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A Right to be Included: The Best and Worst of Times for Learners with Disabilities


Ben Whitburn ,

Deakin University, AU
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Matthew Krehl Edward Thomas

Deakin University, AU
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This paper presents a critical analysis of the temporal politics of inclusive education. Drawing on the misalignment of universalist human rights discourse with the prevalence of materialist conceptualisations of disability, it instead advocates for a non-representative and temporal approach to inclusive practice. In four parts, it begins by presenting a temporal framework to the analysis of disability and inclusive education. Characterising the historical present as the best and worst of times for people with disabilities, immediately following is a consideration of the legislated inclusiveness of compulsory and non-compulsory education. a discussion of the diachronic and synchronic positioning of inclusion, social model conceptualisations and human rights discourse follows, from which the paper concludes with a conceptual framework of temporality that accounts for nuances to human rights and the ways that assemblages of education and disability mesh together in inclusionary events.
How to Cite: Whitburn, B. and Thomas, M.K.E., 2021. A Right to be Included: The Best and Worst of Times for Learners with Disabilities. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 23(1), pp.104–113. DOI:
  Published on 12 Apr 2021
 Accepted on 20 Mar 2021            Submitted on 09 Oct 2020

Introduction: A Schism in Time

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair (Dickens 1874: 1).

Underpinned by human rights charters, the inclusion of people with disabilities in education across the sectors is a value that has received widespread support, not least from disabled people themselves (Goodley 2013). However, socioeconomic forces continue to increase pace within these contexts, threatening how principles of inclusion are developed into practice. Inclusion in education is widely debated from different conceptual perspectives (Boyle et al. 2020; Simons & Masschelein 2015), ranging from notions of equality and equal participation for all, heterogeneity, and equitable opportunities in inclusive classrooms to prolonged debates about special versus inclusive education (Slee 2018). Neoliberal forces tend to frame inclusive education as the provision of resources and technicalities over axiological responsibility for those who have been marginalised from learning (Allan 2015). Education, in this frame, is a significant contributor by which perpetual acceleration is embedded in global cultural politics, which privileges inclusion of a particular kind of knowledge production and producer (Thomas & Whitburn 2020). As these authors highlight, children and people with disabilities who are perceived as unable to independently keep up with pre-set temporal milestones are therefore deprived of inclusive educational access and are generally relegated to special educational provision.

The emergent paradox for the inclusion of people with disabilities in education across the sectors leads Slee (2018) to surmise that at present, it smells funny—a pungent metaphor describing its failure to materialise internationally over 30 years. In this paper, this contradiction is what we characterise, following Charles Dickens, as the best and worst of times for disabled people: the best in terms of the ways that disability is inferenced as a core consideration for inclusion in all educational sectors. Yet the conditions of inclusion in education in the current day often develop into the worst of times for students with disabilities. The purpose of this paper is to contribute a conceptual argument for considering temporal mediations of education to underpin inclusive practice and promote equity. The article pushes the debate beyond placement considerations for students with disabilities, to affirmative engagement with differential temporalities to promote inclusion.

To analyse the successes and failings of inclusion in education, it is important to examine it from a temporal or historical perspective (Thomas & Whitburn 2019). It is, as Noonan (2019) suggests, the movement over time of the parameters of political struggles leading to renewed value principles. An analysis of the extent to which people with disabilities are included in education draws on the temporal situatedness of these concepts and their implications for practice. Analyses that centre on the temporal have been applied in diverse fields such as critical psychology (Sugarman & Thrift 2017), organisational decision making (Chia 2002, Introna 2019), and the diversity of lived and racial temporalities (Mills 2020). This work collectively demonstrates that time is frequently conceptualised as impinging on individuals and groups, which can adversely impact their experiences. The present analysis adds to this work by exploring how time mediates inclusive education discourse in the Global North, to offer conceptual possibilities for responding to perceived temporal restraints. It thereby draws on social model depictions of disability scholarship and human rights developments, as well as extant studies on the experiences of people with disabilities in education. Coming down unapologetically on the side of the debate in favour of inclusive education, the paper is relevant for people with disabilities and their families seeking inclusion in education systems both in the present and future, as well as educators (both leadership and practitioners) and educational support whose task is to ensure this occurs.

