““Are we inclusive? A psychologically informed perspective on National Inclusion Week’

01.10.2021: As I reflect on the past week for this PIE blog, as the lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE), at the national youth homeless charity; Centrepoint, I have been thinking about National Inclusion Week (c.f. https://www.inclusiveemployers.co.uk/national-inclusion-week/) as we have been focusing on this within the organisation. Inclusion week, now in its 9th year, was designed to celebrate inclusion, as well as to challenge us to consider inclusion within our workplaces. ‘Inclusion’ is defined as “the action or state of including or being included within a group or structure” (Oxford English Dictionary). However, the term ‘inclusion’ actually has its roots in the field of disability (Oliver & Barnes, 1998), after parents and advocates of those with developmental disabilities promoted the ideas and practice of inclusion as an alternative to the previous widespread practices of segregation and exclusion of those with disabilities (O’Brien & O’Brien, 1996; Schwatz, 1997).

Historically, those with disabilities had often been labelled by professionals as well as the public with pejorative terms and were commonly segregated from mainstream society within separate educational, housing, health and employment systems. Despite this shift in focus from exclusion to inclusion, because of these previous practices, sadly there is still some stigma, prejudice and discrimination (i.e. ‘ableism’) towards those with disabilities. Positively, the recent Channel 4 promotion of the Paralympics has re-framed those with disabilities as ‘superhuman’ (c.f. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjIP9EFbcWY) but the question remains as to how much a four yearly sporting event alone can promote inclusive societal attitudes as well as changes in social policy to ensure those with disabilities are ‘included’ in educational, employment or community settings. Nevertheless, changing the narrative around inclusion is still important to pursue, to ensure that natural variations in the human condition are seen as positive rather than negative. True inclusion will only occur when the wider community changes to be more welcoming and hospitable to those who are seen as in some way different to the stereotypical ‘normal’. It should not be up to those who are within marginalised or oppressed groups to change themselves to ‘fit in’; instead it is actually mainstream society that needs to change to ‘include’ everyone.

However, any discussion of ‘inclusion’ also goes beyond just a consideration of individuals with disabilities. It also applies to a wider variety of groups of individuals whom have been historically subjected to social exclusion for a wide variety of reasons. ‘Inclusion’ is therefore an organising principle that applies more broadly to any person whom has been discriminated against and/or oppressed by virtue of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnic or racial background, abilities, age or some other characteristic. Sexism, homophobia, racism, transphobia, ableism and ageism are all forms of social exclusion that operate to place one group (the ‘out’ group) as inferior to another group (the ‘in’ group). Often these ‘out’ groups also ‘intersect’, so we many have characteristics that lead to our exclusion in several areas (i.e. because of both the colour of our skin and our sexual preference).

Taking a psychological perspective on ‘inclusion’, I think the first thing to reflect upon is that of course as a psychologist I am aware that there is no such thing as ‘normal’! Even the so called ‘normal distribution’ (which underlies so much research and/or statistical analysis within our discipline when considering abilities, attitudes and behaviours), is a bell shaped curve with a clear range and variation. We are all different and unique, and it is this diversity that not only makes the scientific study of the human mind and behaviour (i.e. psychology) so challenging but also so fascinating and interesting! Psychologists have of course studied the phenomena of inclusion and exclusion for many decades, particularly how it relates to prejudice, stereotyping and social identity. For example, Tajfel (1979) in his ‘Social Identity Theory’ proposed that groups to which people belong were an important source of pride and self-esteem and created a sense of belonging in the social world. Because in our daily lives, we are bombarded with a constant stream of stimuli, the human brain has created ‘algorithms’ to process the information it receives quickly and usually relatively effectively. However, this also applies to how we view others, whereby we apply a process of social categorisation to put others into ‘them’ and ‘us’ depending on how similar we perceive them to be to us, which of course can lead to both the inclusion of those we see as ‘us’ and the exclusion of those we see as ‘them’.

One particularly famous psychology experiment that demonstrates not only how quickly even fairly arbitrary information to categorise others can embed, but also the negative consequences of this in terms of our emotional response and even our abilities, is the ‘Blue Eyes; Brown Eyes’ study by Jane Elliot (1960s). In this American study (c.f. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X97JTH7UCq4), the teacher divided her class of third graders (around 7–8 years of age) into two groups; those with brown eyes and those with blue eyes. She made one group the ‘dominant’ group with associated privileges and rewards, and the other group the ‘sub-ordinate group’ who were discriminated against and punished. Even within the space of a day, the children responded to their new status and those in the ‘dominant’ group changed their behaviour towards the ‘sub-ordinate’ group, excluding them in their games (even if they had been friends before). The ‘sub-ordinate’ group quickly felt this shift, which affected their mood and performance in school. This powerful experiment shows not only how quickly we can ‘learn’ to exclude others based on seemingly arbitrary characteristics if we are taught this by authority figures (e.g. teachers and parents) or societal structures but also I think the power of education in teaching about the importance of inclusion in society. Perhaps knowing both how easily we can exclude others and the impact that this, can hopefully help us reflect on how we can be more inclusive in the future?

Therefore, what helps us to be more inclusive, in not only our daily lives but also particularly when we are in a position to effect change (i.e. we control access to services, resources or life chances and opportunities) or are in any position of power, perhaps in a workplace? Firstly, I think it is important we acknowledge the benefits of being ‘inclusive’. Inclusion of others does not mean the exclusion of ourselves, and we are all better off as a society when we value, celebrate and promote the rich diversity and difference of humans. This affirmative diversity approach means that the uniqueness, special qualities, strengths and positive characteristics of a particular group are emphasised so that they are seen not just as acceptable but also desirable (e.g. the PRIDE movements; Fox et al, 2009). Moreover, we need to recognise that there is even diversity within diversity (i.e. not all women are the same, not all those who identify as LGBTQ+ are the same etc.).

