8 September 2023

This column appears in “Le Monde de l’éducation”. If you subscribe to Le Monde, you can subscribe to this weekly letter by following this link.

Inclusive education embodies a new paradigm where disability is seen no longer as a person’s incapacity, but as a limitation of activity or a restriction of participation. The gaze is no longer focused on the deficiency of the person, but on the accessibility of the environment.

The “regular” school becomes the reference for pupils recognized as having a disability, presenting “special educational needs”. The main effect of this inclusive dynamic lies in the significant increase in the number of students with disabilities enrolled in establishments under the Ministry of National Education, more than 430,000 at the last start of the school year.

However, it must be noted that this increase was only accompanied by a slight reduction in the workforce of medico-social establishments. This increase is in fact partly the result of the extensive definition of disability given by the law of 2005 for equal rights and opportunities, participation and citizenship of people with disabilities, which has extended its scope to populations previously not identified as such.

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Paradoxically, while a more social conception of disability should lead to a real consideration of the interaction between the person and his environment, the stronger becomes the importance of diagnostic categories at school.

If the objectification of the category of “specific learning disorders” constitutes a real progress, as well as the contribution of cognitive neurosciences in the knowledge relating to neurodevelopmental disorders and autism, the increase in the number of pupils whose the difficulties are interpretable in medico-psychological terms cannot be explained by these scientific advances alone.

“Disability” of school failure

Concealing the pedagogical contexts that more or less favorably support learning, concealing the inter-individual variability of students which may require adapted practices, concealing, or even making invisible, social aspects such as extreme poverty and its consequences in basic learning, “school difficulties” are – above all, and this is the problem – attributed to pathologies and disorders. This process of “handicapping” academic failure confers the label “handicap” on students who are admittedly in difficulty, but who, from the school’s point of view, may not justify an exceptional measure or especially the entry into a category that underlines and naturalizes their difference.

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