The paper comprises four parts. The first presents a conceptual framework through which we consider the theoretical precept of temporality and locate its relevance as an analytical tool for the examination of disability and inclusion in education. A discussion of the ways that inclusion is rendered in the compulsory and non-compulsory education sectors immediately follows. The argument is developed here in terms of the best and worst of times for people with disabilities, because of the finite ways temporality is used to frame inclusion in education in schools and higher education. A discussion of the synchronic positioning of inclusion, social model conceptualisations, and human rights follows in the third part. From this, we tender a discussion of the conceptual possibilities of reworking disability and inclusion in education not as fixed matters to be resolved, but to account for temporal nuances both in the ways we work with human rights discourses (Zembylas 2021) and the ways that assemblages of education and disability are enmeshed as processual inclusionary events.

Temporally Framing Disability Studies

A Newtonian conception of temporality held since enlightenment posited that the continual rolling forward of time occurs independently of social life. To this end, to casually make mention of time is to incite the image of a clock, which divides time into 12 equal spatial distances, traversed twice each 24 hours. The social implications of the instrument of time measurement, as Adam (1995: 59) explains, is standardisation: ‘[f]rom a certain age onwards both pupils and the adults who teach them have no difficulty with the question “What is the time?”, with learning to tell the time: to know the time is to know clock time’. Though the clock continually moves in a cyclical motion irrespective of social experience, since enlightenment the implications of time have received more attention (Adam 1995, Chia 2002). Indeed, time-based disciplinary techniques have been mobilised since the fourteenth century. Thompson (1967) provides a historical account of how time is utilised and measured since this period, articulating its ubiquitous reach. Applied to the undertaking of tasks, albeit in schools, in the labour market, and people’s homes, what Thompson refers to as ‘time-thrift’ (78) has been used as a currency whose frugality over time has come to encroach on the study, work, and personal lives of everyone. Attached to a Marxist conceptualisation of the modes of production underpinning capitalist societies, finite time must be spent judiciously rather than passed idly.

Time has therefore been pluralised: it encompasses both the clock as a meter of a populations’ temporal trajectories, as well as individual and collective embodiment, or what Sharma (2014) calls temporal subjectification. The complexities of time through which temporal subjects live can be examined through Virilio’s (2008) idea of chronopolitics. The movement and speed of cultural politics was a principal consideration for Virilio, whose phenomenological orientation emphasised relative and embodied positionality in the perception of things. That is, technological advancement invites further acceleration of movement through space, such that it can be traversed instantaneously, physically or digitally. People with disabilities have not been spared from this technological arms race; the advancement of assistive technologies are assumed to provide bridges to inaccessible physical and digital environments, as a way of giving parity to users (Baxter et al. 2012, Hynan, Goldbart & Murray 2015).

To Virilio, the speed of movement afforded through technical advancement has led politics to become less concerned by issues of space and geography. Instead, the political emphasis is placed on vectors of speed with which to govern citizens, territories, and the distribution of resources, which continually intensifies with technological advancement. Yet, as Sharma (2014) cautions, as with the politics of space through the emphasis on speed, chronopolitics is not without uneven power relations: ‘concern with speedup today reflects not a culture invested in the temporal but a culture that operates with a spatial sense of time… spatial treatments of time are individualistic, concerned with control and management’ (Sharma 2014: 12). Indeed, multiple facets of Global North infused capitalism accelerate time for individuals through competition and profitability, the collapse of welfare systems, increased risk and responsibility, and the proliferation of choice, which together contribute to sped-up psychology (Sugarman & Thrift 2017). From these conditions of chronopolitics emerge what Virilio describes as the development of fast and slow classes:

When you say that time is money, what it means is that speed in time is power. Therefore, there are classes of speed like there are classes of wealth. The poor and the rich; the fast and the slow. Slow is a speed. Speed is a measure (Virilio 2008: 227).

