The Trouble With Inclusion

Too often, those who previously tolerated exclusion are the ones who end up setting the terms for inclusion. 

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Groucho Marx got it right when he said he did not want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. I feel much the same way about the inclusion mantra that is being parroted from corporate offices to nonprofit stalwarts and piggybacking on the diversity whale like a pilot fish.

Diversity itself has come pretty late in the game. After all, it is finally getting through to "includers" that different people bring different perspectives and skills and simply add essential strengths and immeasurable qualities to organizations from which they have been . . . excluded for most of American history.

The use of exclusion, whether through explicit laws and covenants or by means of more covert restrictions or simply by tacit understanding among a class, has waxed and waned. Exclusion has been a key tool in establishing and maintaining economic, cultural and political power throughout the development of American life.

Inclusion is a nice enough word, connoting magnanimity and beneficence as well as welcoming and tolerance.

But that is the problem.  The generosity of spirit that inclusion carries also informs us of who is leading the way: the same forces that maintained exclusionary policies until the realization dawned that fashions have changed. So now that this longstanding behavior is being actively reversed under the aegis of inclusivity, anyone formerly excluded should be grateful, no?

No, or at least not so much. Wariness is certainly called for. Because the excluded never made a choice concerning their status. Their exclusion was convenient for those who had seen inclusion as a birthright, and now it is less so. Either way, the change of status conferred is arbitrary. Exclusion and inclusion are passive states assigned to those designated to be either kept out or brought in. The active agent is not the newly welcomed but instead the welcoming committee, which sets the terms of inclusion, and will assign and enable a bouncer should one be deemed necessary. Even when those terms are beneficial, the person newly included will retain that sense of being an outsider who has been invited to a party, and only allowed to join by the grace of the host. Is it nice to finally be allowed in? Of course – but we have been here all along. That’s true for people of color; for LGBTQ people; for people with disabilities; and more. Ever so slowly, the ways of thinking about homogeneity and exclusion have shifted as awareness grows that these groups are actual market segments worth mining.  Their members are as skilled and dedicated and eager to progress as all those who never encountered the particular barrier to entry that defines the existence of an excluded class.

As Groucho knew, the only way to be excluded is to allow someone to choose your exclusion.  His response was to decline to be included as well, to self-exclude. If I, a person who happens to be blind, accepts exclusion – from work or play or education or whatever endeavor I desire to participate in – then I cede control of my life and agency to whoever is challenging my right to participate. On what grounds would they make the case for my exclusion?

It is not inclusion that I want – it’s access. And access is something I can actively seek to create or acquire. I may need assistance doing so. I may need to change laws and minds, not necessarily in that order. I may need to fight.   In the end, though I will be part of designing what access looks like and how it works.  Accessibility today has been designed by those who have historically been excluded. Inclusion was designed by those who decided that it was time to get inclusive, and it doesn’t involve much design or even thinking. It just means standing down from privilege – or including yourself among those who have stood up to privilege for so long.

I am the founder and president of Slatin Group LLC, which provides education and training to the hospitality and tourism industry on service to consumers with disabiliti...