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Fostering social inclusion

Fostering social inclusion


The concept of inclusion 

According to the dictionary, the word inclusion refers to the act of including, of incorporating an element into a group.

In the social sphere, being included means feeling accepted: belonging to a group of people, a society, and being able to fully enjoy all the rights and opportunities that it entails.

Inclusion is radically different from both assimilation and integration. To be included in a group, you shouldn’t have to adapt or change your personal characteristics to be the same as everyone else.

In the words of the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, “inclusion does not imply locking members into a community that closes itself off from others. The ‘inclusion of the other’ means rather that the boundaries of the community are open for all, also and most especially for those who are strangers to one another and want to remain strangers.”

(The Inclusion of the Other, 2013)

The causes of social exclusion

An inclusive society must, therefore, eliminate all forms of discrimination.

Differences among individuals that can lead to social exclusion include:

  • race
  • sex
  • culture
  • religion
  • disability

Discrimination based on any of these factors can happen in any environment: in the workplace (for instance, if an employer decides whether or not to hire a candidate based on their gender), in politics (if an ethnic group isn’t properly represented in government institutions), or in society (if access to essential services isn’t guaranteed to people with disabilities). Social exclusion is the inability of an individual to fully participate in the life of the community.

Social exclusion can also derive from conditions of deprivation and hardship. A lack of adequate economic resources often results in limited access to social environments like education, health care, employment, housing, technology, and political and cultural life. Economic marginalization can easily lead to social isolation and loss of a sense of belonging. Hence, poverty and exclusion are closely correlated to one another, and one is often a cause of the other. Poverty also impacts interpersonal relationships: financial insecurity can lead to loneliness, poor social skills, lack of family and social connections, and marginalization.

According to the latest data from ISTAT (the Italian National Institute of Statistics), there are 5,600,000 people enduring economic hardship in Italy, which is 9.4% of the population, equal to over two million families. The 2020 Study on Poverty and Social Exclusion in Italy issued by Caritas underscores how much the COVID-19 emergency has affected the “nouveau poor”: the number of people who asked for assistance for the first time increased from 31% to 45%.

Individuals and categories at risk of social exclusion

Discrimination and poverty can therefore compromise people’s chances to fully participate in social life. This causes a sense of insecurity, vulnerability, precariousness and inadequacy that condemns people to an increasingly extreme marginalization.

The categories that are the most vulnerable and at risk of discrimination in modern societies are people who are homeless, people with disabilities, convicts or former inmates, the elderly, immigrants, the Roma, large families, single-parent families, women and children.

Adopting effective economic and social measures aimed at improving inclusion is an international priority. For instance, ending poverty is the first goal in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda (Sustainable Development Goal 1, or SDG1).

The UN states that “poverty entails more than the lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods. Its manifestations include hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion, as well as the lack of participation in decision-making. Economic growth has to be inclusive in order to create sustainable jobs and promote equality.”

SDG10, instead, aims to “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status; and to ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including by eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and action in this regard.”


Changing perspectives: the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health 

People with disabilities are among the categories most at risk of social exclusion.

In 2001, the World Health Organization approved a new tool called the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (IFC).

It was created to provide an international framework of reference for the description of health and it applies to everyone. In particular, it has enabled a change in perspectives when it comes to considering disability not as a handicap in itself, but as a component of the environmental and social context.

In this new bio-psycho-social perspective, the emphasis shifts away from a person’s physical, mental or sensorial disabilities and focuses instead on the mental, social and architectural “barriers” that can turn these disabilities into actual handicaps: obstacles that hinder their full participation and equality. The ICF classification underscores the fact that disability is a universal human experience that anyone can experience in their lifetime.

During a hearing of the Scientific and Technical Committee of the Italian National Observatory on the Condition of People with Disabilities (Osservatorio Nazionale sulla Condizione delle Persone con Disabilità) held on March 24, 2021, the president of ISTAT provided an overview of the situation in Italy up to 2019. People with severe limitations that prevent them from carrying out ordinary activities make up 5.2% of Italy’s population. Among them, 61% suffer from poor health, as opposed to 0.6% of the overall population.

The elderly are affected the most: almost 1.5 million people over the age of 75 are disabled, 1.4 million cannot take care of themselves autonomously, and slightly less than a third are unable to carry out the more challenging house chores.

