Education is for every child, with or without a disability

Education is for every child, with or without a disability.

In the 2016 Federal Senate report, Access to real learning: the impact of policy, funding and culture on students with disability, an overwhelming array of problems came to light. Under-funding, stone-walling at enrolment, exclusion from school activities, low expectations, failure to adjust school facilities or practices just to name a few.

The 2016 Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on Disability figures show 469,000 students in Australia (12.4%) have a disability that requires funding. Yet until now, the Australian Education Union notes that more than half miss out on that funding.

Evidence shows that mainstreaming kids with a disability works. So how do we do it?

CHILD Mags spoke to a range of people to get their viewpoints.

The Support Organisation

“The most compelling argument for inclusive education is that separating whole classes of people based on their characteristics, such as race, religion or disability, leads to tragic outcomes,” says Cecile Sullivan Elder, Executive Officer of Family Advocacy, which advocates for families living with disability in New South Wales.

“Australian and international evidence overwhelmingly shows that students with disabilities have poorer academic and vocational outcomes in disability-specific settings. A 2010 study over ten years found students in the regular class had much higher vocational or academic skills, and even driver’s licences, when compared to students in support classes. So both morally and logically, inclusion is the right thing to do.”

The Families

Jon*, 13, from regional NSW, has severe cerebral palsy and a vision impairment. He relies on a wheelchair for mobility and uses partner-assisted communication with foot switches and auditory input for communication and schoolwork.

Jon has attended mainstream education from long daycare to high school.

“So much more goes on at school than just ‘the curriculum’. Jon gets to go to school with the kids in his neighbourhood, just as he should. Interestingly, kids ‘get’ disability. It’s not that they don’t see it, they just don’t care,” says Jon’s father, James*. “Jon had an amazing primary school experience. Knowing he was happy, was learning and was socially and academically included, was wonderful. The best part for us was watching him and his peers grow to be incredibly autonomous.

Being with friends is part of what keeps him safe.

It stops him being vulnerable; they are people who choose to be with him, who aren’t paid to be there. It’s important for him to have the chance to build these natural supports and reciprocal relationships.”

“Jon is a bright kid with very complex disabilities. His communication methods are extremely tiring, tedious and difficult. With the right staff to meet his needs, and when he is respected as a valued learner and is presumed competent, he enjoys success. When the education system tries to make him fit the ‘skill set’ they already have ‘on their books’ within their existing support staff, things don’t go as well. The resistance by many in the education system to accept students with disabilities makes it much more difficult than it is. It seems many teachers and principals haven’t acquainted themselves with the research, many don’t seem to apply evidence-based practice and, it can appear, would prefer kids with disabilities were ‘anywhere else’ than in their class.”

James is adamant that a specialised school or parallel support classes are not an option. “If you look at the outcomes for many adults with disabilities these days, they are dire. Many are living in poverty, aren’t employed for real wages and, scarily, the abuse rates of people with disabilities is higher than in the general population. So, from our perspective, segregation couldn’t even be a consideration. Mainstream education certainly sets Jon on a much better pathway than the alternative which looks something like early intervention, special school/support class and then 60+ years of day programs or sheltered workshops.”

Belinda*, from regional NSW, has five children, the youngest, Daniel*, 17, with an intellectual disability.

“We endeavoured from the start to immerse our son in the ordinary ebb and flow of family life. Well-meaning people tried to ‘fix’ Dan with different therapies. But as we knew, he wasn’t broken or sick, so we tried to limit this sort of intervention,” she says.

When Daniel turned five, so many barriers were put up to stop his inclusion in the local school his brother and sister attended. He was told he needed to be with his own ‘kind’ at the support unit at a nearby school. His parents advised the Department of Education they would take legal action.

Daniel went to that primary school and the local high school, in a regular class for all 12 years. “He has learnt to be socially adept, know what is in style with clothes and music and the latest movies, has learnt the jargon of a teenager and knows when someone is not being so nice and how to respond,” says Belinda.

