Difficulties with accessing education
'I had no idea schools could decline a child with a
disability in mainstream school placement'.
Throughout the course of this inquiry, the committee heard from
submitters and witnesses about the many challenges facing students with
disability and their families in adequately accessing education. The committee
also received evidence that difficulties in accessing education leads to
disenfranchisement later in life when a person seeks to participate in higher
education, training or employment.
Australia has obligations, under the United Nations Convention on the
Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), to ensure that inclusive
education is available to all children, regardless of their level of ability.
The UNCRPD stipulates that:
Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to education. With a
view to realizing this right without discrimination and on the basis of equal
opportunity, States Parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all
levels and life long learning directed to:
full development of human potential and sense of dignity and self-worth, and
the strengthening of respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and human
development by persons with disabilities of their personality, talents and
creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities, to their fullest
- Enabling persons with disabilities to participate
effectively in a free society.
- In realizing this right, States Parties shall ensure that:
- Persons with disabilities are not excluded from the
general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with
disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or
from secondary education, on the basis of disability;
- Persons with disabilities can access an inclusive,
quality and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis
with others in the communities in which they live;
- Reasonable accommodation of the individual's requirements
- Persons with disabilities receive the support required,
within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education;
- Effective individualized support measures are provided in
environments that maximize academic and social development, consistent with the
goal of full inclusion.
Thus it is clear that Australia has obligations to ensure inclusive
education is available to all children. Yet, in spite of this unequivocal
obligation, the committee heard from numerous submitters and witnesses that
access to education for students with disabilities proved to be difficult,
time-consuming and required substantial efforts and energy on the part of
parents and carers.
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR), a national network of over
2600 human rights lawyers, academics and judicial officers, argued that:
... schools or government policies which fail to provide equal
and inclusive educational opportunities to children with disabilities are in breach
of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
People with Disability Australia argued that Article 24 of the UNCRPD
'must be the basis of our educational framework':
Our educational framework does need to be based on the rights
of the child: the rights of the child to receive education; the rights of the
child to participate in their communities; the rights of people with disability
to be free from violence when they are in whatever sitting they might be,
including schools; the rights of children and people with disability to make
complaints about their experiences; their rights to participate politically;
and their rights to be involved economically in the community as children,
young people and as adults.
Ms Stephanie Gotlib, Chief Executive Officer of the major advocacy group
Children with Disability Australia (CDA), commented:
CDA does not deny that there are good pockets of education
practice, but it is just not right that this is the exception rather than the
norm. I do not think I know of one child with a disability, including my own,
that has not had to have significant compromises in their education
experiences. To have any chance of accessing your basic education rights in
Australia, students with disability must rely on fierce advocacy—usually by
families and the stars aligning. Usually, the magical combination is also
dependent on a strong school leader who is unwavering in their commitment that
all students should access an education. The chance of accessing a quality
education when you are a student with a disability is likened to that of
winning the lottery.
ALHR expressed their concerns with the current approach to education in
Australia and concluded:
ALHR holds grave concerns that the current education systems
in Australia fail to provide inclusive education to children with disabilities
and as a result, children with disabilities are being denied their fundamental
The committee believes that it is unacceptable that so many Australian
children are being denied their basic human right to access education.
Barriers to education access and attainment
A key theme from the evidence presented to this inquiry was that the
experience of students with disability in the school system in Australia varies
widely, depending on multiple factors, including the family's financial means,
geographical location and indigeneity.
The next chapter will address more specifically the costs borne by
families of students with disability, including the financial expenses they
face as a consequence of seeking the best possible education outcome for their
children. However, the nature of this problem is, amongst other things, a
question of equity.
Simply put, the committee heard evidence from multiple witnesses that
illustrated the point that students from families with greater financial means
can have options and opportunities unavailable to children from families
without such means.
This is inherently unfair and creates 'classes' of students with
disability, whereby some have a greater chance of educational attainment, and
therefore success in later life, and some have much lesser prospects.