To this end, the historical development of the conditions that develop dominant and othered populations can be examined via chronopolitics (Mills 2020; Noonan 2019). Perceived fixed and naturalised personal attributes of ability or disability propel notions of normality (Goodley & Runswick-Cole 2016; Peuravaara 2013), placing individuals into differently paced classifications. For instance, together with the calendar, the clock provides the means to classification: specificities are allocated to quantified and normative time progressions across people’s lives, from daily schedules counted in minutes and hours; apportioned year-long phases of a child’s education or person’s salary; biological normativity of birth (optimum age for having children, age-appropriate developmental milestones); anticipated life span; and death (Ljuslinder, Ellis & Vikström 2020). Living with a disability can disrupt normative developmental stages, leading, for example, a child to be labelled as having special educational needs because of discrepancies that emerge between the pace they are anticipated to develop, and their capacity to progress through education alongside their peers (Simons & Masschelein 2015). As Ljuslinder et al. (2020) explain, normative temporalities through the life course are inherently ableist, where a person’s disability is measured and becomes contingent upon their temporal interactions with the world.

As explanatory as this temporal framework of disability may be, it is entrenched in a simplistic binary, where representations of ability are swept up with the notion of speed and compliance with normativity (Peuravaara 2013), and slowness with a disability or essential lack (Feely 2016, Goodley & Runswick-Cole 2016). Adopting a critical perspective on time is to acknowledge that temporality is multiple, relational, disparate, and wildly uneven (Sharma 2014). Assistive technologies designed to support accessibility can increase the speed of participation in learning for students with disabilities (Baril 2016; Ljuslinder, Ellis & Vikström 2020; McRuer 2018; Samuels 2017). However, sped-up access is dependent on how teachers engage with these in their day-to-day pedagogies (Galis 2019; Söderström 2016). International analyses of disability have had a distinctly spatial (Dolmage 2017), cultural (McRuer 2018), and material (Goodley 2013) inclination. More recently the field of disability studies has become theoretically hybridised, accounting for the complexities and non-normativity of lived time for people with disabilities through the concept of Crip Time (Baril 2016; Ljuslinder, Ellis & Vikström 2020; McRuer 2018; Samuels 2017).

Published studies evoking Crip Time draw on temporality as an explanatory device in two main ways: time as a measurement of an event or temporal instant and times in plural and historical sense. Samuels (2017) demonstrates that Crip Time is variable, broken, sick, vampire-like, unaligned, and in flux—neither at once wholly positive, nor negative, but embodied. She offers ‘we who occupy the bodies of Crip Time know that we are never linear, and we rage silently--or not so silently--at the calm straightforwardness of those who live in the sheltered space of normative time’ (Samuels 2017). Crip time, in this sense, resonates with temporal subjectification, whereby lived temporalities are imbued with complications concerning the social embodiment of impairments in situated contexts.

Other disability scholars take a less sanguine position on Crip Time, based on the historical present. McRuer (2018) forcefully asserts that disability is central to any consideration of the global effects of neoliberalism and austerity in the contemporary moment. McCruer’s thesis is that free markets are dependent on an essentialist ideology of disability, reproduced to retain power. Crip Times are stark in countries of the UK where aggressive austerity cuts further isolate people with disabilities from economic participation, social services, and cultural life (Goodley 2020). For McCruer, at issue in Crip Times is that the representations of disability upon which austere social policies rest fail to fully capture the lived experiences of disability. This consequently leaves an opening through which people with disabilities can mount forms of resistance. Based on these theorists’ different conceptions of Crip Time and temporality, troubling the temporal status quo is achievable by demonstrating that time is not a linear, objective process that exists beyond the experiences of individuals with disabilities. Time and disability are mutually constitutive, simultaneously caught in vectors of pace and regulated within the preoccupation of the historical present. Indeed, in the next section, how inclusive education is conceived and practised in many contexts around the world are subject to these conditions.

Inclusion in Education

In this part we make a synchronic analysis of inclusion in compulsory and non-compulsory education for people with disabilities. This discussion contributes to the ongoing debates about inclusive education by drawing on global legislative developments that promote human rights for people with disabilities, in conjunction with the voiced accounts of people with disabilities about their experiences of these conditions in educational contexts. Together, these support the core argument of the paper that people with disabilities are currently living in the best and worst of times for the ways that inclusive education is presently conceived of and practised in many international contexts.

