Education for the Future (Part I): Inclusive Mindset and Why Our Children Need to Learn It
The recent years have seen significant efforts towards child education reform in Japan. At the center of this reform is globalization. In ten, twenty years, the kind of education that has shaped previous generations is expected to become obsolete. More than ever, the children of this globalized society will need the skills to be proactive and cooperate with a diverse range of people. Here, we asked Miki Matheson—Canadian resident, Paralympics gold medalist, and member of the Education Committee for the International Paralympic Committee and member of the Education Commission member of the International Olympic Committee—about inclusion, a way of thinking that we as adults should understand, and that is integral for us to communicate to children if we want them to thrive in the future.
Japan Falling Behind the Global Mindset?
Editor: Before we ask about inclusion, I want to ask you first about the concept of an “inclusive society.” This is something that we as a society are aiming for, and that’s gradually gotten more traction as a concept in recent years. Could you tell us what exactly it is?
Miki Matheson (hereinafter “Matheson”): “Inclusion,” as the name suggests, means comprehensive, all-encompassing. Accordingly, an “inclusive society” is said to be a society where all different kinds of people can live in peace and harmony without being excluded or isolated. I personally believe an inclusive society is one that maintains equality for all, and that gives all different kinds of people the opportunity to thrive.
Editor: By all different kinds of people, you mean everybody, right?
Matheson: Yes. Embracing an inclusive society means working to break down the labels and categories that divided us before, whether it be nationality, culture, the existence or non-existence of impairment, sexuality, etc., and towards a society that respects each individual for their own merits. Nowadays it’s a worldwide effort, in part because it’s been established as an international goal—one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—for 2016 to 2030.
Essential to creating this kind of society is our topic for today—inclusion. You can describe it as having an open mind, capable of accepting all kinds of human diversity, and free of preconception and prejudice.
Editor: I see. Much of this kind of thinking is not common yet in Japan, even if we are making efforts to move towards it. You currently live in Ottawa, Canada, and fly all around the world for your work. How widely accepted is this idea of an “inclusive society” in Japan and overseas respectively?
Matheson: Well, for example I’m a wheelchair user, and when I’m in Canada, I don’t feel anybody looking at me in a particularly strange way. An Asian person, a person with impairment, it doesn’t matter—they see me as an individual, going about my life. On the other hand, when I come back to Japan, people stare at me, segregate me from the general population. It’s not uncommon in Japan for people to act awkward around me just because of my wheelchair. In these moments, I suddenly become acutely aware of the fact that I am disabled.
It’s much less common in Japan to see someone with an impairment out and about, compared to in North America, for example, which may be why so many people tend to stare. But this reaction, and the discomfort it causes, might make it even harder for people with impairment to leave their homes. In fact, when I came to Japan with my kids and they noticed that most of the people out in the city were young and able-bodied, they joked, “Looks like they all got fixed with that magic Japanese technology. You should go get fixed too!” [smiles wryly].
I travel to a lot of different countries, always on this same wheelchair. But there are certain countries that make me forget about my impairment, and countries where I become acutely, painfully aware of it. And this depends not on my impairment itself or even my abilities, but on each country’s environment and the people that make up its society.
Editor: Japan, for good and bad, has always placed value on adapting to and being the same as everyone else. Would you say Japanese people in general react more strongly to difference than in the West, where they’ve historically had more immigrants, because we don’t encounter much difference—ethnicity, religion, culture, and so forth—in our everyday lives?
Matheson: I do think there’s that difference brought by the environment. I also think education plays a large part. Especially in the past, children with impairment were sent to special-needs schools instead of regular schools, and children in the general population almost never came in contact with those with impairment. This has gotten better now, with special-needs classes and the like, and these children spending more time amongst each other than they used to, but I still think there are very few environments where children are able to really interact with and understand people with impairment. It doesn’t help that the old, misguided ways of thinking—that people with impairment are to be pitied, that we need help—still very much remain, and that many schools and the media in general frame it this way.
My son’s kindergarten teacher in Canada, on the other hand, asked me to be involved with and come into the school as much as possible. I think they wanted me to come in so that the children could learn naturally what it was like to interact with and communicate with people like me, instead of learning it from a textbook. There was no effort to teach them the proper manners or etiquette with regards to interacting with people with impairment. But after a while of knowing me, talking to me, playing with me, the children’s ways of thinking and behavior start to change. Even a five-year old can realize, for example, that he has to clean up the toys on the ground when I come in, because otherwise I won’t be able to pass through on my wheelchair. And once they familiarized my situation, they became mini-experts, giving me exactly the assistance I needed when I needed it.
This difference in experience stood out the most to me when I asked children in Japan and North America respectively to draw a picture of what they thought an inclusive society would be like. The children in Japan drew a ring of people, all holding hands, with a person with impairment all alone in the middle, as if the ring of people were protecting him. The children in North America, on the other hand, drew pictures of all different kinds of people—people with impairment, elderly people, people of all different ethnicities—holding hands with each other in a single ring.
In Japan, I feel like the term “everyone” tends to be used in reference to the majority. But in an inclusive society, “everyone” is actually everyone, including minorities.
See here for Part II of this article:
Education for the Future: The Inclusive Mindset—How to Adopt It, and How It Fosters Skills (Part II)
Interview by Parasapo Lab
Text by Uiko Kurihara(Parasapo Lab)
Photo by Takeshi Sasaki