“All people- with or without disabilities – are simultaneously able and unable, competent and incompetent.”

(Danforth & Naraian, 2015, p. 79)

Take a moment and imagine yourself as a young teen. It’s the height of your social development, a time when your friends’ opinions are more important than that of anyone else. A time when you move away from needing the support of your family and adults into needing social acceptance to help you learn to navigate yourself in your constantly changing world. For you though, you aren’t given the opportunity to connect with your peers due to your differing communication or emergent social skills. So you’re kept separate from your would-be friends.  In a separate part of a school, surrounded by adults. There is an assumption that you are exempt from being included. To be included, you must first prove that you belong, that you can handle being apart of the larger community. How then, are you supposed to be provided those same experiences as others your age? How are you to build relationships, gain access to curriculum, and break down stereotypes that are automatically placed upon you? 

Often we assume that the way a person looks on the outside determines what they experience on the inside. But looks can be deceiving. When we presume incompetence of students based on looks, diagnoses, or behaviors, we hinder them from equitable opportunities to thrive in their surroundings.

We grant opportunities to those that are not seen as incompetent, allow them to make mistakes and learn throughout the process. We push them to take risks and challenge themselves beyond expectations because we believe they are capable of breaking those expectations and becoming greater than they are in the present. 

According to Biklen and Burke (2006) to presume competence means to believe that a person is capable of growth. We automatically presume competence of people as long as they appear to be within the norm. This presumed competence impacts the way we interact with one another and it impacts the types of opportunities granted to students within schools.

When a student is presumed incompetent due to some form of a categorical contribution, their experiences become vastly different from that of their peers. Suddenly, instead of being encouraged to take risks and make mistakes, they must prove worthy enough to be apart of the mainstream (Biklen & Burke, 2006). They must meet an expectation to avoid isolation. They must overcome the barrier of who they are to fit in with what is expected as acceptable. They must climb an upward battle to establish their abilities rather than being given that same benefit of the doubt that they can and will surpass expectations. 

So how do we provide all students with the same opportunities? How do we guarantee that every student is challenged and given the same encouragement to bolster abilities? 

First, we must recognize that there is no normal. All people have struggles and successes, and no struggle or success grants superiority to another (Danforth & Naraian, 2015). 

Second, we must approach others with a presumed competence lens. To understand that all individuals are capable of understanding and growth. By presuming competence, one is not making excuses,  but rather acknowledging that reaching potential is not for an elite group. 

“It would be nice to get to that point where you don’t have to name inclusive education anymore, it’s just education.”

(Lyons, Thompson, and Timmons, 2015, p. 891)

The system will challenge presuming competence. It pushes for standardization and meeting expectations within a timeline (Danforth & Naraian, 2015). But educators can presume competence to support all students academically, to advocate for the marginalized, and provide opportunities for those traditionally thought of as incompetent


Biklen, Douglas; Burke, Jamie (2006) Equity & Excellence in Education, v39 n2 p.166-175 

Danforth, Scot, Naraian, Srikala. (2015) This New Field of Inclusive Education: Beginning a Dialogue on Conceptual Foundations. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, v 53, n1, p. 70-85

Lyons, Wanda E.; Thompson, S. Anthony; Timmons, Vianne (2016) International Journal of Inclusive Education, v20 n8 p889-907

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Ashlee Johnson is a middle school general educator and a doctoral student. Her research centers around general education teacher professional development needs to support all students within the general education classroom. Ashlee advocates for an inclusive mindset, which recognizes all individuals within a community as welcomed and accepted members regardless of their abilities and disabilities. Find her at literarysleuth.com.

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash