Inequality and Social Mobility
Unremarkable Inclusion

In trying to be ‘inclusive’, are we actually helping or harming?

‘Inclusion’, like its polar opposite ‘discrimination’, is notoriously difficult to define because it encompasses many possible dimensions and contestable meanings.

At first glance, it seems straightforward because it is easy to identify obviously bad behaviour against people with disabilities (PWDs). A participatory research project by Disabled People’s Association and Institute of Policy Studies found overt forms of discrimination, such as blatantly exploitative behaviour and harassment. Such maltreatment includes underpaying, scapegoating, shaming, using denigrating jokes and making threats. The study also found covert forms of bad behaviour like manipulation, giving PWDs ‘unwanted’ jobs, and exploiting an employee’s disability status as a premise to sell products or services. When covert forms of discrimination are detected, we typically agree that they are bad.

However, the study also unearthed other forms of behaviour such as being paternalistic or patronising, engaging in naïve stereotyping and failing to make reasonable accommodations. Such actions become murky in terms of whether they should really count as bad behaviour—that is, what is their actual moral status? The consequences may not be as severe, but the results are nonetheless negative. Such behaviour may also be driven by ignorance or laziness and not ill-intent. When people who genuinely want to help act paternalistically, some PWDs may be more understanding while others regard it as insulting. It is sometimes perplexing to those who are trying to be helpful when they unwittingly end up being accused of doing harm.

There is a wide range of behaviours that are morally ambiguous:

  • Tokenistic help (But still better than no help?)
  • Paternalism and Euphemisms (Is this Protective or Patronising?)
  • Public showcasing of PWDs (Is this Advocating or Self-Serving?)
  • Assimilation or forced desegregation (Needed push towards integration or reckless if not ready?)

What should count as inclusion? And who gets a say in this?

From noticeable to unremarkable

Instead of vague abstractions that say nothing at all, being able to concretely articulate what counts as proper or sensible inclusion can provide some useful guidance for behaviour when done well. This is much harder than it seems because ‘inclusion’ really is a system or group level attribute rather than an individual trait. For example, not all departments are inclusive, but the firm might be, as a whole. Not all individuals or groups are inclusive, but a society might be. Here, I would just like to focus on one aspect—what I call unremarkable inclusion.

Many of our services and policies are intentionally designed to be inclusive. There are inclusive playgrounds, inclusive gyms and integrated childcare. These are useful attempts but they are like the specially designed ‘reserved seats’ in the public trains that indicate they should be given up to a senior, pregnant woman or person with disability when there is one present. This is a kind of noticeable inclusion, where accommodations are intentionally designed and clearly communicated to the public.

Some forms of inclusion are less noticeable and considered more organic and ideal. For example, in the spirit of universal design, if regular toilets are designed to be wide enough to accommodate wheelchair users and have grab bars for seniors, they can easily accommodate most users. There will be no need for specially designed services for those with special needs.

Many people with disabilities also prefer that employers and colleagues accommodate them on their own initiative, willingly, instead of doing it because there is legislation or a set of rules or some diversity and inclusion policy to follow. Instead of a disability campaign to bring awareness to disability issues, many prefer that disabled people are simply integrated into regular content and media without specially spotlighting their disability. For example, I have seen on YouTube a children’s programme performing a dance to “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes”, and one child just happens to be in a wheelchair and this is not called out in any way. In that sense, ideal inclusion should be unremarkable.

This is not to say that these official, formal and intentional policies, programmes and rules are deficient. In fact, they are necessary as a stepping-stone because we are still a long way from being able to act in a civilised and inclusive manner. Imagine a future where there are no reserved seats on the public trains, but when a person with a disability boards the train, everyone is willing to offer up their seat. No need for rules or reminders. That would be remarkable.

Tweaking our dominant metaphors: Life as a puzzle, not a race

Doing inclusion right also requires challenging the dominance of market logic, where the best jobs are given to the most qualified people and rewards accrue to the talented. This dominant logic results in some heart-breaking stories because success is defined in terms of getting ahead of others. I was told about a daughter, jealous of the time and resources spent on her sibling with special needs, who challenged her own mother: “Why are you spending so much time on sister, when it is I who can go to university?” It is as if a child can only be worthy of a mother’s love if they are smart and ultimately are able to excel in the marketplace.

If we used a more social lens, life is really more of a puzzle, if not a downright mystery. This analogy was suggested by a respondent from one of my research studies: “If we went to a shop and bought a puzzle, is your puzzle complete if you are missing a piece? You will probably be really pissed!”

When we regard life this way, then the goal will be to figure out how we all fit in with one another. If we regard people with disabilities as an integral part of the community—a piece of the puzzle—we would care to make sure everyone is included. The puzzle metaphor also has the useful premise that every piece matters, and to get things to fit, there are cornerstones and parameters, but just because you do these first, does not mean you will neglect the others; you are just coming to them in due time.

But all metaphors have their own shortcomings. Even when we take a sensibly inclusive approach of sequencing and pacing our efforts, we must remember that as long as the puzzle is not complete, there will be marginalised groups who suffer as a result of it. For those who suffer, inclusion cannot come soon enough.


Justin Lee is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

Excerpted from Work “What Counts as Inclusion?” by Justin Lee from Not Without Us: Perspectives on Disability and Inclusion in Singapore edited by Kuansong Victor Zhuang, Meng Ee Wong and Dan Goodley (Ethos Books, 2023).

Find out more about the book Not Without Us: Perspectives on Disability and Inclusion in Singapore here.

Top photo from Unsplash.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up to our mailing list to get updated with our latest articles!