Having a disability heightens differences: the number of people with disabilities who have attained higher education qualifications (a high school diploma and university degrees) is only 30.1% among men and 19.3% among women, compared to 55.1% and 56.5% among the rest of the population. When it comes to employment, only 31.3% of people with severe limitations between the ages of 15 and 64 have a job, compared to 57.8% of the rest of the population.

Over 600,000 people with severe limitations live in a situation of severe isolation, without any support network to rely on in case of need. Among them, 204,000 live completely alone.

Severe limitations are also an obstacle to cultural participation: only 9.3% of those affected often go to the movies, to the theater, to concerts, or to a museum during the year. Among the rest of the population, that number is 30.8%.

Inclusion and integration projects to prevent social exclusion 

On July 28, 2021, the Social Protection and Inclusion Network, led by the Italian Ministry of Labor and Social Policies, approved the new National Social Action and Social Services Plan for 2021-2023. The Network was created in 2017 to reduce the severe regional disparities in access to support services. The Network will now have to work on reforming the system of measures for people who are not self-sufficient, scheduled for 2022.

The National Plan for Recovery and Resilience, approved in April 2021, also includes some other reforms.

  • First and foremost, the Family Act, which contains measures to support families with children, to promote women’s participation in the workforce, and to support young people.
  • There is also the Framework Law on Disabilities, which aims to strengthen the availability of social services, making them easier to access, and to promote independent living projects.

Teaching social inclusion 

Schools, of course, play a fundamental role in teaching children to accept other people, to recognize and value differences, and to work together as a team.

Inclusive education can prevent discrimination and oppression, and also ensure that the most disadvantaged people have equal opportunities when it comes to education and full participation in the life of their community. For instance, according to a study published in 2018 by the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, inclusive education increases opportunities to forge close friendships between students with and without disabilities. It also increases the likelihood that people with disabilities will find employment and increases their opportunities to enjoy an independent life.

The Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR) issued a directive on December 27, 2012. This document identifies several categories of Special Education Needs (SEN) among students with disabilities, learning disorders, difficulties with linguistic or motor skills, or living in socioeconomically, linguistically, or culturally disadvantaged contexts. The directive also asserts that schools should have a Personal Education Plan (PEP) for each of these students and should employ support tools (both digital and analog) and differentiated forms of assessment.

Education should therefore be personalized: it should be adapted to the needs and characteristics of each student and to their different learning styles. This is the only way for every child to truly feel accepted and understood and to best express their potential. From this perspective, a student’s poor academic performance does not depend on their deficit, but on the shortcomings of the school system, which was unable to remove all the obstacles in the way of their learning and participation. 


Inclusion in the workplace 

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes the right to work and to the opportunity to earn a living in a work environment that is inclusive and accessible. The countries that ratified the Convention in 2009 (including Italy) are committed to removing every form of discrimination in the workplace and to ensuring equal opportunities and remuneration, as well as the same trade union rights. For every person, working is a right that has a significant impact on their quality of life.

In the Italian legal system, Law 68/1999 introduced the concept of “targeted employment,” which considers people with disabilities as citizens among citizens, with the same rights and obligations. Through the setting of compulsory hiring quotas, it ensures work for people with physical, psychological, or sensorial disabilities and developmental challenges based on their prior training, their acquired skills, and their professional growth potential.

The objective is to overcome a welfare approach and achieve the awareness that every individual can give their best in an inclusive workplace. If everyone feels safe and protected, they will certainly be able contribute to their company’s economic growth in a more creative and efficient way.

There are many social agriculture projects in Italy that embody this approach. They integrate social, health and educational aspects into their agricultural activities, as well as training and job placement aimed at groups of the population that are disadvantaged or at risk of marginalization. 

Creating a community: friendship, culture, sports

Schools and workplaces are certainly the pillars of social inclusion, but relationships, friendships, leisure, culture, and sports are also essential in order to fully partake in the life of one’s community.

Promoting initiatives aimed at facilitating social dialogue, fostering inclusion and fighting against discrimination is the goal of the recent Program Agreement between Italy’s Ministry of Labor and Social Policies and government authorities dealing with sports. Among their various initiatives, there is a project that promotes access to sports for children and young people from families dealing with economic hardship, including migrants.

Bandiera Lilla is another example of this approach; this project began a few years ago in the Liguria region and is now spreading to the rest of Italy. It rewards Italian towns and cities that pay particular attention to a series of parameters that can foster and incentivize tourism activities that are accessible to everyone.