CARE AND EQUITY: THE VIEW FROM THE LENS OF DISABILITY INCLUSION

CARE AND EQUITY: THE VIEW FROM THE LENS OF DISABILITY INCLUSION

By: Yasser Tamer Atef

Let’s agree on the following: care is multidimensional, inclusion is also multi-dimensional, and likewise, social injustice is likely to occur at many levels. As educators, we should strive to eliminate injustice in our classrooms and instead cultivate caring, inclusive learning environments. We should foster collaboration and create a culture of shared responsibility between students and educators, ensuring that care is ingrained in the nature of the classroom by default rather than being a performative obligation.

In my view, classrooms are communities, with teachers serving as facilitators and students as the active participants in gaining knowledge and skills. It’s crucial for us, as educators, to question our practices. The questions that we should ask ourselves include how can we build successful and reciprocal relationships with students? How do our methods shape our teaching approaches? And most importantly, what positive changes can we make when dealing with students with different disabilities—be they severe or mild, visible or hidden? Examining our values, beliefs, and interests may well lead to incorporating care and empathy into our teaching and pedagogy.

In fact, a recurring issue for individuals with disabilities in classrooms is teachers’ tendency to relegate inclusion to the end of course design, instead of from the start. This problem stems from a lack of understanding about inclusive learning design, which is, in turn, an under-researched area. Therefore, I view care and inclusive learning/teaching as interconnected. Being caring inherently leads to inclusivity, and in this article, I will draw on micro-fictional stories and reflections to attempt to demonstrate how teachers can easily inform their pedagogy with care and inclusion.

THE ABSENCE OF CARE DEPICTED THROUGH FICTIONAL NARRATIVES

Scenario One: Visual Impairment

The first fictional narrative unfolds in a university classroom, where the English teacher is about to give an explanation and lecture. There is a student with a visual disability, and the teacher is aware of their presence. However, the teacher chooses to use the board to draw a scene showing something happening at the moment without verbally explaining what they are sketching. This exclusive reliance on visual aids, without verbal articulation from the teacher, unintentionally creates a barrier to access for the student with a visual impairment. The lack of verbal explanations limits this student’s ability to fully engage with the material, hindering their comprehension of the concepts being discussed.

Scenario Two: Online Learning Accessibility

Taking advantage of technology, a professor decides to deliver a captivating virtual lecture for a diverse cohort of university students, perhaps I would say in an English course. One of the students in this class happens to be a hearing-impaired individual. The professor, who is supposed to be aware of the diverse student profiles, endeavors to create an inclusive virtual learning experience.

However, a critical oversight surfaces. The professor, in an effort to convey information through dynamic slides and engaging audio narration, fails to provide closed captions for the lecture video, resulting in an accessibility issue. This oversight inadvertently creates a barrier for the hearing-impaired student, who relies on captions for comprehending spoken content. As a consequence, this student finds it challenging to fully grasp the nuances of the lecture, affecting their ability to absorb key concepts and engage with the material at the same level as their peers.

After pondering, reflecting, and thoroughly reading these two scenarios, consider the plight of these marginalized, segregated, and intentionally or unintentionally excluded students. Imagine their suffering and their problems, and try to speculate about their feelings. Finally, can you think of ways in which teachers can provide them with caring learning environments?

PERCEIVING CARE THROUGH THE LENS OF DISABILITY INCLUSION

In the educational atmosphere, care through the lens of disability inclusion refers to providing equitable and supportive learning environments that accommodate the diverse needs of students with disabilities. Educators need to recognize the unique strengths, abilities, and learning styles of each student to foster an inclusive atmosphere that values diversity. In a general sense, inclusive education promotes the idea that all students, regardless of their abilities, should have the right to learn and participate in the same educational experiences. This approach requires a commitment to removing physical, communicative, and attitudinal barriers that may hinder the full participation of students with disabilities. It involves implementing reasonable accommodations, assistive technologies, and accessible teaching materials to ensure that the educational environment is inclusive and conducive to the success of every student. This is also, in a mere definition, the beginning of inclusive learning design approaches.

UNDERSTANDING INCLUSIVITY IN TEACHING AND LEARNING

The concept of inclusivity hinges on a lot of concepts, many of which nudge us to conjure ideas and nuances that could positively inform our teaching practices. In the education sphere, equity and care should be the emphasis of teachers and students alike. In this context, I draw on two significant sources that contribute to the intersection between care, social justice, and generally, people with disabilities and their level of inclusion. Both Maha Bali and Mia Zamora’s “Equity-Care Matrix” and Virna Rossi’s book “Inclusive Learning Design” embody tangible strategies for care and inclusive learning. Educators can apply these strategies to their contexts to create a culture of care as well as an inclusive learning environment.

