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Probing Inclusive Education in the Global South: A Critical Cultural Historical Standpoint

About 25 years ago, inclusive education gained international visibility through various multinational agreements, policy developments and reports including the Salamanca declaration, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the World Report on Disability (WHO/World Bank, 2011), and the Sustainability Development Goals. Developed nations played a central role in forging this movement, but the news about inclusive education did spread rapidly to the global South. Indeed, the idea of inclusive education attained global authority. The scope of this project was ambitious—to make education accessible for all groups of learners, irrespective of their backgrounds and needs, but with a commitment to include the most vulnerable groups due to their gender, race, ethnicity, language, ability level, national origin, religion, social class or any other marked classification. Equally important, inclusion promised these student groups meaningful participation in educational programs and equitable outcomes across groups. Major reforms were accomplished and many students benefitted.

Nevertheless, unsettling questions and challenges arose. For instance, attention to this topic in the research community withered as reflected in the declining number of publications on this topic in the US and the UK. In addition, engagement with inclusion in the development sector has been slow and problematic, thus creating conceptual and implementation challenges, particularly in contexts of the Global South (Grech, 2016). As I elaborate in a subsequent section, these challenges relate to the nature of knowledge used in global South settings, issues about voice (whose perspectives are used?) and the (mis)recognitions and (mis)representations of disability that are legitimized in these efforts. In regard to the education field, three problems have been consistently identified (Artiles & Kozleski, 2016; Kozleski, Artiles & Waitoller, 2014):

  1. Lack of conceptual clarity. Inclusive education is an idea in search of meaning. Reviews of this knowledge base suggest that inclusion tends to be defined merely as student placement in general educational classrooms instead of the transformation of educational systems. Clear definitions are often missing in reports or inclusion may be equated with placement in separate programs within ordinary schools. In this vein, the question has been raised as to whether we are witnessing the emergence of inclusive exclusions (Artiles, 2011; Carbado, Fisk & Gulati, 2008).
  2. All means certain groups. The literature on inclusion has evolved from the magnificent goal to serve all learners to a focus on students with disabilities. In this sense, inclusive education has become the new special education. Some scholars differentiate inclusive from special education and argue for the effective co-existence of both (Florian, 2019). The narrowing of populations constitutes a significant contradiction in this literature that aspired to encompass all forms of diversity.
  3. Limited research. Inclusive education research has been largely produced in North America and Western Europe. The limited geographic scope of this knowledge base translates into ideas and principles that are most relevant to particular national and cultural contexts. Theoretical and methodological shortcomings have been identified. For instance, little attention has been paid to the conditions of educational systems into which learners get included. Many studies lack details about essential aspects—e.g., sample demographics, setting characteristics. Of significance, student outcomes have been seldomly documented in these studies (Artiles, Kozleski, Dorn, & Christensen, 2006).

The purpose of this article is twofold. First, I deepen the critique of the inclusive education scholarship with a particular emphasis on the contexts of the global South. Second, I use a cultural historical perspective to outline four implications for future inclusion research.

The limits of universalism: Inclusive education in worlds of difference

There are at least three significant shortcomings in this literature that further erode the impact and contributions of inclusive education, particularly in the global South. These include the privileging of a technical perspective, the Western-centric nature of inclusion, and the absence of an interdisciplinary imagination to account for cultural, spatial and historical dimensions of inclusion.

1. Inclusion as a technical solution

A major limitation of inclusive education research, policy and practice is the framing as a technical fix to a vastly complex problem. This literature is grounded in a social justice vision, namely to expand educational access, participation and outcomes for vulnerable groups. Central to this work is the transformation of policies, preparation of personnel to teach an increasingly diverse student population in general education, and strengthen the capacity of school systems to absorb social groups traditionally excluded. However, these ideas about inclusion travel to the global South as technical innovations that promise to modernize generally underdeveloped educational systems. Programs to prepare educators for the complex and growing heterogeneity of learner needs around the globe are scarce. But many government leaders in the global South adopt inclusion policies with the illusion that modernization will follow. This practice becomes a form of judicial deference (Edelman & Talesh, 2011)—the assumption that the mere presence of policies signifies that schools comply with the law and address the inclusion needs of the student population.

