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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Inclusion in adult education - where is the irritation?

by Silke Schreiber-Barsch
Language: EN
Document available also in: DE IT FR

Peter Brandt asks, with regard to the issue of inclusion in adult education, where the passion is - I would like to add another question: Where is the irritation?

The visual accompaniment to the debate surrounding inclusion is the pleasant diagrammes showing circles of inclusion: Colourful points are now no longer excluded or separated out, but rather consistently mixing them in illustrates the idea of an inclusive society.

So far, so good. This colourful redistribution does, however, bear the risk of shifting into a kind of inclusion kitsch and detracting from areas of tension that have rightfully been mentioned in the public criticism of inclusion: Is inclusive always synonymous with good, with better? Who actually defines which learners are classified as in need of inclusion and capable of inclusion, who is an expert for inclusion? Ultimately, who profits from placing inclusion on the public agenda? And: What is the goal of the debate concerning inclusion - a social consensus?

"Suitability of pluralism" - as a result of disagreement, not consensus!

The works of the political scientist Jacques Rancière (2002) break with the popular notion that democracy consists of a permanent state of harmony, a consensus about social order. By contrast, according to Rancière, democracy forms at the moment of flaring incomprehension, disagreement with that social order and its allocation of social places, judgements, of recognition and belonging. Thus: Democracy as challenging the rationale of societal distribution - on behalf of equality. Roland Reichenbach (2000) puts the educational priority of such a disagreement as opposed to consensus into simple terms: "There are things that people can agree on, and important things".

According to Reichenbach, it is disagreement that in the first place enables the entire spectrum of perspectives about an object and about the diversity of experiences. What is the educational importance of disagreement? It serves people's "suitability of pluralism": "To (still) perceive things as important, is therefore an educational question; to arrange them in a way which is important, is a pedagogical question; and to be subject to them, is an ethical question. Discourses enable us to be convinced of the seriousness of, and to be impressed by, the opinions of others with whom we disagree. This indicates that the prerequisite for mutual respect need not necessarily be found in what one shares, but also in difference" (Reichenbach, 2000, p. 805f; emphasis in original). What does this mean with regard to inclusion and adult education?

Why disagreement? Irritations lead the way to negotiation

Consensus on the question of inclusion in adult education is relatively easy to discern in practice and in academia: Indeed, in the course of ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (United Nations 2006) in Germany in 2009, adult education also has to be set up in a way which is inclusive, in practice as well as in academia. Indeed, an inclusive society is fairer than one which is exclusive. Indeed, an inclusive system of teaching and learning cannot be realised without the participation of all actors in the arena of lifelong learning - politic decision makers, representatives, associations, professionals, teachers, learners. And so on.

However, the decisive point was identified by an adult education professional in our interviews (Schreiber-Barsch & Fawcett, in preparation; Schreiber-Barsch 2017): if inclusion is not to remain "behind the scenes", meaning a kind of Potemkin village whereby inclusion is merely a marketing label on the surface of education providers, but rather actual practice in adult education, then all parties involved need to be prepared to push the boundaries, endure disagreement, and to see normality in a different light. Suitability of pluralism as a skill, to allow and withstand irritation and indeed as a starting point for joint discussion and negotiation.

What is to be negotiated as regards inclusion in adult education?

