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The North South Dialogue IV

Doris Rajan, Director of Social Development, was in Goa, India presenting at the North South Dialogue IV – Implementing Tools of Change for Inclusion. This conference was hosted by Dr. Mithu Alur Founder of ADAPT – Able Disabled All People Together – a long time international partner of the IRIS Institute and the Canadian Association for Community Living.

Doris’s blog below reflects on her conference presentation and asks some thought provoking questions on the topic of inclusive education. 

When I initially saw where my brief talk was slotted in the program I thought it might have been misplaced under “changing community attitudes” because I wanted to talk more about an innovative community development approach that is rooted in local communities but seeks broader national level impact.

I thought it might have been better suited to discussions on previous days around “models for social change” closely aligned. I thought of the work I had heard on “Different Models of Change and Service Provision” presented by Dr. Alaa Sebeh and Mr. Essam Francis of Egypt. But when I sat down to develop the presentation it became quickly evident that empowerment for inclusion and the importance of changing attitudes, transforming values etc., is an essential component of this local to national community development approach.

The effectiveness of this community development approach is in ensuring that leadership comes from the individuals and families themselves – which of course involves empowerment – because people with disabilities and their families are the ones who know best the specific attitudes that need to be changed in their community.

My presentation focused on the fact that for all the good work that we – dedicated social policy and research people, community organizers, direct service workers, etc. – have been doing to advance the rights of people with disabilities, the frustration has been that although we have worked tirelessly, usually quite strategically to address a social problem, in this case exclusion in education – progress is slow, often isolated, time-specific, and piecemeal at best.

Twenty years ago in Canada for example, disability rights advocates focused on the problem of educational exclusion for people with disabilities. In fact one might argue that the family movement itself in Canada began over parents wanting their children to have some form of education – research was conducted scoping out the nature, prevalence and extent of exclusion, diverse educational models were developed and implemented, NGOs popped up with concentrated efforts to educate children and increase access to post-secondary education for adults with disabilities. Yet despite two decades of efforts to address a given social problem like education, not much has changed. In other words we are not making a big impact on system-level change or doing things that are making a real difference in the individuals child or adult’s life.

Community Schooling, India

Why is that? Well the reasons for the lack of progress are complex and can’t be simply explained by the failure of the work of advocates who do social policy and program intervention. The way funding is allocated, tight fiscal realities, competing priorities with advocacy groups resulting in weak partnerships and an absence of a sense of solidarity and common vision may all be affecting the slow progress of social change.

However, maybe we need to build on our growing knowledge that successful local level interventions need to understand the importance of a comprehensive, cross-sectoral, participatory, community-led approach that places equal value on process and outcomes. Even if this is happening at the local community level, most of this work begins and ends within the confines of a local geographically based community, rarely translating learnings to a national level. Very few examples exist in Canada where local-level learnings are brought to a national platform where they can influence and inform larger scale policy and program changes and also build the capacity of and empower individuals and their communities. This is not just a problem for Canada, but an international issue.

What can help then? Guided by a national framework, projects rooted in local communities that are set out to build the capacity of local communities through empowerment and leadership of the population most affected, and to work with local sectors (local school boards, teachers , principals, parents and students) who are involved with a particular social issue, while concurrently leveraging multi-level support and influencing broader level policy change (working with provincial and territorial Ministries of Education and advocacy groups).


What does this really mean? Well in simple terms – bringing people together from all levels, diverse sectors to have conversations that they typically would not have. Bringing people together that typical wouldn’t speak to one another towards de-mystifying our differences and finding a common ground or process that will work for everyone. In order for this local to national strategy to work, we have to ask ourselves a lot of questions to guide our work. For example: What is the role of a national/local coordinating body in a local to national strategy? What is needed to establish a national infrastructure with the capacity to support local communities to organize around the issue? What partnerships need to be in place and what types of social and economic investments need to be committed at both the local and national levels?

The most important question however is how can the people with disabilities/families be empowered and supported to be leaders of the local-level process?

We had a good discussion to see if this approach could work in other countries with different cultural and policy frameworks than Canada resulting in a different relationship with both education and disability.

The conclusion? If the approach is dedicated to empowering the group who has been marginalized to self facilitate towards better articulation of their needs and the development of strategies that will mobilize and also empower the various sectors, then an effective community and broader societal response will likely ensue.