In this logic, importing ideas and technologies from the global North signals progress. For example, the adoption of models like full inclusion, Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and Response to Intervention (RTI) communicates that nations of the South are advancing inclusion agendas while complying with development requirements from international agencies to increase coverage and meet quality expectations. But infusing such innovations in school systems is driven by the goal of increasing diagnostic precision—in other words, to attain greater differentiation in the identification of learner types is equated with scientific sophistication and stronger school quality. However, as I explain in the next two sections, inclusion champions around the globe must be mindful of the unjust nature of societies and school systems that might be hampering student school performance. For instance, the school failure rates observed in the global South (e.g., low academic performance, high grade retention and school dropout rates) might be an artifact of the lack of systems’ capacity and the ubiquity of low educational opportunities. Once these potential influences are recognized, inclusive education advocates must ask, what are vulnerable students been included into? This reflexivity will enable us to avoid turning inclusion into an assimilationist project. Indeed, forging inclusive education systems requires attention to the role of history, power and sociocultural contexts.

2. Blinders and risks of a location-centric idea

There are misleading assumptions and critical considerations that many inclusion supporters and researchers ignore, thus creating blind spots and exacerbating risks that have significant repercussions for the future of inclusive education. I allude briefly to assumptions about universalism, the lack of attention to colonial legacies, and an insufficient awareness about the ways varying meanings of difference and inclusion across contexts shape inclusion’s implementation.

First, inclusive education has been articulated and studied with the assumption that the mainstream view of inclusion in North America and Western Europe has a universal value. In some respects, there are education values and principles that are relevant to everyone around the globe—the importance of group recognition and redistribution of resources, the value of meaningful participation, the necessity of outcome equity and the need of self-representation. Let us remember, however, the scholarship on inclusive education has traveled across global locales, sometimes as part of the development agendas of international organizations. These efforts have often ignored the substantial variability in the organization, development infrastructures and quality of educational systems around the world, particularly in the global South. The disregard for contextual contingencies has important consequences for inclusive agendas.

As a case in point, inclusion in the global North advanced a recognition agenda using a discourse of rights and pushed for resource redistribution by opening general education doors to individuals with disabilities. Nevertheless, the notion of rights and the recognitions it affords can be played out differently in the global South. In Guatemala, for instance, although some groups of students with disabilities had been served for decades, it was not until the late 2000s that a progressive set of inclusive education policies was approved. This unprecedented policy development occurred in the context of a national democratization project after a long period of military conflict and oppression of indigenous groups. Thus, educational rights and entitlements were legalized for students with disabilities. According to the universalist inclusive education model of the global North, setting up a rights framework ensures access and marks the genesis of inclusive educational programs. But Caballeros, Artiles, Canto and Perdomo (2016) made visible the fluid nature of rights in Guatemala, as learners with disabilities could access inclusive programs only when local administrators and educators allowed it. In this version of inclusive exclusions, type of disability mediated how students got sorted out. Specifically, low incidence disabilities (sensory, physical) were prioritized in inclusive efforts, whereas learners with more comprehensive and intense needs (e.g., autism, emotional/behavioral disorders) were regarded as having the right to receive specialized services in separate facilities. In this way, the notion of inclusive education was differentially applied, sometimes to maintain the segregation of certain groups without challenging the rights framework. Guatemala’s recognition and redistribution agendas of inclusive education propelled via a rights model had particularly nuanced meanings that were often situated in the contingencies of local communities. Similar situated understandings of inclusive education have been documented in South Africa, Malawi, and India (Singal & Muthukrishna, 2016; Werning et al., 2016).

