Moving towards an inclusive mindset

This blogpost is the product of the many invaluable conversations and consultations we’ve had recently with Vanessa Faloye, an expert in social justice and dismantling systems which uphold intersectional inequality.

You can find out more about her work at


One of the biggest challenges we all face in life is the gap between what we believe and what we do. And even with the very best of intentions, when we try to transform our beliefs into actions, sometimes we miss the mark.

Many of us sincerely believe that the world could be a fairer, more inclusive place – and that we all have a role to play in shaping this vision of a better future. But where to begin? What’s wrong with our existing approaches? How can we move from a well-meaning but still exclusive mindset to a genuinely inclusive one?

From ‘equality’ to ‘equity’

One of the main preoccupations of international development over the past few decades has been: how do we address inequalities and barriers in society?

One well-intentioned, but ultimately insufficient, approach has been the paradigm of equality. In other words, the belief that if we treat everybody in the same way, we’ll see equal outcomes. But this is a fallacy – it’s idealistic, not realistic.

While we’re all born equal in terms of what we deserve access to, the fact is that we’re not all equal in terms of what we get access to.

So what’s needed is an approach not of equality, but of equity. That means not treating everybody in precisely the same way – because, quite simply, we don’t all have the same needs. If we really want people to enjoy equal potential and achieve the same outcomes, we should treat them according to their unique and particular needs. Paradoxically, trying to achieve equal outcomes with equal treatment, but without recognising the pre-existing disparities between different social groups, only perpetuates the disparities in the first place.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to see how much sense this makes. By analogy: we wouldn’t give the same treatment to someone who has a headache versus someone who has cancer. We wouldn’t give the same thing to someone who’s hungry versus someone who’s thirsty. We wouldn’t suggest the same clothing to someone who’s taking a trip somewhere with a hot climate versus someone who’s travelling to a very cold climate.

In all these scenarios, for both people to end up in the same or comparable place of feeling fulfilled, resourced, safe and comfortable, they need different things. They don’t need equal (the same) treatment; they need equitable (differential) treatment. It’s not only ‘OK’ to recognise that different people have different needs – it’s essential.

From responding to anticipating

In practical terms as learning designers, one of the best things we can do is to normalise the uniqueness of people’s wants and needs.

This means more than simply responding to what people ask for – that’s important and useful, but we can’t always wait to be asked or told. We need to educate ourselves, to be proactive and to anticipate a variety of needs. This gives us a much stronger starting point to serve a wide range of learners, and it means the work left to be done is minimal when – inevitably – we learn that there’s still more we can do to include others.

In short, we must listen and respond to learners’ needs – but ideally, we won’t be surprised by them, because we’ll already have anticipated their diversity.

Of course, a risk to be avoided here is that of assuming. Someone may be statistically likely to face a certain barrier or to need certain support, but it’s important to keep an open mind regarding their uniqueness and autonomy. And there’s a difference between assuming a need and anticipating a need.

For example: globally, 1.5 billion people experience some degree of hearing loss (according to World Health Organisation statistics). Knowing this, we can anticipate that many learners in any given course would benefit from being able to choose how content is presented or accessed in terms of volume, closed captioning, note-taking support, sign language interpreting, use of background music or sound effects and so on. (And if any of this is leaving you confused, don’t worry – this is what practising inclusion is all about. It’s about challenging our assumptions and understanding there’s no one universal way of supporting people.)

Of course, these features may not be needed by all learners who experience hearing loss, but it’s not difficult to accommodate these needs in course design – and doing so would not only meet the needs of those learners who do benefit from such accommodations; research suggests many others would also benefit. For example, subtitles may be helpful for people studying in a loud environment without access to headphones, note-taking support could benefit someone with limited mobility, and so on.

In short, by addressing the challenges faced by one group, we can effectively avoid creating similar difficulties for other learners. And by building choice into the learning design as a default, we are allowing learners to self-determine and self-direct according to their needs. We’re anticipating a variety of needs, but not assuming specifically what those are.

And this leads us to our last point about shifting mindsets…

From ‘solving for the majority’ to ‘solving for the minoritised’

For understandable reasons of pragmatism and capacity, many organisations aim to solve problems for the majority, i.e. ‘as many people as possible’, rather than for the most intersectionally marginalised and minoritised group.

But designing for the majority of people actually has the unintended consequence of reinforcing the dominant group, because the majority is often the dominant group – and their needs are already the ones that are typically considered and designed for.

It’s tempting – but fallacious – to think that solving for the minority means excluding the majority. In fact, solving for the most acutely marginalised ‘few’ actually solves for everyone else along the way. And ultimately, if learning design can build infrastructure for the most severe or compounded experiences of oppression or exclusion, that infrastructure is then in place – not only to support all other learners along the way, but when crisis occurs, to serve the emerging needs of those who are impacted.


Further reading