“He has been included in all the learning opportunities just by being present. He takes part in musicals, excursions, sporting events and people visiting the school. He has done work placement in local businesses and has employment prospects. Immersed in the rich environment of an ordinary life, Daniel has the prospect of a life filled with purpose and will know the feeling of achievement you have when you contribute instead of being treated as needy.”

Penny, from Melbourne, has a son, Ryan*, 17, who was diagnosed with hearing loss as a baby, central auditory processing disorder at 6, ADHD, depression and anxiety at 9, and sensory processing disorder and autism at 12. At the ages of 11 and 12, he attempted suicide.

All his school life, Ryan has displayed challenging behaviours deriving from his conditions. When his school demanded he sign a good behaviour contract or leave, he said in distress, “I can’t promise I can’t break these rules.” He left. No school would take him. “Even an ADHD school in South Yarra said no because of his autism,” says Penny.

She finally found a public school that takes ‘the kids nobody wants to deal with’. “He did Year 9. The teachers were brilliant. But they struggled to understand my particular son’s medical condition. Autism is different from one person to the next.” One month into Year 10, it became too much for Ryan, and he dropped out.

It was a “massive trauma” for him, reports Penny. “He says it’s not safe. His anxiety is now so great he has been housebound for the last three years. In Year 11 the teachers came once a week to spend an hour with him to encourage him back. The Department of Education rejected him for a support program for kids who can’t leave home; the school is supporting me and they’re ropeable about it.” Penny is currently in appeal with the Victorian Department of Education.

Teacher training and understanding is the biggest need, she said. “In Year 8, a teacher said in front of him ‘He’s not capable of anything’. Ryan takes things people say literally, and believed it. One teacher tore up a five-page essay he’d written on one of his interests, the mediaeval era, saying she only wanted one page. I colour-coded his timetable and matched his books. I said to the school, it would be awesome if they could put the same colour swatch on the classrooms so he could find his way. But they wouldn’t. A psychiatrist, occupational therapist and speech pathologist went to the school to explain his behaviours (my family struggles to understand it too), but the teachers just said he was ‘immature’. A representative from autism organisation, Aspect, did a Powerpoint presentation at the school to help teachers understand him. Only a couple of teachers could make it. Teachers made negative comments about him in front of the other kids. In Year 6, he wanted to be a school leader, but the school said no.”

“After his first suicide attempt, the school dragged him out of class and said he couldn’t come back without a safety plan. That takes three to four weeks and it needed multiple plans every time he did things they saw as unsafe, like jumping off buildings. They’d take his tie and shoelaces away, but then he stood out.”

Throughout his school years, Penny has taught Ryan the lesson plan at home using visual methods not used in school. In Year 3, she coached him for NAPLAN and he scored highly, but in Year 5 he was banned from the test. His school convinced him he wasn’t suitable for a student exchange program without consulting Penny. When she said she would take time off work to go with him and be his support worker, the school said it was too dangerous.

There’s been lots of tears and heartache over the years.

One teacher who did understand was his PE teacher. She said he was a lovely boy. She was willing to learn so she’d be able to help him, and he respected her enough that he could learn from her. Ryan represented the school at many sports, yet still got a negative reaction from many teachers,” Penny says. “The schools wouldn’t give him a chance, but it’s not going to stop me. Every kid deserves an education.”

The Special Education Professionals

In its submission to the NSW Government’s inquiry into the provision of education to students with a disability or special needs this year, the NSW chapter of the Australian Association of Special Education called for action on four issues:

  • Qualified specialist teachers for ALL students with a disability. “At present, there is no requirement that Learning and Support teachers [in NSW] hold an appropriate qualification,” it says. A recent survey found that 37% of teachers in NSW in autism-specific or special education classes did not have a special education qualification. In a 2014 analysis of 115 advertisements for teachers to fill special education positions across preschool, primary and secondary schools in NSW, only 29% included a special education qualification as a criterion.
  • Better transition planning between preschool, primary school, high school and work, with more well-structured work experience placements in Years 10-12.
  • Effective preparation for teachers at university: A 2014 national survey of final year pre-service teachers revealed a mismatch between scientific evidence and the beliefs of new teachers about what classroom instructional strategies worked.