Second, the transfer of the inclusion movement to the global South has generally ignored the complicated past of development work and its links to colonial legacies. Kennedy and Newton (2016) traced the histories of colonialism and disability and showed how economic systems dating back to the 17th century reproduced exploitative and racialized systems which have had enduring legacies of disablement. Other scholars have reminded us of the “uncomfortable” colonial roots of “development” that imposed neoliberal economic conditions to the global South, sometimes with grave consequences for the advancement of social justice in these societies (Grech, 2015). This brand of development generally favors minimal social investments and sets economic expectations for productive bodies that have nefarious consequences for people with disabilities. For generations, the development agendas of the global South were imposed with minimal attention to local contexts and histories. Scholars have critiqued these legacies and argued that “disability continues to linger on the fringes of development theory, policy and practice” (Grech & Soldatic, 2016, location 1%). In the health sector, for instance, attention to disability is superficial and tends to be limited to awareness raising (Swartz & Bantjes, 2016).

Finally, policymakers and researchers tend to ignore how the idea of inclusion and its attendant meanings of difference are interpreted and contextualized across settings. The previously cited study in Guatemala (Caballeros et al., 2016) offers interesting insights. These researchers reported that people living in poverty in rural areas aspired to attain social inclusion through inclusive education; the promise of this educational model gave them hope. Inclusive education gave their children access to education plus secured them food through the school meal plan. This stance was more pronounced among parents of children with severe disabilities who were the most marginalized. On the other hand, these individuals were ambiguous about inclusive education for several reasons. For example, the promise of access to education was hampered by the violence in urban settings; it was just hard to walk to schools amidst gang hostility in neighborhoods. In rural areas, walking to school exacerbated the risk of sexual violence for girls. Moreover, people in rural areas faced structural barriers related to lack of transportation in light of the scarcity and remote locations of schools, particularly middle and high schools. Parents in rural communities also questioned the instrumental value of inclusive education—not only would they spend more money in transportation, school uniforms, etc., but the return of investment from a high school diploma would be minimal given the scarcity of jobs in the region that would offer higher salaries to people with higher education attainment.

3. Of silences and stratification: Beyond inclusion as a benign response

Inclusive education scholarship in the US has been critiqued for disregarding the role of stratifying forces in the contexts in which this work is implemented. For example, deep structural inequities that affect educational opportunities for certain groups have been ignored in this knowledge base—e.g., school funding and teacher quality correlated with student race and social class. This means the inclusion literature in the global North has been fraught with theoretical and methodological blinders that have systematically infused silences about oppression and stratification for certain groups of students. The result is a largely colorblind knowledge base (Artiles & Kozleski, 2016).

A related shortcoming is that this body of work has erased the intersections of disability with other identities in research questions and study methods, thus failing to document the heterogeneity of this population and understand the sociocultural and historical complexities of lived experiences among these learners (Erevelles, 2011). This is a critical omission considering the problematic historical intertwining of disability with other marked categories, such as race, social class, language, and immigration status (Artiles, 2011; Baynton, 2001). In such cases, students live in a double bind due to the structural barriers and fewer educational opportunities imposed not only by disability, but by other stigmatizing categories. This double bind has been documented in the global North, as reflected in the literature on the racialization of disabilities in the US and the overidentification of immigrant students in Spain, Sweden and Germany (Artiles et al., 2011.).

Although intersectionality discussions and studies tend to focus on two vectors of difference at a time (e.g., race-disability or race-gender), recent cases make palpable the need for more complex intersectional inquiries. Consider, for instance, the Franco-Gonzales v. Holder class action lawsuit that affected detainees in Arizona, California and Washington. The class action case evolved “more than three years after a lawsuit was filed by José Antonio Franco-Gonzalez, a Mexican immigrant with a cognitive disability who was detained in federal immigration facilities for nearly five years without a hearing or a lawyer” (ACLU, 2013). The Court decided to provide legal representation to immigrant detainees with intellectual disabilities who are facing deportation and who are unable to adequately represent themselves in immigration hearings. Language, immigration status, ethnicity and disability strata intertwine in these individuals’ experiences and the vectors of difference they embody invoke disparate (perhaps contradictory?) justice remedies—i.e., differential and similar treatment. How official members of institutions (e.g., school personnel, immigration officers) resolve the twists in justice that are encoded across policies and their attendant practices is significantly unexplored—For example, policy mandates that make student language and cultural differences exclusionary considerations in learning disability diagnosis.