However, even for those families with the financial means to afford
additional support for their children, this creates significant financial
burdens. Regardless of the outcomes, parents and families of students with
disability face substantially higher costs in accessing education for their
children than other parents do, and with no guarantee that their child will
attain a better education outcome.
One instance of this relates to the provision and use of assistive
technology – such as laptops or tablets – which allow students to engage more
in the classroom setting. For many students with disability, access to a device
to help them communicate and learn is a necessary and reasonable adjustment,
which therefore the school is obliged to provide.
However, as the committee heard, parents and families are often forced
to pay for these adjustments themselves. One parent told the committee that, on
top of all the other expenses incurred in having their child's disability
diagnosed and alongside expensive additional tuition costs, they were told by
their school that their resources did not allow for these necessary
When our children were diagnosed, we went to the school to
try to get support, intervention and assistive technology. We were told,
'There's no resources and no funding,' so we have funded that ourselves. I have
two children who are dyslexic. The report was $800 apiece, none of which could
be claimed. Prior to having them diagnosed as dyslexic, because we knew nothing
about dyslexia, we put them through an extensive occupational therapy program, which
totalled $3,200. Private tuition for my daughter this year is costing us
$13,000. We funded the technology and the assistive tech for both of our
children, and that has been in the vicinity of $3,000 or $4,000 so far.
One of the components of the More Support for Students with Disabilities
National Partnership Agreement was funding to enable schools to purchase
resources including assistive technology, as well as to fund training for
teachers to increase their skills with technology devices.
However, that program's completion in 2014 may result in more families having
to bear the cost of such devices.
Since school education remains a state responsibility in Australia,
variations are significant between Australian states in terms of access and
outcomes. The result of this non-uniform approach is that students with similar
disability issues may face very different education systems depending on where
they live. Again, the committee heard compelling evidence that this leads to
significant inequities between students.
Government funding for students with disability varies dramatically
across the states and territories. The averages demonstrate the notably
different levels of support students can receive depending on which state's
education system they enrol in.
Another illustration of how education experiences differ from state to
state is the different levels of support provided by therapists and other
specialists in schools.
Epilepsy Action Australia, for instance, noted variance between the
states in their testimony before the committee. In some states students with
epilepsy could qualify for additional funding and support; in other states they
Occupational Therapy Australia provided evidence that the use of
occupational therapists (OTs) in schools varied considerably from state to
state. In Queensland, the Department of Education and Training employs nearly
70 full-time equivalent OTs to work in state schools, while other states have
limited access for privately engaged OTs to schools at best.
Similarly, Speech Pathology Australia described the:
... significant variation in eligibility criteria for
individualised targeted funding across the states and territories of Australia,
and inconsistent definitions and criteria in particular for speech, language
and communication disabilities.
The committee heard from parents who made the life-changing decision to
move their family interstate in the hope of improving the education outcomes
for their children. The committee finds it completely unacceptable that
families need to move across the country so that their children can be
educated. Such a move affects all members of a family and may negatively affect
employment and financial prospects for the parents.
For instance, Mrs Theresa Duncombe told the committee about the
different experiences her son had in three states:
Ben attended a local school in Western Australia where, after
rigorous assessment for funding, Ben's
classroom level of support was 0.8 or four full-time days until the end of year
8. We worked closely with the school and allied health professionals in a
collaborative relationship to achieve a strengths-based approach to inclusive
Ed. When we relocated to New South Wales, after multiple appeals, funding
applications gave Ben 11 hours a week. How can two state systems be so vastly
different in the level of support for the same student? Funding does make a
difference to the education of students with disabilities, but I have to
clarify that, as parents, our expectations do not necessarily equate to
one-on-one teacher's aide time with children. There are innovative programs in
Australian schools, and, again, this is why we have relocated to Queensland.
While few students with disability have access to adequate levels and
forms of education, regardless of where they live, even within a single state,
students can experience vastly different education outcomes as a consequence of
the area in which they live.