Research on how best to train teachers to teach students with disability and special needs.

The School

Strong communication practices are the basis of a school’s success in educating kids with disabilities, says Jim Cahill, Principal of Melbourne’s Williamstown North Primary School, winner of the 2016 Victorian Education Excellence Awards for Outstanding Inclusive Education. About eight to 10 percent of its students have clinically diagnosed additional needs, mostly autism, some with intellectual disabilities. ‘Willy North’ has been integrating kids with special needs for eight years.

“It starts with tapping into the family’s knowledge,” says Jim. “The parents know their child better than anyone else. With that deeper understanding, we identify the adjustments we need to make in the school setting. It’s important that communication with all the stakeholders not be ad hoc but coordinated and pro-active to avoid tensions and meltdowns. You must really dot your i’s and cross your t’s. We meet with the child’s parents and specialists every term to draw up individual learning plans that set rigorous and achievable real-time goals.”

Keeping things consistent from teacher to teacher is key, especially when routines change, such as when there’s a relief teacher or a sporting carnival.

“We have a snapshot page for each child that a teacher can pass to another, that shows at a glance that child’s triggers and the supports they need. We also do a strong handover of a physical and online bank of information at the end of each year to the new teacher.”

The school runs social skills lessons to empower kids to read facial expressions and join in at play, and uses visual scheduling to help kids with reading difficulties. After a task has been met, or as a reward, kids with heightened sensory needs can take breaks in the ‘Butterfly Room’ equipped with things like weighted toys and mini-tramps, so they get those sensory needs met and get back to learning.

It’s important to avoid punitive responses when things go pear-shaped, Jim points out. “We don’t raise voices, label, or confront the child in the front of the class, but take them aside, and look at what restorative practices we can implement. The early years are harder, but once you’ve got understanding of the child, you can help them feel safe and connected. You can’t expect learning to unfold without that.”

“You never stop learning in this space, trying to be on the front foot.

Every child is unique and special. It forges such a beautiful culture of tolerance.

We have older students come back for a visit who have fond memories of primary school. If that’s the legacy we’ve left them, we’re very proud of it. Our kids with autism go on to become successful and engaged members of the community with good careers. When you see students with and without special needs walking down the corridor hand in hand, it melts your heart.”

What About The Other Kids?

When support staff are not available, ‘teaching’ can get pushed on to the kids. “My son needs a modified curriculum but the teacher is not equipped to do it, and it is penalising the other kids in the class,” says Anthea James* of Melbourne, mother to three children, 16, 14 and 11, who between them experience Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, OCD and autism. Maria Green*, of Sydney, agrees. Her eight-year-old daughter is often left to care for her autistic best friend at school.

While that may be an issue that can only be solved with funding, money will never be the whole answer.

“Many of our parents have deep empathy for the families of kids with additional needs and genuinely appreciate the individuality of every student,” says Williamstown North’s Jim Cahill. “Nervousness happens when understanding is missing. We have speakers come to inform our parents, and we continue to build that understanding and culture of the school.”

Children without disabilities benefit academically from inclusive education, with equal or better academic outcomes, says Family Advocacy’s Cecile Sullivan Elder.

“Other parents and kids can make a huge difference to families and kids with disabilities by simply being welcoming,” she says.

“Something parents of more typical kids might not realise is that the mum or dad of the student with disability has probably had to advocate for their child since birth to get things that most of us take for granted – good health care, a place in the pre-school, even to be communicated with in a way they can understand. So your support of that parent could make a huge difference to them, even if it’s a small moment for you.”

* Names have been changed.


Education Rights for Children with a Disability

Sydney Morning Herald June 2019

The Association for Children with a Disability has a detailed Learning Together resource for parents navigating the education system.