  • dis/ability: What does dis/ability mean? What does a barrier mean!? What does normal mean!? It is particularly the interplay between being impaired as an individual and being socially handicapped, that is, the interaction of social structures and practices, of individual attitudes and physical perceptions, of socio-cultural expectations of normalcy, that characterise the category of dis/ability. Representatives of Critical Disability Studies therefore refer to the cultural model of disability. It is about recognition of external and self-perception as barrier, as disability, as normal. What is the disabling factor with regard to the access to courses on offer: the physical impairment of those interested in learning, the absence of a lift, the wheelchair in itself or the administrative selection of the room at the course venue? Where is the barrier - in the minds of adult educators, in the conditions of the room, in the sense of entitlement of adults interested in learning, that anyone who wants to learn should be able to do so?
  • Inclusion as value added: It is about sensitisation as well as desensitisation! It is imperative to raise awareness from the perspective of dis/ability, of designing educational facilities, seminar rooms and teaching/learning situations that support learning for special educational needs. The need for a focused view of inclusion in the sense of dis/ability remains. However, it is virtually impossible to anticipate the entire spectrum of potential impairments and barriers and, as an education provider, to take this into account 100 percent. Flexibility in the minds of all parties involved and the will to test and try out inclusion time and again, is what gives rise to inclusive teaching and learning. This type of a learning-friendly setting is added value for many of those interested in learning: Offers for people "who prefer to learn slowly" (such as in the programmes provided by VHS Osterholz-Scharmbeck or the VHS Berlin), with small learning groups, team teaching, a didactic range provide access for those interested in learning whose native language is not German, for older people, etc. It is time to get used to encountering people's diversity at places of learning!
  • Broadening boundaries - recognising boundaries: Inclusion means systematically opening up opportunities and allowing them to take root in the heart of society, rather than establishing a new and now inclusive regime of rigid educational structures. Everyone may, but does not have to. Inclusive teaching/learning settings are just as necessary as exclusive ones, such as for example with self-help groups as exclusive for those concerned, with basic education facilities as exclusive for acquiring basic competencies, or with certain foreign language courses as exclusive for those interested in learning at a C1 language level, and are to be designed in a way which is didactically appropriate and professional for adult education.

Within this, however, boundaries are to be broadened by challenging routines and becoming aware of automatisms:



inclusion, adult education, people with disabilities, lifelong learning

  “Could you look a bit more seriously and depressingly, please? After all, you are disabled!”

© Phil Hubbe, from: „Das Leben des Rainer – Behinderte Cartoons 3 “ (2009) (The Life of Rainer - Disabled Cartoons 3)

This also includes becoming aware of your own boundaries in terms of how much irritation or stigmatisation we can bear, as participants, as teachers, as planning and organising staff in adult education. Rancière’s idea of democracy as disagreement does not consider democracy as arbitrariness, or anarchy. Rather, it involves the negotiation of a new order within democratic structures and norms. This is indicated by the modified demarcation line of the fourth circle in the diagramme of inclusion circles mentioned at the beginning (see above). A disagreement that is framed in such a normative way creates transparency for a dialogue on an equal footing and for a collective negotiation of demarcations.

Neither panic about nor glorification of inclusion

Turning the education policy mandate, an inclusive system of lifelong learning, into a reality, will be fulfilled neither with a hostile inclusion panic (that will never work!) nor with a glorifying exaggeration (inclusive is always better!). Besides the big picture, it is important to shed more light on the detail regarding the educational perspective: What teaching/learning setting supports learning specifically for this child, for these adults? How is it possible to make this particular course offer accessible specifically for these people who are interested in learning? Exactly what can be transferred to your own work context from the experiences of other educational institutions? What can adult education research and special education/Critical Disability Studies learn from one another and what expertise does each discipline contribute? The concerns but also the demands of teachers, participants, those interested in learning as well as educational institutions, must be taken seriously.

Focusing on inclusion merely in the sense of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities brings with it the danger of making it too dependent on the general political climate of education policy, whereby, so long as there is the prospect of grants and grants are being granted, inclusion has many new friends and supporters. What, however, happens when there is a sudden change in the political climate, if other´special´ target groups have (justified) claims to resources and awareness? Our educational efforts should place less emphasis on hierarchies of need, and more on equipping everyone with skills and impressing upon them that anyone wanting to should be able to learn as part of an inclusive system of lifelong learning.

Rancière, J. (2002). Das Unvernehmen. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp. [Rancière, J. (1999). Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Reichenbach, R. (2000). “Es gibt Dinge, über die man sich einigen kann, und wichtige Dinge.” (There are things that people can agree on, and important things). Zur pädagogischen Bedeutung des Dissenses (On the Educational Importance of Disagreement). Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 6, 795-807.

Schreiber-Barsch, S. (2017). Space is more than place: The urban context as contested terrain of inclusive learning settings for adults and arena of political subjectivation. In: H. Sacré & S. de Visscher (Eds.), Learning the city. Cultural approaches to civic learning in urban spaces (pp. 67-81). SpringerBriefs in Education. Cham: Springer.

United Nations (2006). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

 Silke Schreiber-Barsch) has been a professor for adult education at the University of Hamburg, in the area of life-long learning since June 2013. Her research focus includes participation and inclusion/exclusion in the system of life-long learning, with a particular focus on adult education and people with disabilities; international and comparative adult educational reasearch; as well as political education and Global Citizenship Education.


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