Most sharply, students in remote or regional areas are likely to have considerably
fewer options than their city-based counterparts. The difference in access to
education between those living in Australia's major cities and those in rural
or remote areas was described to the committee:
There is a recognition in Australian education that one of
the great divides is actually metropolitan and non-metropolitan students.
The difficulties facing students and families from regional areas were
emphasised by the submission from the National Disability Coordination Officer
Programme, who included a case study of a small regional town to highlight the
This limited engagement with professional services and
supports particularly effects students with disability who may not have access
to skills and experienced early intervention, educational support, transition
pathway services such as disability employment services, mainstream employment
services, transition to work programs, day services and respite care. The
reality usually involves travelling the 3-4 hour round trip to the regional
centre. This time away from school further impacts on the student and their
educational outcomes. Whilst the local shire council is aware of the above as
an on-going issue, and is continually working on lifting the profile of the
town and attracting people to meet the skills needs, they are very much
concerned that this trend will not change in the near future. In fact the
community is concerned that the introduction of the NDIS may exacerbate the
A central concern for students and their families in regional and remote
areas is the difficulties involved in finding or maintaining qualified teaching
staff, as the Isolated Children's Parents Association Queensland noted:
The recruitment and retention of specialised staff in rural
schools in Queensland is an ongoing challenge. Lack of cultural and social
opportunities, coupled with sub-standard telecommunications services in many
rural areas, are a significant deterrent when attracting suitable professionals
such as learning support teachers and guidance officers. Due to the inability
to attract specialist staff in the rural and remote environment, the learning
support responsibilities in many instances fall on the teacher aide and in one
teacher schools where multi-level classrooms are common, this expectation is
The committee heard from the School Council from Acacia Hill School, in
Alice Springs, which provides 'an intensive and inclusive educational program'
for students with disability. Given the absence of designated special schools
in central Australia, some students at that school have left their families and
communities to attend – some now live 12 hours' drive from their families.
While the committee commends the Acacia Hills School and other schools like it
for their programs and commitment to providing education for all students, it
notes the high emotional price some students and their families pay in order to
access education in remote parts of Australia.
A particularly concerning problem for students in regional and remote
areas on which the committee received evidence was that of transport to and
from school. CDA noted that some students are spending up to four hours per day
in transit – meaning that they leave home before 7.00am and return after 5.00pm.
Aside from missing out on time with family and friends or playing, for some
students with disability, this can cut sharply into their available time for
therapy and support. Students are often frequently unable to use the toilet or
eat during those hours on school buses, causing further distress or illness.
Ms Catriona Gunn, who provides advocacy and support services for
students with disability and their families, also noted that inconsistencies
are rife within a single state. She provided an illustration of a family she
knows of who moved from rural South Australia to Adelaide in order to better
support their child's needs. This has involved substantial emotional and
financial upheaval for the entire family.
The committee also received evidence that, even within a particular
city, certain schools or districts were notable for their approaches to
educating students with disability. To a large extent this reflects an issue to
be discussed below, of the importance of the culture within each individual
school in influencing how a student with disability would be able to attain
education outcomes, but this further highlights the point that, for many
students, the quality of the education they receive at school is a consequence
of where their family lives.
Indigenous and multicultural
While geographic considerations were found to play a real and
significant role in the education options available for students with
disability, the committee also heard that many of the problems associated with
education access and attainment for students with disability are exacerbated
for indigenous students with disability. While most students with disability
struggle in the education system, it is much worse for Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander students.
