I have been thinking a lot in the past week about inclusion and what really makes people feel that they belong, are valued, heard and taken seriously.
I am fortunate in that for the last six years I have served as a Director on the Board of a UK non-profit organisation called the National Development Team for Inclusion (NDti). NDTi states in its own self-description that as an organisation and group of people that they ‘want a world where everyone matters.’ And that their ‘work helps create opportunities for independence and choice for everyone…(their) passionate and committed team raises aspirations and outcomes for children and young people at risk of exclusion, people who have a learning disability, autistic people, older people and everyone’s mental health and wellbeing.’
Having witnessed so many of the amazing cutting-edge programmes and pieces of work undertaken at NDTi, I can attest to the truthfulness of the mission statement being worked out in action. At the heart of what they do is the emphasis on inclusion, on ensuring that those ‘on the edge’ do not drop out of our perception or disappear from our notice. It is also the sense that inclusion does not just happen by accident but through determined focus, action and energy. The recognition that we live and work in a diverse world, where difference is celebrated and valued is one thing. But inclusion is more than the recognition of diversity, it is positive action and active steps taken to enable all to be valued, heard and given a place and space so that power can be held and choice exercised.
This coming week across the United Kingdom employers and many organisations will be thinking about what it means to include people who work in their organisation or indeed what it means to deliver services and supports that are fully and truly inclusive. That is because National Inclusion Week 2023 runs from the 25th of September to the 1st of October. It is a week run under the auspices of the organisation Inclusive Employers which is the UK’s first membership organisation for employers looking to build inclusive workplaces. Their work is well worth a look.
They get to the heart of inclusion and indeed talk of inclusion when they state:
‘Inclusion is a broad subject and is a term that trips off the tongue of many. However, people have different understandings of what the word means.
Cambridge Dictionary’s official definition for inclusion is:
“The act of including someone or something as part of a group, list, etc., or a person or thing that is included.”
Simply put, inclusion in the workplace is about ensuring that everyone feels valued and respected as an individual.’
I used to deliver a group exercise when I was a freelance trainer years ago in which I asked people what it meant to them to feel that they were included. They went beyond dictionary definitions to talk about feeling valued, being heard and listened to, being noticed and having a sense of importance; of not being rejected when they made mistakes or were not behaving as well as they might wish; they spoke of people seeing beyond labels, stereotypes and reputations. Most of all they spoke about feeling that they ‘belonged.’ But they time and time again commented upon the truth that inclusion was not easy, it had to be worked for and often that task took many years.
It is maybe a happenstance of timing that today is also the United Nations International Day of Sign Languages. There are few groups or individuals who are more excluded from our communities than those who are deaf or hard of hearing. In 2018 I wrote a blog called The Right to be Heard about the experience of so many who were receiving care and support from social care services but whose hearing issues and challenges were not always recognised or prioritised. Indeed, it was then and still is now clear to me that as a whole society we do not work sufficiently hard to include those who are deaf or hard of hearing, and that that lack of priority worsens when people age and get older.
I said then:
‘To be excluded because you cannot communicate, to be shut out because people do not understand, to be ignored because you are not valued and recognised … that must surely be real emptiness and abandonment.
Yet that is precisely what the day-to-day experience of tens of thousands of our fellow Scots feels like every single minute of every day. They are excluded because we have created a distance which separates them from us and us from them. We have failed to hear and allow people to be heard and thus the distance has grown into a divide.
I have, to my shame, only recently become as fully aware of the enormous extent of hearing issues facing the population of Scotland. The fact that in Scotland 40% of the population over the age of forty, 60% over the age 60 and 75% over 75s experience some sort of hearing difficulties I was wholly unaware of.’
The United Nations states that according to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are ‘more than 70 million deaf people worldwide. More than 80% of them live in developing countries. Collectively, they use more than 300 different sign languages. Sign languages are fully fledged natural languages, structurally distinct from the spoken languages.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises and promotes the use of sign languages. It makes clear that sign languages are equal in status to spoken languages and obligates states parties to facilitate the learning of sign language and promote the linguistic identity of the Deaf community.’
More recently I have come across some amazing examples of sign language poetry and deaf poetry which as genres are emerging into mainstream poetic appreciation and are very dynamic in form and style. They are poetic expressions in a language rarely understood which speak to issues of exclusion and discrimination. Whether as employers, as providers of care and support, as citizens and members of communities, as friends or family, we all need to become more aware of the glorious diversity of sign language and the inspiration which is ours to receive from those who are deaf and hard of hearing. Inclusion for all does not just happen it needs to be worked at , it is a task of both hand and heart. All this is brilliantly expressed in the poem ‘My Hands’, by Stevie Drown:
Then I looked into the mirror and
Saw the good this looking back,
I had to take the positives–
Put them on the right track.
I thought a lot about it
And now i want to shout,
The wondrous gifts God gave me
Outnumber what He left out.
So let me take the challenge
In meeting life’s demands–
I have the power to change things,
And it lives here in my hands
For a wider discussion of poetry and sign language poetry see American Sign Language (ASL) poetry (lifeprint.com)
Photo by Sharon Waldron on Unsplash