» Douglas Biklen: “Begin by presuming competence”
24.02.2012 - Education Sector

Douglas Biklen: “Begin by presuming competence”

Susan Kahn

Interview with Professor Douglas Biklen, winner of the UNESCO/Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah Prize to promote Quality Education for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities.

Can you give an example of how your work has advanced the right to education for persons with intellectual disabilities? 

In the early 1970s, we conducted research to expose the abuses against people with intellectual disabilities who had been incarcerated in state mental hospitals and state schools. We found that children were not receiving educational services, adults were left to languish in the wards of institutions, and health and living conditions were poor.  

To redress these abuses, we first published accounts of human abuse, thus discrediting claims of therapeutic purpose. This helped foment a widespread call for deinstitutionalization.  Second, we asked ourselves how we might keep children from entering such facilities. As it turns out, children who had been referred to such institutions had been denied access to public education and early educational intervention.  So we turned our work to advocating for access to pre-school and day care programs as well as to basic education and to developing respite for families.  These efforts were part of the beginning of what was then called mainstreaming and, later, inclusion, community integration, and disability rights.   

How will the prize affect your work in an international context? 

Hopefully it will help shine a spotlight on the international inclusion movement and allow more opportunities to connect with educators internationally. 

My hope is that scholars and educators alike will treat the concept of intellectual disability as an impediment to effective teaching and learning.  I envision an international movement to recognize the importance of educational innovation to address cognitive differences, all without labeling children as intellectually impaired. 

What policy options would you encourage for ensuring the participation of people with intellectual disabilities in education? 

The most important principle would be an international commitment to provide early childhood education to all, ensuring that early intervention is inclusive.  If parents experience inclusion for children at an early age, they will never settle for less as their children grow up. 

Access to inclusive education in primary and secondary school should be on the national and international agendas, as described in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

Provision of educational supports should be made available without labelling children. The goal of educational assessments should be to explore how differences may affect learning and to investigate what supports or instructional approaches can address the issues uncovered.  

Families are often the first to discover ways of including children fully; educational policy should give them a strong voice in considering ways for inclusion to be implemented.  

States should insist that all teachers learn basic skills in how to make educational practice inclusive. This would begin with education on the principles of universal design of instruction.  

Has literacy acquired a different meaning for you through the use of facilitated communication?

What we have learned by introducing typing to many students whose disabilities are associated with intellectual impairment is that a variety of factors may impede the ability to demonstrate literacy skills. These factors include difficulties with such things as eye-hand coordination, sequencing, awareness of body in space, attention, and other factors, including anxiety.  Our work on literacy involves finding ways to address these difficulties. The core principle I have learned is that a person’s difficulties with speech or other forms of communication do not necessarily mean that the person does not have the ability to think in literate ways.

Can you explain the concept of “presuming competence" and how it relates to inclusive education?

When Anne Sullivan first worked with Helen Keller, she approached her with the presumption that she was competent, that Helen’s problem emanated from her not having an effective means of communication.   Even before Anne began to work with Helen, there was evidence of her desire to communicate—she used pantomime to show her interest in making ice cream or wanting toast with butter.  But it was Anne’s introduction of spelling and words that proved liberating for Helen.  

The principle of “presuming competence,” is simply to act as Anne Sullivan did.  Assume that a child has intellectual ability, provide opportunities to be exposed to learning, assume the child wants to learn and assert him or herself in the world. To not presume competence is to assume that some individuals cannot learn, develop, or participate in the world.  Presuming competence is nothing less than a Hippocratic oath for educators. It is a framework that says, approach each child as wanting to be fully included, wanting acceptance and appreciation, wanting to learn, wanting to be heard, wanting to contribute.  By presuming competence, educators place the burden on themselves to come up with ever more creative, innovative ways for individuals to learn.  The question is no longer who can be included or who can learn, but how can we achieve inclusive education.  We begin by presuming competence.<a name="_GoBack"></a>

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