The First Peoples Disability Network noted that 'inclusive education',
as a concept for indigenous students, has cultural elements, alongside the
meaning inclusion has for students with disability and that it was crucial that
education addressed both perspectives:
... when thinking about what an inclusive education looks like
for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child, you need to consider both
the cultural and disability perspectives. These are different. Cultural inclusion
is about understanding the cultural obligations that an Aboriginal or Torres
Strait Islander child has with their community, whereas inclusiveness from a
disability perspective is about recognising the child's specific learning needs
related to that impairment and creating a positive learning environment for
them. If you have both cultural and disability perspectives, you are setting
them on the right path. If you have one but not the other, you are addressing
some but you are nonetheless leaving in place substantial barriers to their
learning. If you have neither, then you risk a progressive and total
disengagement from education and set them on the sadly inevitable path away
from education and towards things like the justice system, a life of limited
employment prospects, low wealth and all the poor social outcomes associated
As Speech Pathology Australia noted, children from indigenous
communities may be in most need of additional support, yet are the least likely
to receive it:
[Speech pathologists] are usually based in urban areas
(Darwin or Alice Springs) and 'access' for remote students is at best a
consultative service from a visiting speech pathologist. This means that
indigenous students in remote communities often have the most limited access to
speech pathology services – when they are often the students who need it most
due to the high rates of communication impairment resulting from the epidemic
of otitis media (ear infections) in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
A further aspect of disadvantage pointed out by the First Peoples
Disability Network is that educators' expectations of indigenous students may
prevent them from recognising that a particular student has a disability:
... we need to understand that disability and learning
impairments occur on a spectrum, and it is often those with moderate
disabilities who are at greatest risk. This is because their disability or
learning need might not be immediately visible and therefore might not be
identified or supported. We have heard examples where children who have hearing
problems are being punished because of their impairments and because they are
struggling to keep up, and when that happens a child gets branded. We call that
the 'bad black kid syndrome', where they think that they are being naughty, but
rather it is actually a physical effort that they cannot keep up with their
Some of these issues also impact upon students from non-English speaking
(NES) and culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. The
Multicultural Disability Advocacy Association (MDAA) noted that parents from
NES or CALD backgrounds are often unaware of the rights of, and supports
available to, students with disability. Families from these backgrounds suffer
from a lack of a voice in decision-making processes.
Furthermore, as MDAA noted, poor experiences for students with
disability from NES or CALD backgrounds have flow-on impacts including social
Where children and young people with disability are excluded
from school for disciplinary reasons or experience other barriers to attending
school with their peers, especially in communities which are not traditionally
open to discussing disability and in which academic performance is highly
valued, families can become isolated.
The committee is concerned that variables such as financial means,
geographic location and cultural background can make such a profound difference
to the availability of education for students with disability. This poses
significant questions of equity in Australia's education system, which create
and maintain systemic disadvantages for some groups of Australians.
While acknowledging that the reality of Australia's geography makes it
difficult for those living in regional, rural and remote areas to access
services, there is no excuse for not providing all children with an appropriate
education. The committee is particularly concerned that indigenous students
with disability fall through the cracks because educators lack sufficient
training to recognise when children have a disability and require support.
The experience of numerous parents in submissions to this inquiry was
that many schools find ways to unofficially exclude students. This pattern is
referred to as 'informal gatekeeping'.
This is in direct contravention of the Disability Discrimination Act
1992, the National Disability Standards for Education 2005 and state
legislation, which oblige all Australian schools to accept the enrolment of students
regardless of their level of disability.
Asked what was the greatest barrier in education for their own children,
and for children with disabilities in general, parents told the committee that
merely enrolling their child caused significant problems:
I would say getting in the door, because you cannot even get
in the door.
I would agree. It is getting in the door, but it starts even
before you get in the door.
When you walk into a school, you get greeted by closed doors
as soon as they know you have a child with disability... it is no good having
policies, guidelines, disability standards and all the various acts and the
human rights if at the school gate it does not happen.
Lifestart, an advocacy and support-provision group in New South Wales,
found from their experience that unofficial gatekeeping takes many forms,
refusal to enrol a child because of their disability or delay;
only offering part-time hours;
calling parents to pick their child up early or take their child
suspending / expelling a child from school;
having a child spend extended periods of time outside the
not including a child on excursions, in assemblies or other
a child being ostracised in the playground; and
the use of restrictive / restricted practices.
All of these practices, Lifestart noted, 'preclude a child from
achieving their educational outcomes, set them apart from their peers, [and]
lead to a sense of social isolation and low self esteem'.