This emerging evidence confirms Baynton’s (2001) historical analysis showing how disability can be used as a justification to discriminate other marginalized groups. In this sense, disability is deployed as “the master trope of disqualification” (Erevelles, 2011, p. 15%). Of significance, we will obtain a more nuanced understanding of intersectionality in the context of inclusive education by transcending an exclusive focus on multiple demographic categories. For instance, research in the global South can focus on people with intersectional identities living under particular sociocultural circumstances, such as living in zones of conflict and war. How does living in the social and economic landscapes of war mediate the ways disability is recognized and represented and how inclusion is experienced? Is vulnerability the only role available to these individuals? How do the multiple roles disabled people play in these zones get recognized and represented? (e.g., as fighters, activists, protesters) With what consequences? (Berghs & Kabbara, 2016) Similarly, living in rural areas of the global South shapes conditions of disadvantage for disabled individuals that are qualitatively different from experiencing disability in urban locales (Gartrell & Hoban, 2016; Werning et al., 2016). More of these intersectional comparative analyses are required. By the same token, there is an alarming dearth of research on “the nature, prevalence, impact and prevention of violence against disabled women” (Grech & Soldatic, 2016, p. 2%). These knowledge gaps infuse deeply problematic silences about gender violence and discrimination in the implementation of inclusive programs (Dowse et al., 2016).

Inclusion in the XXI century: A Critical Cultural-Historical Standpoint

The shortcomings of the inclusion literature suggest key transformations are needed in the knowledge that researchers are producing on this critical contemporary topic. I outline four areas in need of improvement for future inclusive education investigations.

1. The imperative and contributions of a situated approach

The preceding discussion makes evident that inclusion should not be taken up as a purely technical project. Researchers and practitioners must consider multiple temporal and spatial scales when implementing inclusion because knowledge travels through cultural media. Thus, we must assume that inclusion gets contextualized and interpreted according to local histories and cultural contingencies. In addition, as explained above, the notion of inclusion has historical baggage as its central category—disability—has troubling interlockings with other marked categories like race, gender, social class and language. The scholarship from the social sciences and humanities has documented that these categories have structural weight in the lives of communities and societies. For these reasons, it is imperative that future research relies on an adaptive model of inclusive education that is mindful of local histories, contexts and needs. Goodley and Swartz (2016) articulated the need to examine the global-local nexus as a strategy to understand the complex realities, priorities and constraints of disability inclusion agendas so that we illuminate the place of disability—"that is, where and when disability appears and how it (re)emerges geopolitically, temporally and epistemologically” (Grech & Soldatic, 2016, p. 1%)

Researchers must bear in mind that their perceptions are not the result of purely physiological processes because of the … “inseparability of perception from the whole ensemble of social and individual relations in which it functions, and of which it is an expression” (Wartofsky, 1985, p. 237). A key implication of this fact is that future research must account for interpersonal processes that are situated in institutional contexts. This standpoint reminds us of the urgency to start analyses of inclusive education by focusing on interpersonal processes for it is in interactions that the meanings of disability (braided with other social categories) gain currency.

2. Critical cultural and historical imagination

A related implication is that cultural and historical dimensions must be intricate components of future inclusion research with close attention to power issues (Artiles, in press). We should not assume that disability and inclusion processes occur in settings devoid of these dimensions. Let us consider two sets of findings from allied fields. First, using a nationally representative dataset, Cherng (2017) recently found that “math teachers consistently perceive their class to be too difficult for Latino and Black students even after controlling for math test scores, homework completion, and a host of other factors. English teachers underestimate the academic abilities of Black and Latino students, and in some models, Asian American students as well” (p. 180). In turn, social psychology experimental research on the dehumanization of Black people “demonstrated that, even controlling for implicit anti-Black prejudice, the implicit association between Blacks and apes can lead to greater endorsement of violence against a Black suspect than against a White suspect” (Goff et al., 2008, p. 304).

