This study examines elementary school-aged children’s narratives of their disabilities and peer relationships in inclusive classrooms in Japan. International inclusive education movements, including the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (United Nations, 2006), have promoted access to public education for children with disabilities. Yet inclusive education also can stigmatize children with disabilities due to their academic and behavioral struggles as well as the receipt of specialized services which set them apart from peers (e.g., Mortier et al., 2011). Further, the frameworks for inclusive education are fundamentally based on a western concept of individual rights (Peters, 2007). In non-western contexts including Japan, educators experience significant challenges in implementing rights-based inclusive education policies due to a risk of stigmatization associated with such services (Author, 2020). In Japan, where peer groups are considered an important context for children’s learning (Ministry of Education, 2017), children with disabilities who do not meet expectations may be particularly vulnerable to social exclusion. Guided by the concept of disability as the sociocultural construct (Varenne & McDermott, 1998), this study focuses on how Japanese children with disabilities navigate stigmatization within peer groups in inclusive classrooms.
Ten Japanese elementary school-aged children with autism spectrum disorders and/or dyslexia in inclusive education settings were purposively selected to participate in 60-minute audio-recorded individual interviews. Children were asked to describe their school days, including academic and non-academic activities with typically-developing peers. Interviews and analyses were conducted in Japanese. Through repeated readings of the transcribed interviews, emic codes illustrating children's experiences of stigmatization were induced, using analytic induction techniques (Schwandt, 2015). The initial codes were critiqued by Japanese educators who had direct interactions with participant children for the purpose of peer debriefing (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The codes, then, were interpreted within the context of Japanese education systems.
Regardless of the difference in medical diagnoses, the majority of children with disabilities experienced challenges in maintaining their peer relationships, including bullying, teasing, and social isolation. They also reported a lack of sense of belonging to their classrooms due to their academic struggles and troubles with peers. Children described a variety of strategies for navigating their peer relationships, including showing empathy toward peers with whom they have conflicts. Some strategies, however, resulted in further stigmatizing themselves, such as physically responding to peers’ teasing, isolating themselves from peers, concealing their “self” to get along with peers, and extended absences from school. These children expressed frustration toward educators whom they perceive as not helpful in handling conflicts with their typically-developing peers.
These children’s narratives reflect Japanese socialization practices that consider peer conflicts as learning opportunities for children to autonomously solve their own problems and develop interpersonal skills. Such practice may promote autonomous learning of typically-developing children. However, children with disabilities can benefit from adults’ direct support to avoid conflicts with peers and stigmatization. The western model of inclusive education, for example, allows Japanese children with disabilities to receive appropriate support early on, before they are socially excluded within peer groups.