Ms Melissa Smith, the parent of a child with disability, told the
committee that she had trouble enrolling her daughter in both primary and
secondary school as a consequence of such practices:
[The primary school counsellor] then proceeds to tell me that
they will give it a go, but we know it is not going to work. She even took the
time to get me the enrolment forms for the local specialist school to save me
I am now enrolling Lily in high school. I have had one school say
no and another maybe, and here it is again that I have an issue with the
current role of school counsellors. Even before asking what high school I was
looking at, the school counsellor told me that, if I were actually putting
Lily's needs first, I would be looking at a special school or, at the very
least, a high school that has a unit. After I mentioned that I was looking at
just a mainstream
high school, she told me that she did not realise they take kids like Lily—like
Lily is some other form of child. This conversion was also directly in front of
Other parents commented that, while their chosen school was unable to
officially reject their child's enrolment, the process was draining and made to
feel like a battle. For parents and families of students with disability, they
are always made acutely aware of the costs and troubles the school will incur
in providing education, in a way that other parents are not
From the outset it was made very clear to us in all other
settings outside of the special school – there is insufficient resources to
We were clearly advised that she would not be able to have
access to a full time aide (by both public and Catholic schools) – despite the
serious concerns about her safety and the safety of other children.
This made us feel like we had to fight from the outset as we
were aware, and all of the support people in her life (kinder, Paediatrician,
Early Intervention, Speech Pathologist) were also aware that her safety would
be significantly at risk if she did not have an adult capable of supervising
her at all times, including at play times, when she started school.
It was also devastating as from the outset it made us feel
like Scarlett was a burden and we were a burden. The conversation would
inevitably turn to money – which again reinforced that we were a burden. This
also had an impact on our elder daughter who did not understand why it was such
a big deal for Scarlett to come to school – and that’s a significant point –
children and families without disabilities do not need to have these
conversations. They are welcomed, knowing it will take resources to support
them, but that’s ok, but for those with disabilities the systems has already
deemed that the resources required are too much (as they are not available),
and as such – the systemic discrimination exists before you even set foot
within a school.
Another parent noted that for students whose disability does not attract
additional funding, this practice of gatekeeping can be particularly
When the school was given the official diagnosis the very
first words from the Principals mouth were 'what funding is available?' When no
funding was available for [Tourette's Syndrome] the school quickly became
disinterested in assisting my son in any way or accommodating his needs. School
became a constant battle and instead of assistance it felt as if every effort
was being made to make us want to take our son elsewhere as they simply did not
want to, and were incapable of offering the assistance required. We had a very
Ms Sue O'Reilly, of Down Syndrome Victoria, told the committee that
gatekeeping is one of the major issues her organisation hears about from
families. As noted above, parents of students with disability are frequently
told that providing an education to their children is too expensive for their
school, and thus are discouraged from enrolling them:
The biggest hurdle that families have is enrolling their
child into their local mainstream school—that is very stressful for them—and
then keeping them in a mainstream school. Some are told point blank that their
child should be at a special school, or they are not given the enrolment
details, or they are given the financial story around why the school cannot
accommodate their child.
For families, once their child is born with Down syndrome,
the whole starting school process from preschool is incredibly stressful. We
have three education consultants who work with families during that time,
trying to make them aware of their legal rights and advocate for them. But,
ultimately, we do not have a lot of power, apart from trying to support them.
That is the most frustrating thing for families. We know of schools that are
openly doing the wrong thing, but they are not accountable.
Family Advocacy, a New South Wales-based advocacy organisation for
people with disability, also reflected on this issue, and pointed out that,
while contemporary discrimination is more veiled than it once was,
discrimination against students with disabilities still occurs:
Discrimination continues in a much more subtle way than it
once did. Education providers may not inform families of children with
disabilities that they have a choice to be enrolled in the regular class and
that there are special measures to provide appropriate support. Often families
will be heavily persuaded to enrol their child in a support unit or segregated
school and told by multiple school professionals such as principals, teachers
and school counsellor that by considering a regular class for their child would
be detrimental to both their child and the other 'non-disabled' children.
