Why inclusive reading is key to an open society – and to an open world

Dominik Pietzcker
When we talk about disabilities, we tend to forget that we all are limited and disabled in various forms and expressions: by age, education, prejudices and privileges.
Dominik Pietzcker

A civilized society includes all those whose physical capacities differ from what is called normality. Being blind, you can climb the tallest peaks, as did recently Chinese mountaineer Zhang Hong, or write immortal literature, as did Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges.

Usually, we do not think much about the correlation between seeing, education and understanding. Maybe, we should change our attitudes.

Education and reading

Inclusion is one of the hottest and most heavily discussed topics of our time. But when it comes to inclusive reading, arguments are rather scarce. It is a topic often neglected, particularly when it comes to academic discussions on education and text-based communication.

Education and reading – aren't they nearly synonymous? Usually, we might think about the transfer of information, the exchange of ideas, the intercultural potential of literature and philosophy or the meaning of cultural tradition at large.

These cultural practices are all based on education, in other words, on the capacity to acquire knowledge (not to say wisdom) through text-based symbols and their defined meaning. We call that written language.

We tend to forget all those people, who might have difficulties to share the universe of the written word, either because they are illiterate, dyslectic or because their capability to see is limited or nonexistent. We consider these people as disabled and assume that they suffer from their physical or social limitations. We think they feel excluded from our so-called normal life. Is it really so?

Let me tell you a little story. A few weeks ago, and not knowing I would write upon this topic, I randomly discussed the correlation between inclusion and education with one of my students. Actually, she is a brilliant mind, well-educated, committed to her studies, always diligent and reliable. So far, she has gained several scholarships and will continue her studies of international business relations in London at Regent's University.

She travels together with her guide dog who is always at her side when she leaves her apartment. This 21-year-old student is blind since her birth. When I asked her about her feelings of inclusion and exclusion, she gave me some remarkable answers. As we talked about visual sensitivity, she said: "Effectively, I cannot see, but I do not miss anything."

Who is disabled: society or the individual?

To be blind is completely natural to this student, and not, as we would assume, an abnormity. She does not miss anything and never complains. To be able to see is for her simply as unimaginable as it is for us to imagine to be blind. It is another form to explore and to experience reality. But it is not another form of human existence.

She continued: "I never feel or felt disabled or excluded. On the contrary, I consider society at least as partially disabled, because it lacks imagination that many forms of normality do coexist."

Yes, our normality is just one of many possibilities, and what we consider as natural can also be seen as an aberration. This student taught me an important lesson. It is always a good starting point to change, even entirely, one's own perspective and to try to imagine other ways, approaches and interpretations of reality and so-called normality as own's one.

The economic meaning of exclusion

Inclusion and exclusion come, unfortunately, hand in hand. Of course, exclusion also has not only a physical, but also an economic and social connotation. Poverty and illiteracy are also forms of social disability, defining individual lives and fates. Even in Europe, roughly 10 percent of the workforce is illiterate. Hard to explain, as European countries consider themselves as forerunners of equality and education.

A truly inclusive society should offer equal access to education to all. Social background and economic privileges should not play any decisive role within a meritocratic system. Social exclusion is as a task and challenge for government and citizens alike. It affects us all. But one only has to think of Norbert Elias' classical study on "establishment and outsiders" to understand that this task is not easy to fulfill. In fact, inclusion, in the true sense of the word, is one of the most ambitious social projects of our times.

Blindness: some facts and figures

In Western Europe, 10 percent of the population are considered as visually impaired. About 39 million people worldwide, the equivalent of the total population of Spain, are blind. In Germany there are 71,000 people without or with low vision. Remarkably, many judges and lawyers in Germany happen to be blind or have a low vision. Blind people with intellectual appetite tend to study law and government-related topics. Inclusion, in the end, is all about regulations! The German constitution and the most important legal commentaries are all translated into braille. This is also the case in Switzerland, Austria, the UK, France and may other European countries.

Lord Blunkett, former British secretary of state, is probably the most outstanding example of a Western politician to achieve, against all odds, the highest positions within the realm of power. Born blind, poor and, as a half-orphan, raised by his single mother, David Blunkett served for more than a decade as secretary of health and interior, respectively, and held other high political positions, prior to becoming peer and member of the House of Lords.

His non-profit organization Vinspired attracts many volunteers in the UK and abroad. Lord Blunkett describes himself: "I can by example motivate young people to reach their full potential and change attitudes across society towards disability in a positive manner."

Inclusion is, precisely, all about attitudes, what society and its individuals consider as normative. Inclusion, in other words, is not so much about people with disabilities but about people who claim to have none. The tyranny of mainstream and majority is always a backlash toward a truly inclusive society.

Technology, literature help

Digitalization is technically extremely helpful when it comes to inclusion. Written information can automatically be transformed into spoken words. The American Foundation for the Blind cooperates since 2003 with Adobe, Google and Sony Ericsson to make technical support easier for blind people or people with low vision. The digital programs "Jaws" by Adobe and "Voice Over" by Apple are the result of this fruitful cooperation.

Technological development hasn't come to its end, yet. Nevertheless, technology can make daily life easier. But the true answer of inclusion and exclusion is our own attitude towards people that differ from us.

World literature proves: Those who are blind might be visionary in another and maybe even higher sense. Think of Homer, think of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges or think of the blind seer Teiresias in the tragedies of Sophocles. Caliban, blinded by rage, in Shakespeare's Tempest, perceives the world in a very different way than the well-tempered Ariel.

Blind protagonists and authors alike participated in canonic works that we consider as the human heritage of world literature. Of course, to be disabled doesn't mean to be superior in an ethical sense. Who doesn't remember the blind pirate Pew in Stevenson's novel treasure island, the portrait of a true villain!

Aren't we all limited?

One last reflection regarding inclusion. When we talk about disabilities, we tend to forget that we all are limited and disabled in various forms and expressions: by age, education, prejudices and privileges, biased ideologies, etc.

Our own access to the world is strictly defined, our esthetic perspectives are exclusive and our proper value perceptions ignore other values. Often, our own cultural upbringing is the highest wall and deepest gap that disables us to communicate with other people and to become part of a greater community than our peers.

Finally, inclusion begins with the perception that being even totally different is absolutely natural. Or to make it short: Inclusion is to understand – not oneself – but the other.

(The author is a professor at Macromedia University of Applied Sciences in Germany and a visiting professor of European studies at Shanghai International Studies University).

Special Reports