The term ‘inclusive education’ currently reverberates globally as a key component for developing societies in which all individuals can participate on the basis that they are equal stakeholders (Simons & Masschelein 2015). The Salamanca Statement (UNESCO 1994) is generally accepted to be the instrument that ushered in the international resolve for inclusion in education, emerging as it did, as an artefact of colonial Global North-centric developments filtered down to Global South contexts (Meekosha 2011; Walton 2018). The Statement decreed regular education should be accessible to all children, giving impetus for political grounds upon which to build inclusive education, and as Slee (2018: 22) notes, ‘[a]dvocates for children with disabilities applied education for all as a rallying call for their inclusion in the neighbourhood school and the dismantling of segregation’. Reflecting on the disassembling of segregation to this end, students with disabilities have reported that teachers who afford them sufficient time on their terms to participate support their inclusion in schooling (Morina Diez 2010; Saggers, Hwang & Mercer 2011; Raphael & Allard 2013; Messiou 2019; Thomas & Whitburn 2020).

In countries where legal frameworks of inclusive education have been implemented, enrolment into schools and participation in learning is assured by law and underpinned by a commitment to expansive human rights in education. This marks a historical advancement that we should celebrate as a triumph—the best of times for people with disabilities to access education. Moreover, in recognition that ‘inclusion involves a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies’ (United Nations 2016: 4), accompanying multi-sectorial initiatives have been implemented in many countries in support of such efforts, including inclusion-oriented teacher education programs (Naraian 2021; Slee 2018) and disability resource centres within institutions of higher education (Hughes, Corcoran & Slee 2016). In this sense, the rights-based discourse of inclusion in education commands a global narrative issued from well-resourced western contexts, with varying degrees of success in both Global North (Slee 2018) and South (Walton 2018) contexts.

Education in countries that are dominated by neoliberal ideals, nevertheless, is frequently predicated on a linear, normative notion of time-progression (Adam 1995; Adam 2018; Lingard & Thompson 2017; Murris & Kohan 2020; Thompson 1967), which can place barriers before students whose achievements fail to fit pre-set temporal frameworks (Adam 2003; Thomas & Whitburn 2019; Whitburn & Thomas 2021). As Adam (2003: 64) writes, ‘we know that not all children learn at the same pace. Yet, age-based classes, educational attainment targets and assessment apply the invariable norm as [a] measure’. For Murris and Kohan (2020), who provide an instructive account of the temporal colonisation of education, the ways that schools mediate time characterises how they relate to childhood, and as well how adults and children interact with one another. Developing along normative temporal trajectories, children are propelled through school in the service of fulfilling a market need in the future. As they put it:

Advanced capitalism and colonialism have turned education into an individualised, teleological humanising project, whereby humans and other beings have become a resource, obscuring collaborative survival (Murris & Kohan 2020: 2).

What matters then, is the past: a child’s passage through temporal milestones, examinations and regular reports of progress that focus on a future to come. To this end, the present is purely a tool for education to manipulate the future (Whitburn & Thomas 2021)—a future characterised by an ongoing tension of time restraint (Sugarman & Thrift 2017).

Despite the fervour for inclusive education in the name of human rights, adhering to competing ideologies in education that thrive on linear progress can lead to division. In examining the ways teachers implement practices to support all learners to participate in schools, (Thomas & Whitburn 2019) find that many explicitly cite lacking time for thwarting these tensions. Competing priorities of the necessity to increase performance over a school year are pitted against contextually dependent commitments to inclusion, with the former taking priority over the latter. In a demonstration of how temporality is employed to meet exclusionary ends for young people reliant on assistive technologies, Söderström (2016) observes that inattentiveness leads teachers to abandon their use in the interests of pedagogic speed. Noting that instead of embracing the value that assistive technologies can bring to a student’s learning, practices which favour spontaneity and task-orientated interactions ensure students with disabilities are frequently marginalised from class activities. Similarly, in another study conducted in Australia (Whitburn 2013), secondary students with disabilities described the significance of temporal considerations to their capacity to participate inclusively in classes alongside non-disabled peers. Teachers who recognised the need for synchronous learning ensured that accessible resources were always available in lessons. Yet paraprofessionals generally shadowed these students because these provisions were not assured: ‘I probably do need a teacher aide …, because the teacher might write up the answer, or whatever, and do something on [the] spur of the moment, and I’m not getting that’ (Whitburn 2013: 153–154). The surplus time required to teach students with disabilities has also been referenced as a reason for its disavowal by politicians (Slee 2018). Drawing on McRuer’s (2018) usage of Crip Time, identification and classification of students into groups that can either support or hinder school performance relies on an essentialist conception of time-infused ability, while ignoring the necessity for teachers and other school personnel to account for temporal differentiation. Students are included on the basis that they can comply with normative linear time progression and will not cost teachers additional time.