Reflecting on her research in the area, Dr Rozanna Lilley, who has
published on the topic of parental experiences of gatekeeping in schools,
The practice of informally discouraging families from sending
their children with autism to mainstream schools continues in all three sectors
of the NSW education system – government, Independent and Catholic. Maternal
narratives of school exclusion suggest that mothers were often actively pushed
around by school gatekeepers who adopted a range of strategies to keep out
children diagnosed with autism.
This practice, Dr Lilley found, had flow-on effects beyond the actual
difficulties parents faced in enrolling their children in schools:
The ongoing and pervasive stigmatisation of students with
autism and their families by some school gatekeepers and educators has a very
negative emotional impact. Mothers' school exclusion narratives point to the
salience of experiences of stigmatisation in the lives of families of children
Referring to other research done in the area, Dr Lilley noted how a
common finding was that autism becomes, for students on the spectrum, a 'master
status', whereby it serves to override other elements of the child's
In other words, a student's autism is seen as their primary, or only,
The consequence of this, then, is a tendency for children with autism to
be rejected by the school system:
When a parent mentions the word 'autism', the process of
enrolment is often entirely redefined. School gatekeepers respond in a variety
of ways, many indicating panic at the potential disorder that may be unleashed
on their school by the mythicised student with ASD. There is concern that the
student will use up already stretched resources with their learning
difficulties and behaviour problems. Perhaps most fundamentally, gatekeepers
are uncertain about what a diagnosis of autism implies for a child’s ability to
learn and to conform. In this situation, many react defensively with an effort
to keep the child out. Parents who are advocating for their child may encounter
a mild display of slights, snubs and untactful remarks. Or they may experience
a series of hostile and concerted efforts to move them elsewhere in the system.
Parents also reported to the committee that they could be given the
impression from schools that their child was less entitled to an education than
other students. Asked if the school would view her daughter as entitled to an
education, like any other, one witness told the committee:
I think they would say that, but it is that contradictory
nature of it; you can say what you want until you are blue in the face but if
you then also say, 'We want to enrol her part-time,' that tells me that you
treat her differently from every other person in that school.
The committee notes with great concern that this practice serves to
further discriminate against and isolate children with disability and their
It is the view of the committee that far more needs to be done to
enforce the law prohibiting the prevention of enrolment of students.
Culture of the school
A point made repeatedly to the committee during the course of this
inquiry was that the biggest difference between students having strong
educational attainment and outcomes and not, is the culture of the school they
attend. Very often, this culture comes directly from the school principal and
other leaders making a priority of inclusive education for students with
Witnesses from People with Disability Australia spoke of the importance
of the school's culture in making a difference in that school's ability to
offer strong education outcomes to students with disabilities:
I think it is also about the general culture or approach to
disability in schools. For example, are there people with disability on the
board of governors of schools or not? Are there people with disability on
staff, and why wouldn't there be? In terms of teaching and teacher training, it
is also about disability awareness and having disability awareness and
disability confidence throughout the person's teaching experience so that when
a new teacher starts a job at a new school and they see all of these steps
going up to the main gates, they think, 'Why do we have all these steps? This
school is not accessible,' and they say something about it rather than just not
notice it, for example. If a teacher has a new student and that student has a
hearing impairment or is deaf, they do not think: 'What am I going to do? I
don't know how to deal with this.' They just think, 'Okay, that is another
student,' and they are confident in knowing how to approach that situation.
That is as opposed to what I think happens a lot at the moment, where
disability is seen as this extra thing that has to be done—extra work, extra
funding or extra cost. It is always an add-on that needs to be addressed,
rather than just a part of life.
In giving evidence for this inquiry parents often spoke of the
differences they had experienced between different schools as coming down to
the attitudes they encountered, underpinned by a philosophy of genuine
This school is following Georgia's lead and sees itself as
part of a team. They run a unique program. They have a support class, but the
support class does not operate as a support class. It is part of the school.
