Professor Adam Boddison discusses the importance of cultural inclusion for children with SEND.
Cultural inclusion is about ensuring that everybody has access to heritage, culture and the arts. However, there is an increasing concern about the lack of cultural inclusion for those groups who are already too often marginalised in society. Groups such as learners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
The impact of having access to culture and the arts for learners with SEND is already well known. For example, some learners with autism may struggle with social interactions, but can find theatre liberating because the scripted infrastructure removes some of the anxieties associated with social situations. Similarly, theatre itself can remove barriers and misconceptions, since actors with visible disabilities are effectively inviting the audience to engage with both their drama and their disability.
Outside of the theatre context, it might be considered rude to ‘stare’ at somebody with a disability. Interestingly, in trying to be polite by avoiding looking at people with disabilities, the result can often be that it makes people feel isolated.
This demonstrates the importance of including a diverse range of young people in the arts, but we also need to recognise that the arts themselves can lead to a more inclusive society. Ultimately, cultural inclusion is a catalyst for inclusion more generally.
The diversity of the arts world has a particular synergy with the diversity and creativity of children who think differently and see the world differently. Cultural inclusion is about more than making sure that learners with SEND do not miss out on having arts, culture and heritage in their lives. It is also about ensuring that we as a society do not miss out on their talent and their creativity.
Inclusion supports culture and culture supports inclusion, so it is important that we prioritise cultural inclusion in the coming months and years to ensure that all children and young people have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.
The impact of the global pandemic
The World Bank has commissioned work to better understand the impact that the pandemic has had on access to the arts. In August 2020, the World Bank reported the fact that 90% of countries had actually closed their World Heritage properties. Similarly, a UNESCO report published in May 2020 described how 90% of museums closed their doors during the pandemic, predicting that one in eight may never reopen.
Lastly, an OECD report published in September 2020 compared the global impact of the pandemic on the cultural and creative sectors as being akin to that on the global tourism industry. The report went on to make the point that social distancing and the disproportionate impact of Covid on minority groups further skewed access to the arts for those who actually contributed to it so much, not just those who were receivers.
The role of digital access
Whilst this is a gloomy outlook, the rise of digital solutions offers some interesting opportunities for the future. The global pandemic has accelerated digital innovation with many cultural organisations providing digital access to their services and content. Indeed, this has prompted the Council of Europe to ask whether having digital access to cultural institutions has actually helped to break down some of the barriers to participation and to reach into communities that were not previously engaging.
For some people, accessing the arts in the presence of others can be a rich, rewarding and shared experience. But for others, it can be emotionally and mentally challenging. It can expose gaps in cultural knowledge and understanding, which can create anxiety and tension. One of the benefits of digital access is that it provides the privacy to explore the arts without necessarily opening yourself up to the scrutiny of others until you are ready. It could even be argued that digital access is an enabler for physical access.
The expression that came up repeatedly during the pandemic was that cultural institutions were facing the ‘perfect storm’ of being both historically under-funded, and also suffering from a significant fall in demand. To a certain extent this is true, but whilst we may all be in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat. Learners with SEND were already having insufficient access to the arts before the pandemic, and this issue has arguably been amplified, with the exception of digital access.
The economic case for investment
As a society we are increasingly aware of the importance of things like the environment, the importance of diversity, neurodiversity and cultural diversity, but also the role that the arts have in terms of our own well-being. Many see the arts, culture and heritage as part of the solution to ensuring long-term positive wellbeing.
However, for governments and policy makers to devote significant amounts of public money to culture, arts and heritage, there will arguably need to be a stronger case demonstrating the return on investment than wellbeing alone. Fortunately, there is a growing body of evidence supporting both the moral and economic case for public investment. For example, data from the World Bank shows that in South Africa the arts sector accounts for 1.6% of the country’s GDP. Similarly, in 2015, $5bn of government investment generated $166bn of economic activity in the USA – a clear return on investment.
In the words of Audrey Azoulay, CEO of UNESCO: ‘Culture has helped us out of this crisis, now we have to help culture and support the diversity to which culture owes its strength’. This means investing in cultural inclusion by ensuring that culture, heritage and the arts are regularly accessed by all children and young people, but in particular by those with SEND.