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Inclusion, Exclusion, Segregation, and Integration: How are they different?

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

The Power of Social Media

Early in our history of using social media, we posted a photo that highlighted the differences between inclusion, exclusion, segregation, and integration. It kinda blew up for us:

Various Interpretations

To this day, we are not sure who created the original image. While we are happy that this received so much attention, part of the reason why it was shared so much was that the image meant a different thing to different people. Some people thought that the pictures of inclusion and integration were backward. Some thought that the different colors signified different races. Still, others amended and changed the photo to fit their interpretations (some humorous, some serious). Here are some examples.  

Guidance from the United Nations

So, what are the correct definitions of these images? Fortunately, we came across an astonishing visual from a document called A Summary of the Evidence on Inclusive Education created by Abt Associates. They envisioned the original image in a much clearer way and included definitions from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – General Comment No. 4. We have added the image here and encourage you to read both documents referenced above.

The Committee highlights the importance of recognising the differences between exclusion, segregation, integration and inclusion. Exclusion occurs when students are directly or indirectly prevented from or denied access to education in any form. Segregation occurs when the education of students with disabilities is provided in separate environments designed or used to respond to a particular or various impairments, in isolation from students without disabilities. Integration is a process of placing persons with disabilities in existing mainstream educational institutions, as long as the former can adjust to the standardized requirements of such institutions. Inclusion involves a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences. Placing students with disabilities within mainstream classes without accompanying structural changes to, for example, organisation, curriculum and teaching and learning strategies, does not constitute inclusion. Furthermore, integration does not automatically guarantee the transition from segregation to inclusion.

According to the UN’s definitions, most of school districts in the United States are practicing integration rather than the “systematic reform” and “structural changes” that inclusion encompasses. It is no wonder that people are confused when talking about the differences between inclusion and integration.

What do you think? Do you have different interpretations of inclusion, exclusion, segregation, and integration? Share them with us in the comments sections below!


Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for MCIE, Editor-in-Chief of Think Inclusive, and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealTimVegas.


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