There are no fences; there is no separate area. The kids do not belong in one
classroom. Georgia is in mainstream but she accesses the English and the
literacy classes, but they are proper English and literacy classes. There are
other kids that come and go. If you go to the school, there is a big panel and
each child has their own program. It would be the learning enrichment centre of
the school. It should not be called a support unit. It is a learning enrichment
centre, because other people come and go, and teachers will come in there and
get information. If any other teachers need help with modification, with the
curriculum out in mainstream, they will come to the specialised staff in this
area, but they all do not belong in that area... It is the philosophy of
inclusion done in a very unique and diverse way.
Another parent, asked what made one school different from another,
Attitude and culture. It was acceptable. I know primary
school is a lot different from high school. I firmly believe it is the attitude
of the principal to education. At that very first greeting, even at the admin
desk, having a child with disability should not be the issue; the issue must be
the education. We come to educate our kids. We are tired of having it put to
our faces that the only placement for our children is in supported education or
special schools. That is the first thing you get. 'Have you been to the
district office, thought about supported education units or special schools?'
Actually, I do not want that for my son. That is not the right setting.
A student who spoke to the committee described one school he had
That was good—actually, 'good' is an understatement. It was
fantastically brilliant. I learnt lots, had fun, contributed and made great
friends. The school and the principal, Mr Warren, believe that all kids should
learn. They were good at recognising the extra support I needed, and I just
felt like I belonged like all the other kids. We had our moments, but Mr Warren
would always listen to me and give me a fair hearing. If he thought I was being
unreasonable, he would tell me why, but he would also change things or send in
the cavalry if I needed it. I felt safe and well liked.
CDA commented that examples of good practice in the education of
students with disability tend to be 'the result of leadership from specific
individuals or schools rather than a system wide approach'.
Asked by the committee how to avoid the problem of a school's attitude
towards students with disabilities resting so heavily on the priorities of one
individual, Down Syndrome Australia responded:
It is complex because this is, ultimately, about cultural
change. I go back to the National Disability Strategy. It talks beautifully to
the nature of the cultural change that needs to occur in this community.
The committee notes that school principals have an important role to
play in establishing a culture of support and inclusion in their school, and
commends those who do this. The committee heard evidence of many principals and
schools who demonstrate what is possible – educational practices that provide
the best possible options for students with disability – and illustrate how schools
can be beacons in the community for their inclusion of students with
Education rather than babysitting
A related concern shared by multiple parents, advocacy groups and other
submitters was a belief that children with disabilities received babysitting,
rather than an education, from the school system.
This is in part a consequence of low or, in some cases, no expectations
of students with disabilities – that educators and other students fail to
recognise students with disabilities as capable of learning. As will be further
discussed below, another factor is that teachers are unaware of how best to
educate students with disability, and therefore may not adequately take into
account the different learning needs of these students.
CDA, in discussing Australia's 'systemic culture of low expectations',
Ableism is evident in the Australian education system, which
has a deeply entrenched culture of low expectations regarding students with
disability. The value of education, which is so highly thought of and applied
to children without disability, is often seen as inapplicable or irrelevant for
students with disability.
Similarly, advocacy group JFA Purple Orange noted the importance of
students with disability receiving an education which will prepare them for a
'valued and productive adult life', but pointed out that too often this does
not happen, as 'Students and their families are often beset with messages from
others about what is not possible, about having lower expectations because of
the circumstances of disability'.
Ms Stephanie Gotlib of CDA discussed the negative effects on students
when their learning needs are not taken seriously:
The next school he went to—anther autistic-specific
school—asked me why he needed to learn how to read. Why did I want my child to
learn how to read? His educational program was put in his bag on a hook.
Throwing a ball—I can remember showing it to a very strong advocate, who you
will see later this morning. She thought I had done it as some joke where his
whole half year was to put his bag on his hook, put his lunchbox in his bag
after lunch, washing his hands 20 times—things you teach your kid at home. But
there were such low expectations.
We finally moved him in grade 2 to his local primary school
for a range of reasons, and he was given the opportunity to learn to read and
write. The principal quips that it helps if you are taught, and it is true. He
was never taught. He has got very low literacy. He has got significant
developmental delay—I know that—but he has functional literacy and numeracy. I
do not need to justify why he should be able to learn how to read and write.
