One family’s transition to school story in videos
June 9, 2016
Disability in a Cultural Context
July 7, 2016

What is disability?

Disability has traditionally been viewed as a negative aspect of a person who is perceived as ‘different’, ‘broken’ or ‘abnormal’. Disability has also traditionally been understood to be something which exists within a person. From this perspective, someone who uses a wheelchair is often viewed as disabled because the person does not walk or only walks some of the time.

This dominant line of thought is referred to as the ‘medical model’ of disability. There has, however, been a shift in disability research recently towards viewing society as the disabling element, rather than the body. This is referred to as the ‘social model’ of disability.

From the social model perspective, disability is caused by environments that are not wheelchair accessible, or is something that is experienced when a person who uses a wheelchair encounters negative attitudes or behaviours from others. Taking a social model view requires a positive shift away from viewing an individual as ‘broken’ and in need of ‘fixing’, and instead looking at what changes can be made in society to remove disability. The adoption of a social model of disability was identified as an important factor in fostering inclusion in a recent study conducted by my colleagues and I (Mackenzie, Cologon & Fenech, 2016).

Change the child or change the environment?

We undertook a study which explored facilitators to the inclusion of a child with autism in a mainstream early childhood setting. We found that when early childhood professionals adopted a social model of disability they facilitated inclusion more effectively because the staff changed the environment to eliminate any external disabling barriers to inclusion (Mackenzie, Cologon & Fenech, 2016).

For instance, when a child was having trouble communicating verbally, the professional modified the environment to foster the child’s communication by offering alternative communication methods such as a picture communication system or teaching the whole group key word sign.

Note here, that the focus is on changing the environment, not the child.

this way in CologonPractical strategies for fostering inclusion

As identified in our study (Mackenzie, Cologon & Fenech, 2016), there are many ways in which environments where early childhood intervention takes place can be adapted to foster the inclusion of all children. Below are some practical suggestions:

1: Ask yourself, “How can I modify the environment to eliminate disability?”

When planning each learning experience, ask yourself whether every child can participate in it, and if not then buy premarin reflect on how you can modify the activity to make it accessible for every child.

2: Adopt a strengths-based approach

When planning and assessing, adopt a focus on every child’s strengths, rather than their deficits.

3: Plan open-ended experiences

Provide experiences which are open ended such as painting, water play and sand play. Open ended experiences allow children with a broad range of abilities and family members to engage at the same activity together.

4: Provide indoor-outdoor environments

Wherever possible, provide an indoor-outdoor setting. This provides children with access to gross motor play whenever they need it and will help to foster all children’s engagement and regulation.

5: Always presume every child’s competence

Always presume that all children are competent of displaying skills which you have not yet witnessed them displaying. Find ways to modify environments to help children display these skills.

6: Engage in self-reflection

Regularly reflect upon your own practice and the environment to see whether there are elements you can modify to foster all children’s inclusion.

7: Work in partnership with others to create environments where, beyond ‘acceptance’, diversity is valued and celebrated

When planning to use resources such as books and posters within your early childhood intervention environment, choose resources which construct difference as a positive and ordinary element of society, and that foster a celebration of diversity, rather than tolerance or acceptance of diversity.

Mackenzie, M., Cologon, K., & Fenech, M. (2016). ‘Embracing everybody’:

Approaching the inclusive early childhood education of a child labelled with autism from a social relational understanding of disability. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 41(2), 4-12.


Meike MacKenzie, Director, EduPlay Children’s Services

Dr Kathy Cologon, Senior Lecturer, Inclusive Education, Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University

Dr Marianne  Fenech, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney

Have your say:

Families and staff are invited to participate in a survey exploring perspectives on early intervention in a study being conducted by Dr Kathy Cologon at Macquarie University. In the current climate of considerable change within the field , the study aims to find out about current experiences of early intervention, as well as what is important to families and staff that they would ideally like to see happening.  If you have any questions please contact Kathy at or phone (02) 9864 9850. The survey takes approximately 30 minutes to complete.

Survey for families:

Survey for early intervention staff:

Emma Pierce
Emma Pierce
Transition to School / Inclusion Coordinator Emma has worked in the non-government disability sector for the last 18 years. She has developed and facilitated training and resources for parents and professionals across NSW and presented papers at national and state conferences. Emma was previously the Manager of Building Blocks® Early Intervention Service at Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect). Emma also lectures casually at Western Sydney University and works as an independent consultant to Early Childhood Intervention services. Emma is the main author of ECIA NSW’s Transition to School Resource and has worked for ECIA NSW/ACT since 2013.

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