Bali and Zamora’s Equity-Care Matrix emphasizes the inseparable link between discussions on care and considerations of equity.

Figure 1: Bali and Zamora’s Equity-Care Matrix, 2022

The matrix suggests that incorporating equity into our approach to care, both inside and outside the classroom, is crucial. Without this integration, there’s a risk that caregiving won’t align with the preferences of those receiving care. For instance, as a teacher, you may provide a specific form of disability accommodation to a student with a disability, but if this accommodation is not preferable to the student due to accessibility measures or other factors, a misalignment occurs. Thus, the matrix underlines the vital link between care and justice, asserting that justice relies on the empathy embedded in caregiving. By broadening our awareness of the complexity of social injustice and acknowledging various forms of oppression and their intersections, the matrix recognizes that caregiving takes on different shapes intertwined with power dynamics. Some of these dynamics may even be harmful, paternalistic, or insincere. Upon examining the matrix, we can observe it dividing into four relevant quadrants, all applicable to individuals with disabilities:

    • No equity and no care: This quadrant signifies systemic injustice.
    • Equity without care (Contractual Equity): Policies may ensure equity, but without genuine care, outcomes remain performative.
    • Care without equity (Partial care): This arises when care lacks equity in three ways – uneven distribution of affective labor, selective care for only a portion of the population, and biased care favoring certain groups. These kinds of inequitable care distributions harm both caregivers and recipients of care.
    • Equity with care (Socially just care): Coined by Bali and Zamora, this quadrant envisions a scenario where everyone shares responsibility for care, is cared for, and has a voice in how they want to be cared for.

It is important to highlight that this matrix lays the foundation for care within the intersection of education and the classroom environment. That is, it contributes to solidifying the movements of disability inclusion. As my experiences are borne out of my presence in different classrooms and educational systems, I greatly take into account the role of this matrix in transforming the experience from an initially culturally shocking environment to an equitable and hospitable learning space.

Take, for example, an English language classroom as a situation involving a student with a visual disability. It is a usual, regular teaching day. You, the instructor, intend to teach an activity that will involve visuals. Guided by the Equity-Care Matrix and the tendency to be intentionally equitable, your decision should lay out the prospects of a diverse environment, an inclusive space, and an equitable learning system. As such, you may pair students together, emphasizing the need to read aloud to the visually disabled student and verbalize the visuals. Meanwhile, you should provide the student with the description of the visual activity and/or slides to ensure they are able to understand and process the information.

By doing the aforementioned, you are intentionally equitable, meaning that you are aware of the inequity, and you have addressed it. As you keep reflecting on the other quadrants, imagine scenarios that would reflect the presence of inequities in the classroom and the extent to which educators respond to them. Ask yourself, are you aware of the inequity? And if you are, do you have the intention to eliminate it from your teaching practices? Do you provide care with equity (socially-just care)? Or is your teaching devoid of both equity and care? Through these reflective questions, you can begin to develop metacognitive awareness of these marginalized groups. Your actions, thus, transcend mere performance and transactional approaches, fostering an environment where care, equity, and inclusion are integrated into your teaching practices.

In a similar vein, Virna Rossi proposes a metaphor for inclusive learning designs, namely “roots to shoots,” to broaden the concept of care in the context of inclusion. She identifies 9 values that fall under the umbrella of inclusion, thereby defining the essence of inclusivity. These values include:

I           Intentionally equitable

N         Nurturing

C          Co-created

L          Liberating

U         User-friendly

S          Socially responsible

I           Integrative

V         Values-based

E          Ecological

Therefore, I will utilize this metaphor based on the aforementioned values to examine and reflect on the practices of care as intertwined with people with disabilities and the concept of inclusive learning design.

THE ‘I’: INTENTIONALLY EQUITABLE

It is not only about intentional equity but also fostering hospitality in learning spaces, succinctly termed as “Intentionally Equitable Hospitality (IEH)”. IEH begins with the premise that a learning space facilitator bears the responsibility of welcoming and including everyone in their environment. The praxis involves iterative design. When focusing on individuals with disabilities, it entails pre-design considerations for accessibility and reasonable accommodation. This prompts questions such as who should be involved in the design process, including individuals with disabilities? How do we address potential power inequities in the space, such as a disabled person with limited educational or accessibility support? What measures can be taken to create safe spaces for participants during actual teaching moments? Lastly, the approach extends to sustaining communities dedicated to enhancing and eliminating injustices and inequities that may arise from oppressions and barriers.

