they fear making issues of exclusion worse. They hope that by not talking about the way children are treating Larissa, somehow the problem will go away. Or they fear they lack the skills or the classroom norms for such a discussion. These are genuine concerns and worthy of our attention, but if we wait to address such issues until our students and we feel “ready,” we may wait a very long time. Failing to address what all the students have already observed communicates that exclusion is inevitable and hopeless. Even imperfect attempts at noticing and attending to exclusion issues communicate that the way we treat one another matters — that it’s a priority in the classroom worthy of our time and attention. 


At a time when social skills and anti-bullying curricula proliferate (Hall, 1999; Kivel & Creighton, 1997; Levin, 1994), there can be little doubt that teasing and harassment are far broader than disability issues. After the Columbine killings and the other school shootings, there was much attention given to the fact that the majority of the “shooters” (almost all of them male) had been harassed, picked on, excluded and marginalized within their school communities. We need not wait for students to murder one another to attend to the gravity of school teasing and bullying. 

The children’s book Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (1991) provides a wonderful introduction to teasing and the critical role of the teacher. When the students in her class tease Chrysanthemum about her name, the first teacher, Mrs. Chud, tells the children to put their heads down and attempts to ignore the behavior, which, not surprisingly, escalates. The second teacher, Mrs. Twinkle, not only notices the students’ teasing, but also then inquires about it, and responds in a thoughtful, productive (and non-punitive) way to the teasers. Contrasting and analyzing the behavior of the two teachers and the results of their strategies provides powerful evidence of the critical role of the teacher.

The Colorado branch of GLSEN (Gay/Lesbian/Straight Educators Network) publishes a brief guide entitled “How to Handle Harassment in the Hallway in Three Minutes” which is an excellent tool for discussing teacher and school responses to teasing and harassment. Interestingly, their proposed strategy, for which they have collected exciting evidence, says that if the insult or injury is done publicly, then the teacher response must also be public, and includes an explicitly educational response, “What you just said is harassment based on race/sexual orientation/physical appearance and here at Woodrow High School we have a rule ……”  [See].

Teachers of young children rarely need any convincing that the social climate of the classroom is critical to students’ development and to their learning. Teachers of older students often feel constrained and limited by curriculum standards that can choke out time for attending to the social climate of the classroom. At a time when a focus on state standards and testing is seriously distorting teachers’ abilities to choose and focus on what they feel matters most to their students, it is especially critical that we support teachers’ attention to issues of teasing and bullying (see  Creating students who can pass tests but who treat one another cruelly or indifferently can hardly be a formula for successful schooling or a democratic society.  

Perspective Taking

Inclusive classrooms can provide us with powerful lessons in perspective taking. Not everyone sees things the same way. History, experience and power differentials will affect how we view the same situation.  In Phil and Hannah Hoose’s book, Hey, Little Ant (1998) (also available as Oye, Hormiguita) (Hoose and Hoose, 2003), a child and an ant have a dialogue. The child threatens to squish the ant flat and the ant responds that she also has a home and a family and shouldn’t be squashed. At one point, the ant asks, “If you were me and I were you, what would you want me to do?” and the illustration shows an enormous ant and a very tiny little boy. 

Children can be led into a discussion of ways in which they have treated and been treated by others based on differences in size, identity, or other characteristics (Sapon-Shevin, 1999).  An entire web site now contains examples of ways in which teachers and other educators have used this book as a jumping-off place to discuss issues of perspective taking and decision making (See 

With older students, such a discussion can center on ways in which groups within their community treat one another, including those in different racial or ethnic groups, gangs, older and younger people, those in different neighborhoods, and so on. 

Recent world events have provided many opportunities for discussing ways in which our language reflects our perspective and our point of view shapes our language.  What makes someone our “enemy”? What makes someone “dangerous”? What can we tell by looking at someone? What can’t we tell? What happens when we act from a very limited perspective? What can be gained by reaching across perceived borders of difference? Could you be friends with someone in the kindergarten if you’re in fourth grade? What about differences in skin color? Language? Family background? What do we lose and what could we gain by changing our lenses and perceptions? 

Becoming Active Allies in the Face of Oppression

Each of the above areas also provides opportunities for action. What do you do when you see someone excluded? What should you say if someone is teasing someone else? When you hear others speaking from a limited perspective, do you have strategies for broadening the discussion? 

What does it take to be an effective ally to those experiencing discrimination. Bob Blue’s song “Courage” is a dramatic teaching tool (See The song tells the story of a girl who witnesses the exclusion of a classmate, Diane, and wonders what to do about it. She makes connections between Diane’s exclusion and the things she is learning in social studies about “gas chambers, bombers and guns in Auschwitz, Japan and My Lai” and the fact that many stood by silently. At the end of the song she says, “I promise to do what I can to not let it happen again. To care for all women and men; I’ll start by inviting Diane.” Students respond to this song powerfully, more than eager to discuss their own experiences of exclusion and their responses.