Although there is scope for temporal flexibility in higher education (Dolmage 2017), how time mediates practice in the sector does not bear scrutiny. Whilst minimum standards of accessibility to physical and digital environments may be embedded into university protocols, implementation is never assured, rendering those with disabilities inherently excludable even from simple access to campuses (Titchkosky 2019). Courses of study in higher education are often subject to strict temporal conditions, whereby students are expected to apply themselves to pre-set blocks of learning time through semesters and assessment periods, showing progression against year-level curricula in preconceived programs of duration.

Accounts of temporally imposed barriers to inclusion for students who disclose disabilities abound (Hughes, Corcoran & Slee 2016). Isaacs (2020) describes the normative temporal pressures of an undergraduate course in a university in South Africa, which suggests that temporal pressures may exist in institutions of higher education in the global south as in the north. As a person living with a verbal impairment, he notes the privileging of oral fluency in conjunction with the unrelenting pace of learning that effectively prevented his participation. ‘I was unable to speak a sentence without stuttering. At times, I felt both invalided and intellectually inferior because my tempo and rhythm was not to the standards of my fellow classmates and that of the programme’ (Isaacs 2020: 61). Despite this, ‘I was forced to keep up with the pace and rhythm of the programme’ (Isaacs 2020: 62). People with disabilities are often side-lined from participation in higher education because of the adversities they present to a temporal norm. While extensions to time are by far the most common adjustments made for student access to learning (Dolmage 2017), these are invariably individualised measures, leaving persistence of a missive for inclusion which attends to the chronopolitics of learning untouched.

Exemplars proliferate raining on both sides of an imaginary divide between the best and worst of times for people with disabilities and the inclusiveness of education. The culmination of the present orthodoxy of inclusive education is that it continues to sanction the systematic exclusion of students with disabilities on grounds both tacit and explicit. While a sped-up temporality has not been reported widely to impact inclusive education in contexts of the Global South beyond Isaacs (2020), temporal acceleration may impinge on these contexts in time to come.

Ideation of Inclusion

Let us now consider the emergent ideation of inclusion for people with disabilities. This part will draw out some of the temporal reasons for the contradictions in inclusive education practice (Slee 2018; Walton 2018) and attempt to elucidate why people with disabilities have described mixed experiences of education and inclusion across sectors. This section deliberately compares the affordances of different conceptual tools in prominent use in disability scholarship, in conjunction with the international rights-based discourse of inclusive education, in full recognition that human rights are often interpreted differently in Global South contexts from their original intent (Grech & Soldatic 2016). Overall, this section argues that essentialist approaches to disability and inclusive education have reached the temporal limits of their utility, adding to an ongoing debate about inclusion in education by advancing conceptual tools that account for temporalities of educational practice and Crip Time.

In recognition of the temporal dimension of knowledge, Noonan (2019: 766) suggests examining what he calls the ‘historically emergent character of the meaning and value of different possible normative structures’, where ‘the full meaning and value of social norms works themselves out over time, through history, via the agency of struggle’ (766). To clarify this point, Noonan draws from the example of the landmark legalisation of marriage equality in many nation-states in the 21st century, which have been ushered in after the historical developments of human rights following the American and French revolutions. Noonan argues that over time, such advancements have contributed to contemporary achievements of legislative change for sexually diverse groups in many countries, though human rights advocates in the 18th century could not have imagined how the notion would widen in the contemporary moment to encompass ever-expanding interests. By demonstrating politically against institutional obstacles to freedom, diverse movements manage to overcome binding tensions that oppress them.