As a completely blind student hailing from the Global South/Middle East, I experienced the concept and implementation of Intentionally Equitable Hospitality. In my “Digital Literacies and Intercultural Learning class at The American University in Cairo, IEH was seamlessly incorporated. I received slides and class materials in advance, and whenever there was uncertainty about the accessibility of an assignment or activity, alternatives were readily provided. The space was entirely welcoming, whether in facilitation or design. Our educational ecosystem represented a living community of students with the teacher that seamlessly interacted with one another in an emancipatory manner. Barriers were eradicated, intentional adaptation was employed, and exclusion had no place in our learning environment.

'NCL': NURTURING AND CO-CREATING THROUGH LIBERATION

In my activism and within the broader academic sphere, I have consistently emphasized the significance of nurturing relationships, placing a special emphasis on co-creation and the enduring support of communities. As an undergraduate student, my ultimate objective following the completion of each course is to foster the sustainability of my community. I have maintained and fostered connections with peers, instructors, and staff, all of whom contribute to shaping my worldview. These experiences opened up numerous opportunities for ‘co-creation’ with faculty, enhancing my sense of agency. During my internship in one of my university’s departments, I actively participated in crafting workshop designs for faculty, thereby making a meaningful contribution. Additionally, I also co-organized the Mid-Year Festival (MYFest), an inclusive three-month professional development experience for both educators and students aimed at challenging conference exclusions and promoting equitable and caring educational environments. I believe that these opportunities not only enhanced my overall inclusion but also fostered compassion and care in my learning and growth, instilling in me a set of unparalleled skills.

‘USI’: BEING USER FRIENDLY, SOCIALLY-RESPONSIBLE AND INTEGRATIVE

When I first encounter a “user-friendly” teaching and learning environment, the concept initially prompts me to view it as a holistic approach, particularly in the context of disability. However, upon closer reflection, I realize that it is most appropriate to conceptualize, or categorize, such a facet under accessibility, encompassing physical (inside the classroom), digital (on the web), and attitudinal (communication, for instance) dimensions. Yet, I believe the concept remains incomplete. It necessitates individuals to be socially responsible for their actions while also incorporating an integrative process that bridges theory and practice or abstract knowledge and experience.

User-friendly environments should encourage individuals to be socially responsible for their actions. This implies fostering a sense of community and empathy. In an educational setting, this involves promoting values such as respect for diversity, collaboration, and a commitment to contributing positively to society. Social responsibility extends beyond the individual to encompass the collective impact of the learning community. While user-friendly elements address accessibility for individuals with disabilities, an integrative process ensures that learners with disabilities can apply their knowledge in practical situations. This involves incorporating discussions about implementing reasonable accommodations and proposing alternative pathways when addressing inaccessibility.

Evidently, last year (2023), I enrolled in a course that intertwines literature and cinema, both falling under the arts category. The foundation of care had been established even before the course commenced. The instructor provided me with film scripts to support the adaptation of the novels discussed. The dispositions of care and equity continued to surface throughout the semester. To enable my full engagement in discussions about the films, the instructor assumed the role of the audio describer of scenes. Not only did they make the experience inclusive, but I also experienced what it meant to be cared for. This teacher acted as a caregiver, being socially responsible for her actions. Importantly, she integrated the theories of literature with the practice of mainstreaming accessibility and inclusion.

WHAT DO WE NEED TO DO: FOCUSING ON THE ‘VE’: VALUE-BASED ECOLOGY IN CLASSROOMS

As I conclude my reflection on Virna Rossi’s roots to shoots approach, I am compelled to address value-based ecology, specifically within the classroom. From my perspective, the examination and acknowledgment of students’ values are of utmost importance. This is the caring and equitable ecology or environment that educators should nurture. In other words, community agreements, ice-breaker activities, and impromptu networking could serve as effective initiators to cultivate inclusive values in the class environment. By prioritizing the sustenance of communities through shared values and interests, I believe that education can shift away from rigid teaching practices that exclude some students towards inclusivity and care.

References & Recommended Resources

  • Bali, M., & Zamora, M. (2022). The Equity-Care Matrix: Theory and practice. Italian  Journal of Educational Technology, 30 (1), 92-115. doi: 10.17471/2499-4324/1241

  • Rossi, V. (2023). Inclusive learning design in higher education: A practical guide to creating equitable learning experiences. Routledge.

  • Rossi, V. (2023). Inclusive Learning Design Roots to Shoots with Virna Rossi: MYFest23. Virtually Connecting & Equity Unbound. [YouTube]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGmN1ipZTcE

Yasser Atef is a student and a disability and accessibility advocate, pursuing an undergraduate degree in English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo. He engages in writing and facilitates workshops on various topics surrounding disability and accessibility. His interests include disability studies, inclusive teaching, and pedagogy, and, recently, generative AI in higher education.

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