Emancipatory Inclusion with Dr Melanie Heyworth


It is every child’s basic human right to access inclusive education. But what does it mean to have emancipatory inclusion?

Join us as we move beyond the traditional notion of inclusivity and delve into the essence of emancipatory inclusion, in which all children receive an equitable and participatory learning experience.

Emancipatory inclusion is characterised by supports that allow children to communicate using their preferred method, and an environment where their presence and diverse perspectives and experiences are genuinely valued.

It recognises that true inclusion requires Autistic children and their families to be active partners in, and not merely recipients of education.


Inclusion is a concept that is often talked about, but rarely genuinely understood. And the same may be said of emancipation. In this video, I’m going to examine these intersecting ideologies in the context of education, and also address the interrelated concept of presuming competence or making the least dangerous assumption.

If you look up the word inclusion, the definition (as it relates to disability rights) is usually something along the lines of: “providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised”. But this definition is fundamentally incorrect. Inclusion is the provision of equitable access, not equal access. Equal access implies that everyone should get the “same”; equitable implies that everyone gets what they need.

No doubt you’ve come across this graphic before to visualise this idea …

Two images are presented side by side. The first image depicts three people of varying heights facing a wooden picket fence. Each of them is standing on an identical wooden crate. A baseball game is underway in an open stadium beyond the fence. The tallest two people look over the fence, while the shortest person isn’t high enough to see over it. The image is titled ‘Equality’. This scene is repeated in a second image. In the second image the person of medium height is standing on one crate as before. The tallest person is not standing on a crate and the shortest person stands on two crates. All three watch the game over the fence. This image is titled ‘Equity’.

Image credit: Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

In this visual we begin to appreciate that everyone getting the same does not address the systemic barriers that face many people, and that it is only by insisting on equity that quality is ultimately achieved. In other words, for people to be equal or have equal opportunities, we must pursue equity.

The other problem with this definition of inclusion is that access to opportunities and resources is limited and ultimately passive. This is how that kind of inclusion is often visualised:

There are four graphics titled Exclusion, Segregation, Integration, and Including. All four graphics depict a large circle filled with numerous green dots. In the 'Exclusion' graphic, many yellow, blue, and red dots are scattered around the outside of this circle. The 'Segregation' graphic displays a few yellow, blue, and red dots enclosed within a smaller circle outside of the larger circle. In the 'Integration' graphic, the small circle of yellow, blue, and red dots is enclosed within the larger circle. The 'Including' graphic shows a few yellow, blue, and red dots dispersed among a significantly higher number of green dots within the large circle.

Image credit: Shelley Moore, from her TED talk, “Under the table: the importance of presuming competence”

But this isn’t inclusion. This vision of inclusion is actually a vision of simply not having barriers that exclude: it captures the action of including, but not the genuine achievement of inclusion. Genuine inclusion requires a supportive energy and active commitment to the involvement of all people. Inclusion is more than simply allowing people within the circle, it requires actively facilitating all people to belong.

Graphics for Exclusion, Segregation, Integration, and Inclusion are presented as they were before, with the addition of the Inclusion graphic. The 'Inclusion' graphic shows a large circle populated with every colour of dot, each in roughly equal numbers.

Image credit: Shelley Moore, from her TED talk, “Under the table: the importance of presuming competence”

So, let’s think of the cornerstones of inclusion as equity, active involvement, and the belonging that comes from having your presence valued. In this sense, inclusion captures the disability phrase, “nothing about us, without us”.

What, then, makes inclusion emancipatory inclusion? Something becomes emancipatory when it builds individual autonomy and liberty, and this can be understood as both positive and negative liberty. Positive liberty is where we are free to do, and negative liberty is where we are free from impediment, coercion or interference. So, we can think of emancipation as the liberty or freedom to and freedom from. Emancipatory inclusion, then, can be thought of as dismantling the systemic barriers that curb or limit our freedom to be included.

The concepts of EQUALITY and EQUITY are depicted with the addition of a third image titled LIBERATION. In this image, the same three people are shown watching the game without any picket fence to obstruct their view.

Image credit: Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

And emancipatory inclusion encompasses political, financial and social inclusion.

In a school or educational context emancipatory inclusion dictates that a number of conditions are present and actively pursued across the school community:

  1. The presumption of competence, where all children regardless of neurology are taught on the presumption that they can, rather than the assumption that they can’t, and where a perception of an ability to learn and mature underpins all expectations, which in turn drives rich and meaningful opportunities, which in turn offers the chance to achieve.
  2. A commitment to an unrestricted, not “least restrictive”, context that embraces a capabilities framework and builds on this presumption of competence.
  3. Social inclusion through the social and emotional learning of all children, not only Autistic children, in which acceptance and respect are the foundations upon which learning and social communities are built.
  4. And Universal Design for Learning, which normalises the unique differences of every child, and is an equitable, simple, intuitive, appropriate, accessible and flexible approach to teaching and learning which recognises that no child has special needs, but all children have human needs that must be met in order to learn.

When these conditions are met – when equitable and genuine inclusion is achieved through a commitment to a presumption of competence and to an unrestrictive learning environment, through social emotional learning for all, not only for a select few, and when Universal Design for Learning is executed with knowledge and precision – we begin to see the vision of genuine inclusion emerge.

This is the educational context we should be demanding for our Autistic children. It is no less than their right and absolutely what they deserve.


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The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.

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