We draw parallels here between the concept of educational inclusion and its association with disability today. Internationally, disability advocacy and associated scholarship predominant from Global North contexts are grouped into what Owens (2015) describes as different versions of the social model, which were developed at similar junctures of time and are preoccupied with participation. These include the minority and cultural models from the United States, which concentrate on representations of disability through which otherness manifests, as well as the Nordic Relational Model, which locates disability and functional ability on a continuum, thereby defining contingency in context (Owens 2015; Söderström 2016). In the UK, and indeed globally, disability has had a distinct materialist inclination aligned as it has been and often continues to be—with the material social model. This, too, ought to be taken in its historical context. As Goodley observes, ‘the materialist social model of disability might be now viewed as a product of the twentieth century: a modernist response to the socio-economic exclusion of disabled people from everyday life’ (2013: 632). The social model has had an enormous impact, placing the conditions impeding equality of access and participation at the centre of global human rights initiatives. It underpins transnational developments such as the CRPD (United Nations 2016) alongside social advances in individual countries and local contexts, though its relevance to the Global South is questionable principally because of the ways that material oppression differs in these contexts (Grech 2012; Meekosha 2011). Nonetheless, its ongoing citation gives rise to what is fast developing as the human rights model of disability (Series 2020).

Disability rights embed notions of equalisation into social discourse, identifying barriers to participation in the current day that may be addressed in a future to come. The CRPD, frequently cited as the driving artefact of such intentions, purports a necessity for people with disabilities to be afforded rights on the same basis as others, whilst ushering in a set of new supporting forward-focused rights as indicative of success (Harpur 2012; Series 2020). The CRPD includes provisions requiring states to engage in ‘awareness raising’ (Series 2020: 77), and uniquely, a framework by which they are to monitor and report on implementation and success every four years. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), rather ambitiously projected to have been reached globally within a decade, also explicitly account for disability, inviting people to ‘Imagine the world in 2030, fully inclusive of persons with disabilities’ (2020: Paragraph 1, Imagine). Though, as Series (2020: 78) notes gesturing towards the future, ‘[t]he benchmark against which successful implementation of the CRPD will be measured is the extent to which disabled people authentically enjoy equal rights in comparison with others in their society’.

Before moving to the final parts of this paper, we want to make two important points relative to these temporal conditions of disability scholarship. First, development of the social and rights models, the CRPD, SGDs, and ambitions for an inclusive and equal future the world over, as Noonan (2019) contends, are temporally bound. While a material analysis may have led to developments in human rights with which to strive for equality, the limitations of these conceptual tools are temporally mediated. In the present, people with disabilities are not always afforded equal participation in education despite these conceptual and legislative advances. Relatedly, conceiving of disability scholarship and advocacy in terms of divisible framings of time, such as past, present, and future, works from the arbitrary assumptions of dislocation between temporal developments within the field. As Introna (2019: 750) intimates, ‘All of this assumes that the past is past (no longer now present) and the future is not yet present’. This understanding of the divisibility of time has been inaccessible to Indigenous cultures, whose concept of time is cyclical and seasonal rather than calendrical (Chia 2002; Sugarman & Thrift 2017).

French philosopher Henri Bergson (1999) reconceptualised time as duration, whereby distinctions between the temporal moments of past, present, and future are simply implausible. Rather than objectively linear, time is at once embodied and experienced, and so the past is morphed into the future through the present. Indivisibility of these three temporal markers comes about because memories of the past are always pressing into the future. Any single instant is replaced through continually reproducing moments of the present, in an action that Bergson calls co-extension. Significant to durational time, for Bergson, is that the past is always there—experience is recalled as relevance reveals itself, to inform future action. As Bergson describes it, the dynamism of affect (emotion and mood) through lived experience ensures that time is continually experienced differently as memories are themselves differentially accessed. Disability scholarship and activism could benefit from paying closer attention to the influence of temporalities in the constitution of disability and embracing the development of innovative conceptual resources for reframing how we orient towards inclusive societies. We now turn to consider the affordances of this provocation.