What are the historical sedimentations of these cognitive processes vis-à-vis the longstanding deficit tropes of race and disability? How do these perceptual proclivities and biases play out in classroom and school interpersonal processes? How do these perceptions mediate teacher decisions to refer students of color to special education or apply disciplinary sanctions? As Varenne and McDermott (1999) reminded us, “whenever we get to see [disability or racial identities], the institutional world that makes us look for them and find them has always preceded us to the scene” (p. 33).

3. Advancing equity agendas: The necessity of legal consciousness

Leaders and practitioners generally assume that policy equity remedies take care of injustices. That is, the passage of laws and legal requirements eliminates problems of equity. However, as scholarship in legal studies, political science and education have shown, this is not the case. This phenomenon has been described as legal deference (Edelman & Talesh, 2011)—i.e., the assumption that the presence of reporting requirements for educational inclusion translates into compliance. But evidence shows that states and school districts in the United States are gaming policy requirements to reduce racial disproportionality in special education by manufacturing the criteria needed to trigger legal citations and remedial actions (Cavendish, Artiles, & Harry, 2014; Tefera & Voulgarides, 2016). This way, the dilemmas of difference are reproduced—justice remedies that perpetuate injustices (Artiles, 1998). Silbey’s (2005) unsettling question describes this phenomenon in an alternative way: “Why do people acquiesce to a legal system that, despite its promises of equal treatment, systematically reproduces inequality?” (p. 323) Future inclusion research must be mindful of legal deference germane to inclusion requirements. A viable approach is to ground future work in the notion of legal consciousness—how individuals interpret and experience laws and policies in their everyday practices, sometimes to apply, struggle with or circumvent them (Silbey, 2005).

4. Amplify representations of possibility

Traditional representations of disability are framed within a deficit perspective. Indeed, this population is typically depicted as lacking or broken. Negative portrayals are compounded when learners with disabilities are from minoritized groups (students of color, low-income learners). In essence, this is a representational problem. The research community needs to amplify their theoretical and analytical lenses to capture the ingenuity of students and their families, irrespective of the limitations or challenges they face in their lives. The departure point should be that human beings are active protagonists that strive to improve their conditions. The literature on resilience has documented this fact for many years and recent refinements place resilience in a broader sociocultural unit of analysis (Gutierrez et al., 2017). My colleagues and I documented how disenfranchised families and communities living under dire circumstances in Guatemala generated spontaneous solutions to educate their off-springs with special needs—e.g., they mobilized resources from sectors outside of education or used their social networks (Caballeros et al., 2016). Researchers must aspire to craft ecologically valid and dignified representations of these groups and their struggles (Arzubiaga, Artiles, King, & Harris-Murri, 2008; Espinoza & Vossoughi, 2014). Ultimately, what future inclusion researchers should aspire is to produce new kinds of representations based on “an empathic science, a humanist science, one that can handle the fire of personal narrative with composure, one that can use the tools of social science and science without letting those tools subsume the human person” (M. Espinoza, personal communication, September 19, 2017).

Author's Note

Alfredo J. Artiles is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University. This essay is based on a presentation made at the Seminario Internacional “Que inclusão e que diversidade na educação?. Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (Campus Nova Iguaçu). Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in September of 2018. I am grateful to Prof. Sandra Sales for hosting me during this meeting and her support during the preparation of this manuscript. The essay was originally published in Portuguese as follows:

Artiles, A.J. (2019). Inquietações sobre a educação inclusive no sul global: Um ponto de vista histórico-cultural. Currículo sem Fronteiras, 19(3), 1175–1187. [Published in Portuguese] [ISSN 1645-1384 (online)] []]


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i Although there are differences between these terms, I use “inclusive education” and “inclusion” interchangeably for editorial style purposes.
ii The term “global South” invokes longstanding “geopolitical relations of power” (Dados & Connell, 2012, p. 12). Grech (2015) explained the term denotes “power, resource, epistemological and other differentials, and though not unshiftable, and though not localized, embrace a substantial portion of the world living in a scenario of profound geopolitical asymmetries, poverty and isolation confronting deeply entrenched centers of concentrated wealth and power accumulated historically and perpetuated in times of coloniality. There isn’t one global South, but there are indeed many global ‘Souths.’ Furthermore, the global South is not only present in, but it also lives within the global north.”