After I shared this song at an inclusion conference, a mother approached me and told me the story of her 7 year-old daughter who, when students were bullying another boy on the bus, left her seat to sit with the target. Little Emily told the other students, “Stop. That’s not nice.”  This is the kind of courage I would like to discuss with our students (and the rest of the world as well!).  

Students, parents, teachers and administrators can be engaged in a discussion focusing on the following questions:

  • What is a time you interrupted some form of oppression (based on race, gender, disability, etc.)?
  • When is a time you didn’t interrupt or challenge that oppression?
  • What made you able to challenge the behavior? What stood in your way?
  • What more would you need to know or be able to do in order to be an effective ally to someone who is being discriminated against or excluded?

I have found an examination of humor to be an excellent starting point for such discussions. Almost everyone has been told a joke that they found offensive or singularly “unfunny.” Did he/she say something? Why or why not? Is it easier to say something if the person is your friend or does that make it harder? What are the possible or real consequences of saying, “I don’t think that’s funny” or “I don’t like jokes that make fun of people who have AID’s.” What can you say or do if the joke teller is your parent, your teacher, a popular student in the class, your boss? Are there jokes that are funny that aren’t about making fun of people? What are some possible strategic responses to oppressive humor? 

Teachers can provide models of challenging oppressive statements or humor themselves. After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, a boy in one teacher’s fifth grade class announced, “I think all Muslims should be sent back to their countries because they’re all terrorists.” The teacher, rather than attacking the boy, engaged the class in a discussion. “Hmmm,” she said, “I wonder how many of you remember the Oklahoma City bombing?” Many of the students raised their hands. “And who did it turn out was responsible for that?” she asked. “Timothy McVeigh” the students responded. “And what religion was he?” she persisted. “Catholic,” they answered. “And how many of you are Catholic?” she asked her class, knowing the demographics already. Many hands went up. “Then I wonder if we should send all the Catholics in our class away because they might be dangerous terrorists.” The students were shocked and protested, “Of course not, that was about him, not about being Catholic, that’s not what they teach us at church” and on and on. 

This teacher was able to challenge the dangerously problematic statement of a student by converting it to a powerful teachable moment about social justice.  Such lessons are precious and need to be actively encouraged. We all need better repertoires of responding to oppressive behavior and language. 

Students in inclusive classrooms are learning to ask, “What do we have to think about on this field trip to make sure it’s physically accessible for all the kids in our class?” or “What shall we plan for the party so that everyone in this class can make sure they have something to eat, given allergies and religious dietary limitations?” I have seen students in inclusive settings learn to be both comfortable and sophisticated in understanding differences and becoming active allies on behalf of other students. These questions can be extended beyond the classroom walls: how can students confront racism in their community, “English only” legislation, sexual harassment in the workplace, homophobic advertising or representation? Inclusive classrooms can be places in which students learn to take powerful stances against oppression of many kinds, recognizing their own agency and power to change the world (Sapon-Shevin, 1999).


If we move beyond seeing inclusion as a special education concern, beyond seeing those to be “included” as those with “disabilities,” then we have the potential to address and change far more within our schools and society. We can interrogate the very words themselves: “What’s special about special education? If some students should be “included” in “inclusive classrooms”, then what about the rest of the students? Are there students for whom exclusion is advisable? Who should decide this? On what basis do we currently exclude students and what are the consequences of that policy? (Sapon-Shevin, 2001).  

A vision of social justice must acknowledge that when anyone is oppressed, no one is free. When any student is not a full participant in his/her school community, then we are all at risk. Embracing inclusion as a social justice imperative can help us to create a world fit for us all. 



Blue, B. “Courage”. For ordering information, see

Hall, N.S. (1999). Creative resources for the anti-bias classroom.

Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers.

Henkes, K. (1991). Chrysanthemum. NY: Greenwillow Books. 

Hoose, P. and Hoose, H. (1998).  Hey, little ant.  Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press.

Hoose, P. and Hoose, H. (2003)  Oye, hormiguita. Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press.

Kivel, P. &Creighton, A. (with the Oakland Men’s Project). (1997). Making the peace: A 15-session vilence prevention curriculum for young people. Oakland, CA: Hunter House Publishers.

Levin, D. (1994). Teaching young children in violent times: Building a peaceable classroom. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility.

Paley, V. G. (1992). You can’t say you can’t play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (1996). Full inclusion as disclosing tablet: Revealing the flaws in our present system. Theory into Practice, 35 (1), 35-4

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