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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe




Language: EN
Document available also in: ET

Adult Education and Inclusivity

In the UNESCO’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which aspires to eradicate poverty by 2030, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on Education was recognized by the international community as “essential for the success of all 17 SDGs” (UNESCO, 2018). Inclusivity, defined as the intention or policy of including people who are otherwise excluded or marginalised is emphasized alongside equity in SDG 4, specifically in UNESCO’s Education 2030 Framework for Action as the foundations for quality education.

Inclusivity, then should definitely be an important consideration for all adult educators even though the term ‘adult education’ only became more commonly used in the 1900s (Merriam and Brockett, 2007, p. 9). Furthermore, the field of adult education encompasses an extremely wide range of educational and learning activities not limited to formal institutional settings but also includes various non-formal and informal settings.


All gingerbread cookies come from the same dough, similarly all humans are the same! 



Despite coming from the same dough, gingerbread cookies can come in all shapes and sizes! So do humans with all our various abilities and dis-abilities! 


Inclusivity of Whom?

In adult education situations and contexts whether formal, non-formal, or informal, there are a variety of reasons that could cause an adult learner to disengage from the learning process. This is particularly so if the adult learner’s degree of discouragement has reached the maximum threshold, leading to the adult learner giving up on engaging in the learning process.

One of these potential hindrances is learning disabilities, which are neurological handicaps that affect an individual’s ability to understand, remember or communicate information (Smith, C. and Strick, L. 2010, p. 5). It may not be easy for adult educators to even realise that learners have certain conditions of learning disabilities due to the fact that it is common for people with learning disabilities to possess average to superior levels of intelligences, and also that these conditions of disabilities are most often not visible. As Smith and Strick (2010, p. 6) write about the invisibility of learning disabilities in children, “How can a kid know everything there is to know about dinosaurs at the age of four, but still be unable to learn the alphabet?”   

Adult learners with learning disabilities might experience themselves as being dis-abled, or not having the abilities to learn unlike classmates who find the learning process easy. This is even more so if these adult learners have never had their learning disabilities diagnosed and/or have never received the assistance or help that they very much needed.

Besides learning disabilities, there is a gamut of other reasons that could cause adult learners to experience themselves as dis-abled in adult education settings, which might lead to a disengagement from the learning process. These includes socio-economic factors, language barriers and proficiency levels, cultural factors, mental health issues, family background and/or problems, previous experiences of educational settings, unfamiliarity with subject matter, and a variety of different factors.

Adult learners experiencing themselves as dis-abled or not having certain abilities that are required to be successful in the specific learning contexts could occur in numerous settings:

  • Single mother who has never done any baking, in a community college cake baking class, with other learners who have some experience baking
  • Dyslexic adult learner in an advanced writing class in university, where neither classmates nor instructor are aware of the existence of visual language processing disabilities that affect reading and writing skills
  • Adult learner with a cultural background that highly values silence and distance, in a postgraduate programme with predominantly extroverted, outspoken classmates
  • Brilliant scholar from a working class background in a third world country, financially sponsored by a prestigious scholarship in a Harvard MBA programme with predominantly classmates from millionaire or business-owner family backgrounds

My Personal Reflection from Placement at SA Hea Hoog, Estonia

The experience of being dis-abled can also occur the other way round, where the adult educator struggles to be useful and effective but the barriers are too difficult to overcome. This could happen to a nurse from a first world Western country, who is attempting to provide vaccination education in a third world country’s local community where the language and cultural differences are too great.

As a competent and confident adult educator who has been teaching English for several years, I unexpectedly found myself feeling extremely incompetent and of no use during my placement at SA Hea Hoog, which is part of the Masters programme I am currently pursuing. SA Hea Hoog is an Estonian-government affiliated organisation which provides employment opportunities and training for people with disabilities ranging from learning disabilities to those with mental health challenges. These factors became major barriers to my ability to contribute to the organisation:

  • language barriers as I do not speak Estonian which is the language spoken by the people in SA Hea Hoog, and most of the people there do not speak English at all except for a few individuals who are moderately fluent in English
  • professional training, experience and expertise with regards to disabilities of which I have none

Hence, despite my best intentions and 200% efforts during my placement, I still found myself feeling extremely frustrated and highly incompetent, and having a great degree of disappointment in myself for failing to be of use and for being unable to fulfil the expectations of the organisation. In other words, I was actually the dis-abled one in this context: lacking certain abilities that would enable me to contribute positively and immensely as an adult educator.

However, this experience, frustrating as it was, turned out to be a transformative learning experience for me in that it changed the way I think about dis-abilities and the need for greater inclusivity in adult education. It also caused me to reflect on my previous professional practice of teaching English particularly in terms of how un-inclusive I was! It sobers me up to think of the possibilities that there could have been learners in my class who were struggling with reading, writing, speaking or listening in English due to their visual-perception or language-processing neurological conditions of learning disabilities! On the flip side, this signals new opportunities for me to learn about these conditions and to equip myself with some effective general and specific inclusive learning strategies for use in my language classroom!


"Dis-abled intern" at Hea Hoog (me!) sweeping snow like the Hea Hoog clients assigned to do so (who have disabilities)


Disposition of Adult Educators

Should adult educators attempt to be as inclusive as they could? Definitely!

With adult education including a wide range of ‘activities intentionally designed for the purpose of bringing about learning among those whose age, social roles, or self-perception define them as adults’ (Merriam and Brockett, 2007, p.8), possibilities are that in all adult education settings, there will be adult learners who experience themselves as dis-abled within the specific learning context. This then warrants adult educators to possess an effective and helpful disposition which includes:

  • withholding negative judgment when learners seem to have difficulty or are disengaging from the learning process
  • possessing the willingness to learn new skills such as inclusive education strategies, and new knowledge such as how to help dyslexic learners read
  • being open to receiving assistance and advice from other including fellow educators and professionals, and anyone else particularly when at a loss of how to help a struggling learner
  • recognizing practical challenges and barriers to helping struggling learners, while not using that as excuses to find effective solutions
  • being a reflective practitioner who is open to existing frameworks in one’s mind being transformed and changed
  • having the willingness and the capacity to unlearn, relearn and learn


To conclude, the world will consistently be a better place, at least for learners if all adult educators continue to reflectively practise inclusivity. The principle and practice of inclusivity is definitely in line with the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960) and other international human rights treaties which “prohibits any exclusion from, or limitation to, educational opportunities on the basis of socially-ascribed or perceived differences, such as by sex, ethnic/social origin, language, religion, nationality, economic condition, ability” (UNESCO, 2018).

Takeaway Points to Ponder:

  • What about you?
  • How inclusive have you been in your practice?
  • What can you do to be more inclusive in your practice as an adult educator, both on an individual level as well as collectively with fellow adult educators?


Angela Kwon Mei Jun is a Malaysian English language educator who has courageously decided to venture into the larger world of adult education for social change. Hence, she is spending two years in Europe on an extremely enriching journey as a postgraduate student of the International Master of Adult Education for Social Change (IMAESC).

Her education philosophies and approaches are still in the process of emerging, evolving, and reshaping, but underlying that is a strong motivation for education to be a tool of empowerment and emancipation. Everyone deserves chances in life and every human life is precious!


Merriam, S. B. and Brockett, R. G. 2007. The profession and practice of adult education: An introduction. USA: Jossey-Bass Publishers. 

Smith, C. and Strick, L. (2010). A complete guide to learning disabilities from preschool to adulthood. New York: Free Press.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 2018. Website address:


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