An ecological approach to measuring social inclusion

May 30 2022

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Key Takeaway
Social inclusion is a central aspect of feeling like one belongs within a community. Through an ecological approach to gathering information, it may be possible to develop a deeper understanding of an individual’s lived experience, allowing for the creation of more personalized interventions. ecological approach to measuring social inclusion
Erin Madonna

Ecological Model for Inclusion

Meys, Hermans, and Maes (2021) pursued this study in an effort to both test whether an ecological model could be utilized to better articulate the complexity of social relations and social inclusion for individuals with disabilities and to suggest a method for informing interventions better tailored to match the experienced reality of the individual. “Persons with a disability express a deep desire for social relations, either in terms of making friends, having a romantic relationship or being socially included.”1

The authors utilized the ecological model to map social inclusion of adults with disabilities in order to better understand the multitude of factors impacting the individual’s interpersonal relationships and community participation. Five levels were included in the ecological mapping: the individual, interpersonal, organizational, community, and socio-political. Inclusion of each level allowed for a more robust understanding of the enabling or disabling qualities of each in an individual’s life. 

Also considered was the source of information as individual perceptions of belonging and connectedness can influence any measure of social inclusion. For the purposes of this study, the authors chose to collect data from the individual as well as their network members (family, community members, professionals) in the hopes that the variety of perspectives could provide a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of social inclusion. The authors invited the individuals with disabilities to identify two network members who played a significant role in their lives. An example of how the different voices articulate the experience uniquely can be found in responses to individual level questions around disabling factors. “Every perspective emphasized something else: professionals mentioned more characteristics of socio-emotional functioning, network members more social/interaction skills and persons with a disability gave more insight into their emotional wellbeing (pg 5).”

An additional factor which may have influenced the perceived level of loneliness experienced by the individuals with disabilities is that the study included participants living in independent supported living settings. The potential for social isolation may vary based on the presence of community or the level of segregation inherent to the individual’s living situation.

Interventions Must Be Dynamic

Ultimately, this study informs our understanding of the complexity of social inclusion and suggests that any interventions to improve the quality of social inclusion for individuals must take into account the dynamic interplay of factors from all five levels of the ecological map. The benefits of including different perspectives can be seen in how they were highly complementary while also providing unique information about the enabling and disabling factors that influence social inclusion. “The application of the model functions as a snapshot of a dynamic reality of social inclusion more than as a static model that can be completed at one time point for an individual (pg 8).”


Meys, Hermans, and Maes identify that the interviews of participants were not created to specifically assess the ecological model, which may have resulted in bias. Some of the levels of social inclusion were not directly included in the author’s questioning and so were only addressed so much as they were spontaneously referenced by the individuals or network members during their interviews. Another limitation mentioned is the incomplete understanding of the knowledge held by included network members and how their understanding of the individual’s social inclusion potentially offers a unique perspective. When an individual with a disability isn’t communicating nuanced information about their own social inclusion, a network member’s input may provide this valuable information. 

Summarized Article:

Meys, E., Hermans, K., & Maes, B. (2021). Using an ecological approach to grasp the complexity of social inclusion around a person with a disability. Disability and Health Journal, 14(4), 101152.

Summary by: Erin Madonna—Erin philosophically aligns with the MARIO Framework’s deeply rooted belief that all learners are capable, and she firmly believes in MARIO’s commitment to the use of evidence-based practices drawn from the field of multidisciplinary research.

Additional References:

  1. Rushbrooke, E., Murray, C. and Townsend, S. (2014), The Experiences of Intimate Relationships by People with Intellectual Disabilities: A Qualitative Study. J Appl Res Intellect Disabil, 27: 531-541.
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