Community psychologists also specifically argue that we should actively “support every person’s right to be different without risk of suffering material and psychological sanctions … rather than trying to fit everyone into a single way of life” and that we need to “work toward providing socially marginal people with the resources, the power, and the control over their own lives, which is necessary for a society of diversity” (Rappoport, 1977, p.23). This starts with education and exposure. Taking time to listen to and learn from others who may be different to us (when they feel able to share their experiences) is key. This enriches us all and can lead to ‘allyship’ as we stand alongside others, and they alongside us.

However, it is also important to recognise that inclusion occurs at different levels (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010) and we need to work to promote inclusion at all of these. For example, at the individual level, inclusion entails the recovery of a positive personal and political history, in other words developing our own positive narrative around our diversity. At the relational level, inclusion means ensuring that our communities are welcoming to all and the relationships with have with others, whatever their difference or similarity to us, are supportive and empowering. Finally, at a societal level, inclusion is concerned with how we promote equity and access to valued social resources historically denied to oppressed people.

Community psychologist Bond (1999) has also argued that inclusion entails both a culture of ‘connection’ within social settings as well as the legitimisation of varied perspectives. This latter point is important because it counters the narrative that there is only one true external reality and therefore we should not be judging others by one single standard. Moreover, Bond & Mulvey (2000) note that when considering inclusion, it is important to distinguish between ‘representation’ and ‘perspective’. ‘Representation’ refers to the participation and inclusion of disadvantaged groups, and is a necessary but insufficient condition for inclusion. But it’s not enough just to have representation, we also need to consider perspective, ensuring that we give space to hear the unique and varied perspectives of marginalised groups, in order understand their experiences and challenge the status quo.

In addition, inclusion is closely linked with ‘accountability’ and ‘commitment’. Whilst inclusion is of course the antidote to exclusion, Bond (1999) has argued that forces supporting exclusion need to be specifically challenged. For example, a lack of accountability and differential privilege. If ‘dominant’ groups are not accountable for their impact on ‘subordinate’ groups, exclusion and oppression occur. Therefore, we need to call out excluding practices when we see them. We also need to ensure that ‘dominant’ groups are aware of their relative power and privilege, and are accountable for their impact on ‘subordinate’ groups. This is not always easy because ‘dominant’ groups have historically held on to their power and privilege because they may believe (wrongly) that these are theirs by right rather than because of social, cultural or historical factors. However, when we reflect on our own privilege and power (and how this may have or is still benefiting us), we can then use this as a force for change (e.g. through ‘allyship’).

A consideration of inclusion is important because without it, we “leave the door open for oppression to occur” (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010, p.139). This can be overt oppression and discrimination such as not having access to rights, resources or education or in the context of interpersonal relationships as well as more covert acts of oppression indicative of systemic or institutional discrimination. Research has unsurprisingly found that this oppression and exclusion has a profound psychological impact on an individual. For example, leading a person to have an internalised view of the self as negative (i.e. low self-esteem), feeling unworthy of social and community resources, beliefs that they are helpless or powerless, withdrawal from the wider ‘unjust’ world (Bartky, 1990; Prilleltensky & Gonick, 1996; Prilleltensky, 2003) and an impact on motivation and behaviour (i.e. ‘Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes experiment noted above). As Clark (1965) highlights “since every human being depends on his [sic] cumulative experiences with others for clues as to how he should view and value himself, children who are consistently rejected [or excluded] understandably begin to question and doubt whether they, their family, and their group really deserve no more respect from larger society than they receive” (p.64).

Many of the homeless young people that Centrepoint supports come from marginalised groups in society, and therefore it is critical that we ensure that we are ‘inclusive’ in our response to them (as well as our colleagues). The PIE approach in this sector actually originated from the need to work with some of the most excluded groups in society (i.e. a homeless population) who traditionally were excluded from mainstream services (Keats et al, 2012; Cockersell, 2018). The importance of flexibility in engagement, ‘co-production’ and the focus on psychological well-being and understanding individuals’ current presentation in terms of their unique early experiences, are all ‘inclusive’ ways of working that are key in a psychologically informed environment or PIE.

Finally, I think it is important to highlight that developing attitudes, behaviour and work practices that are more inclusive is not something we just consider in ‘National Inclusion Week’. Whilst this can be a good point to stop and reflect on whether we are doing enough or whether we can do more, a PIE approach argues that we need to keep the focus on inclusion through the other 51 weeks of the year too! I have very much been enjoying the Centrepoint daily inclusion challenges this week, and our A-Z of inclusion topics that has contributions, reflections, videos and information from a wide range of individuals in the organisation across a wide range of areas. However, moving forward, the onus is now on us to continue this conversation into action in order to create inclusive spaces within the organisation for both the homeless young people we support as well as our colleagues, and to use the power we have to lobby for positive inclusive change in the area of youth homelessness. It might feel that changing society to be more inclusive is an uphill battle and something outside our own power, but as one of my favourite quotes from the Anthropologist Margaret Mead states; “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”…

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Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Centrepoint Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) Lead @orange_madbird

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Dr Helen Miles

Dr Helen Miles

Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Centrepoint Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) Lead @orange_madbird

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