Reflecting on the Critical Elements of INCLUDE: Past and Present

Dr Richard Jackson, Boston College, USA, Co-Founder of INCLUDE, reflects on the past for the promise of the future

Each new year calls for reflection. As the INCLUDE Collaboratory completes three years of development in anticipation of further growth and impact, I find myself reflecting on the genesis of INCLUDE and the astonishing rate at which UDL, INCLUDE’s guiding framework, has captured attention worldwide. As we convene to envision the future of INCLUDE, I now find myself reflecting on INCLUDE’s meaning and purpose. INCLUDE is, after all, an acronym, spelling out elements critical to the Collaboratory’s very existence.

The “IN” in INCLUDE signifies international engagement as an intention. The “C” stands for a Collaboratory, a center without walls, independent of place and just right for communication in the digital ages. The “L” signifies leadership, not of a top down or bottom up sort, but leadership that is distributed and emergent from within the ongoing practices of the Collaboratory. The “U” stands for universal, not to be interpreted as a one-size-fits-all solution to global challenges, but instead as an attitude or disposition toward equity and equal opportunity for all through design thinking. The “D” signifies Design as a mindset for planning so that barriers to learning can be eliminated and affordances for improving the human condition can be discovered or invented. Finally, the “E” stands for Education, which must be extended to all for the attainment of a productive and fulfilling life in society. Together, these constituent elements move the Collaboratory to action in service of equity and inclusion for all.    

When I think about INCLUDE’s origin, I go back to the late 1990s when the U.S. Congress required separate states to provide access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities. Previously, such students were only entitled to a special education, tailored to address their disability-specific needs. Now, somehow a curriculum never intended for students with disabilities in the first place had to be transformed to reach all students. In practice, accessible materials had to be in the hands of students just in time to participate in instruction. Classroom practices had to employ activities that would engage all learners equally, and assessment procedures had to fairly measure what students know and can do as a result of their learning.   

A paradigm shift was required to accomplish what many policymakers believed to be illogical and impossible. Previously, lack of learning was attributed to the deficits of students with disabilities. This long enduring deficit paradigm yielded practices intended to reduce the impact of disability. A new paradigm would shift blame away from deficits to the curriculum for limiting access. Following a set of design principles, the curriculum could be made accessible, usable and measurable for the broadest possible range of learners.

At the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), such a paradigm or framework for the design of accessible learning environments was under development and ready for deployment to support the implementation of federally mandated curriculum access. This new paradigm, now widely known as Universal Design for Learning or UDL, asserted that the curriculum itself was disabled and composed of numerous unintended barriers that prevented learning by students with disabilities. In 2000, CAST, along with several partners including Boston College, was awarded a multi-year federal grant to provide the nation with guidance on how to make curriculum access a reality for all U.S. students with disabilities. At this time, I had the honor of leading a team of faculty and graduate assistants from Boston College to identify teaching practices to support curriculum access. The work of the Center at CAST and partner affiliates over a five-year period led to many district and state-level implementations of UDL across the U.S. Additionally, teacher licensure standards evolved to include UDL among their requirements for new teachers.

As the adoption of the new paradigm spread across the states and into several Canadian provinces, educational leadership roles and functions remained divided between general and special education. If inclusion of US students with disabilities in the general education curriculum was to become a reality, there would be a great need for joint responsibility among leadership personnel. To address this need, Boston College and CAST were awarded federal funds to establish the first postdoctoral UDL Fellows program. Based on priorities identified by a national group of stakeholders meeting in Washington, D.C. in 2007, eight UDL Fellows were recruited between 2009 and 2014 to work toward those priorities.

By 2015, interest in universal design from around the world was apparent. I was invited to submit a chapter in a volume edited by Sean Bracken and Katie Novak on UDL in Higher Education from a Global Perspective. Work on this project led to numerous exchanges and conference visits in Boston, Worcester and Dublin where the idea of INCLUDE as it is now envisioned took shape. My initial hope was to extend the concept of UDL leadership developed at Boston College and CAST to a global scale, but I had little insight into how this might be accomplished. Fortunately, Sean’s professional connections around the world, his insightful awareness of global inequities and injustices in the education sector, and his passion for UDL resulted for me in a most productive and personally gratifying partnership for the founding of INCLUDE. With the active participation of our Steering Group and the wider participation of the Collaboratory’s membership, I am confident our global and virtual community of practice will thrive for many years to come.