Addressing the Paradoxical ‘Inclusive’ Present

Mindful of Noonan’s (2019: 766) warning that ‘the meaning of the norm are determined by the limits of successful struggles on their basis’, core to the argument advanced in the previous section is that concepts such as disability, rights and normalcy are temporally made (Davis 2010). Accordingly, since the past persistently pushes into the future, processual conceptual change is inevitable (Chia 2002; Introna 2019). Whilst the development of the Salamanca Statement (UNESCO 1994) put heed to the facility of students with disabilities—those who were identified as having special needs—in mainstream schools, later in a 2005 mission statement, UNESCO redefined inclusion in education as a broad ‘process of addressing and responding to the diversity of needs of all learners through increasing participation in learning, cultures and communities, and reducing exclusion within and from education’ (2005: 13). Moving the intent of inclusion in education across the period of a decade from disability centrism to a catch-all effort towards widespread equalisation is commendable. However, what has sustained through the redefinition of inclusive education to today is division: disability is continually associated with special needs and functional ability to comply with pre-set temporal milestones, or else it legitimises exclusion. Disability, in this sense, is assumed to be fixed in terms of its relation to normalcy. As Davis (2010: 8) notes, ‘the person enters into an identical relationship with the body, the body forms the identity, and the identity is unchangeable and indelible as one’s place on the normal curve’. As such, the propensity of educational institutions to perpetuate a relationship to time that is linear (Adam 2003) and aligned with neoliberal intent (Murris & Kohan 2020) gives rise to an unmet universal right to inclusion in education (Whitburn & Thomas 2021). It is this we emphasize as the paradox of the inclusive present. In what remains of this section, we will discuss each of these points in further detail, in engaging in the chronopolitics of disability and inclusive education.

In recognition that inclusive education is a collective ethical responsibility (Allan 2015; Slee 2018), this charge must be extended to the politicisation of the ways a right to be included in education is enacted in specific contexts. Examining how human rights violations come to bear, Zembylas (2021) identifies that the politics of human rights is frequently put to work in particular ways that restrict their effectiveness. He notes that the difference between individuals is stripped from social structures in the push towards juridical or transcendental norms. Alternatively, political possibilities such as social justice are side-lined in the service of liberal interests and trade. Combined, these concerns depreciate the effectiveness of human rights for the ways that politics predetermines lived experience. Linking the right to inclusive education to these concerns contributes to an understanding that inclusion is frequently assumed to take shape through conformity and compliance to temporal ability. How this plays out in practice for teachers and students, as Done and Murphy (2016) illustrate, is an impasse wherein together they must contribute to standardised international league tables while maintaining an ongoing commitment to inclusion for all. To this end, inclusive education is subservient to broader international frames of reference that give purpose to education in neoliberal contexts (Slee 2018).

A forward tilt does not imply a necessity to break from human rights concerning inclusive education—Bergson’s duration ensures that what has come before forever pushes into the yet to come. We must recognise the temporal limitations of human rights and advance a different way of engaging them for people with disabilities to participate in and contribute to education. Offering what he calls an agonistic approach to the reconceptualization of human rights, Zembylas (2021) draws from the affective turn and posthumanism to reject universalism whilst recasting political engagement. Characterised by context-based political action towards social justice ideals, rather than minimising diversity, human rights in an agonistic frame draw on an affirmative politics of difference as its principal point of departure. Zembylas and Bozalek (2014) note: ‘What constitutes ‘the included’ and ‘the excluded’ is a complex political issue that needs to be raised each and every time rather than a one size fits all approach’ (31). Engaging politically in the service of inclusion therefore requires not crowing uncritically from rooftops that inclusion is a transcendental right. Instead, an agonistic account of human rights invites nuanced, contextualised specificity, in which participation and contribution are understood as a situated, processual achievement of practice (Hall and Wilton 2017). Those familiar with the human and non-human supports that can mutually affect the constitution of inclusion for a person with a disability, not least that person themselves, would thereby be afforded prominence in redefining how inclusion is made possible through the ongoing series of practices that are implicated in the enactment of inclusive education (Söderström 2016).

Second, drawing on theories of processual enactment (Chia 2002; Introna 2019), inclusion in education for people with disabilities might be reconceptualised as a series of events, rather than a fixed or aspirational occurrence. Temporality in this way allows for the emphasis of bodies and things to mutually affect and be affected for the political and ethical affordances they highlight for differential embodiment. Duration is intended to suggest that what is of most significance to inclusive potentialities is the relationalities that bind bodies together in assemblages of time and space (Flynn 2017; Hall & Wilton 2017) rather than fixed and essential identities (Feely 2016). Understanding both education (Simons & Masschelein 2015) and disability (Goodley, Lawthom & Runswick-Cole 2014; Hall & Wilton 2017) as assemblages whose materiality is co-produced ‘encourages and allows us to think about how orders of existence traditionally considered separate (e.g. the biological, the economic, the discursive) come together and operate as a whole to form a particular understanding, activity or entity’ (Feely 2016: 874). This is to reject the representational logics upon which sociocultural models of disability have traditionally thrived, and to instead draw on non-representational ways of locating meaning in ‘what happens in the active world—the “bare bones” and “taking place” of occasions and the “onflow of life”’ (Zembylas 2016: 394). Applying these concepts to demonstrate how racism is mobilised in Greek-Cypriot schools, Zembylas argues that dominant epistemological frameworks of race favour either a biological or social inclination, failing to capture how:

racialized bodies are formed as ‘assemblages’ of material, discourse, and practice that are irreducible to a timeless essence, thus turning our attention to what bodies can do—not what bodies ‘are’, determined by social structures (Zembylas 2016: 400).

There are parallels here with disability, the dominance of the medical and social models and the affordances of hybridity in disability theory that recognise the co-productive affectivity of materiality, discourse, and context (Feely 2016; Hall & Wilton 2017) and the variability of temporal capacities.

Considering inclusion as a series of continual, temporary, and nuanced political events that account for the variability of Crip Time may offer a key for breaking with the temporal linearity of education. For instance, assistive technologies such as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices and screen reading software may provide accessible bridges to what would otherwise be inaccessible for students. However, they persist temporal variance—the pace at which users interact with their environment and educational contexts are not uniformly accelerated, they remain forever unstable (Söderström 2016). If inclusion is to be judged for a person reliance on such tools, it would do well to account for persistent changes. Indeed, as Galis (2019) convincingly argues, assistive technology is itself inherently political, co-productive as it is with impaired bodies and materiality. The temporal dimension of these interactions is significant not for the speed with which accessibility is provided using assistive technology, but the quality of access for the inclusive opportunities they afford.


To take stock of the arguments we have advanced in this paper, time is imbued with politics (Sharma 2014; Virilio 2008), though it is frequently and speciously mobilised as linear and as a marker of progress (Adam 1995; Chia 2002; Introna 2019). People with disabilities do not easily fit with an unswerving, continuous sense of time progression (Baril 2016; Ljuslinder, Ellis & Vikström 2020; McRuer 2018; Samuels 2017), although in chorus with this disparity, rights-based discourses—the universal right to be included—have developed international appeal (Lawson & Beckett 2020; Series 2020) despite their questionable relevance in Global South contexts (Grech 2012; Meekosha 2011). Commendable though it may be that today, people with disabilities are included as equals in global human rights instruments, violations are not uncommon (Zembylas 2021) and systemic exclusion of people with disabilities from education is persistently reported across the globe (Calderón-Almendros 2018; Hughes, Corcoran & Slee 2016; Isaacs 2020; Slee 2018; Söderström 2016; Titchkosky 2020). Indeed, people with disabilities report mixed experiences of inclusive education across sectors and international contexts, in many cases due to an inability to maintain temporal parity with able-bodied students (Isaacs 2020; Morina Diez 2010; Saggers, Hwang & Mercer 2011; Thomas & Whitburn 2020). It is for these reasons we characterise the current moment as the best and worst of times for people with disabilities. That such times occur simultaneously is somewhat of a contradiction, resonating with Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities in which good prevails at once with evil.

The paradox emerging specifically from these conditions is that although educational inclusion is promoted as a human right, it is invariably framed in terms of compliance with preconceived frames of temporal engagement and progression (Whitburn & Thomas 2021). To this end, ‘[t]he periodic changing of the education system can be never more than a fiddling at the edges as long as it ignores the contradictions and stresses of the competing temporal logics’ (Adam 2003: 63). Universal human rights, social model approaches to disability politics, normalcy and linear temporal engagement are chronometric concepts that we suggest hold inclusive education fast to its current stalemates and permits arguments about the benefits of segregation to persist. It is these that require reorientation to provoke disability, as well as education, and their capacity to enmesh with one another, further. For this to occur, we offer political engagement with the nuances and temporal changeability of assemblages of disability and inclusion as events. Drawing on Bergson’s understanding of temporality as indivisible, the examination of inclusion events necessarily draws on tools from disability studies that have come before, including both medical and social models, and rights. Yet it builds on these—moving beyond simple and outdated binaries and concentrating instead on the multiplicities of processes operating within, through and between bodies, objects, spaces and temporalities that fit together to produce and reproduce equity relationally, thereby addressing ableism head-on.

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.


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