His world is greatly enriched through his learning but he was denied the
opportunity because of these assumptions that someone with a cognitive
impairment should not learn. It was disgraceful.
Witness from Down Syndrome Australia also commented on this issue when
providing evidence to the committee:
Similarly, the biggest predictor of success of a child with
an intellectual disability—and it is the same for Aboriginal people as well, in
fact, any child—is that people around them have expectation of them. This is
where it is about changing the way people approach things and it is about
having inclusive practices—not treating children as different and separate or
about supporting them as a need. It needs to be about a whole-of-school,
The committee noted that low expectations of – and therefore reduced
options for - students with disability was a recurring point:
CHAIR: I was reading through some of the horrific
examples that you gave us. It came up a couple of times that a curriculum was
modified without any assessment being made of the child's ability to handle a
full curriculum. I am just wondering, how often does that happen—where it is
automatically assumed that the curriculum has to be modified but where there is
no actual test or any rigor to that assessment? What is your experience of
Ms Evans-McCall: Quite a few times, but also it is
quite often just that assumption—regardless of whether it is around
curriculum—around aspiration as well. So quite often, the young people do not
even get to choose certain subjects because they have already made the
assumption that they are not going to be able to do it—rather than letting them
have a go.
As the Gold Coast Dyslexia Support Group noted, students with disability
can grow frustrated, embarrassed and ashamed of their difficulties with aspects
of learning, leading to poor educational outcomes and will often lead to the
student 'disengag[ing] from learning'.
Another parent noted that after their son moved from a mainstream school
to an autism-specific school the approach to his education changed
significantly, and for the worse:
Of course with the changes, the curriculum has changed. My
son no longer has literacy and numeracy as part of his education. Also gone are
any subjects of interest, such as science, history and geography. There is very
little to engage my son at school now, so he won't learn much, but at least he
gets to enjoy trampolining at Bounce, rock climbing or other fun activities.
His class is often told to pick a book of the shelf and read quietly, tax payer
dollars wasted! I did ask if my son could do comprehension and maths work instead
of reading and the teacher was willing but had to order worksheets for him.
They do have some good programmes to teach life skills, such as travel
training, but I'm not happy with the school as I see very little to prepare my
son for the future. His funding is wasted as it's not helping him as it should.
I have no real options when it comes to schools as none will prepare my son for
a productive future. I consider school as respite, and if my son learns
anything, well then I'm thrilled. He complains that he never learns anything
and he is worried about his future too.
It's distressing for me to think so much money is going to my
son's school to support and educate my son and I see very little benefit for
him and his future.
Yet another parent told the committee of how her son's school experience
largely consisted of sitting in front of children's movies:
There are issues of the constant use of DVDs as a learning
tool. Ben at 16 years of age was watching Frozen and The Lion King—totally
A further way in which this failure to take seriously the education of
students with disability is manifest is through schools refusing to accept
students on a full-time basis. While for all students, full-time enrolment is
both the legal obligation and the norm, many parents found that, for students
with disability, this obligation was not met.
CDA's submission noted numerous instances of this practice, as schools
found ways to exclude students with disability from full-time attendance, and
therefore a meaningful education. Some of the examples included were:
My son...has only attended school 2.5 days per week this year,
as that is all his school says they can do to meet his needs. The flow on
effects to families (earning ability, stress etc.) are horrible – Parent.
I had a terrible experience with my son's high school last
year they would only allow him at school for two hours per day – Parent.
The school won't let (my daughter) attend past 12 noon when
aide time 'runs out' – Parent.
A Catholic primary school said he could no longer attend full
time because half his funding was being given to another child. The second
primary school said he couldn't attend full time because he would run around or
sit at the front of assemblies and also could not attend when the school had
visitors (because he was a) disruption. The third NSW primary school was one
hour’s travel and wouldn't allow him to retreat to the classroom when he became
overwhelmed during breaks – Parent.
Similarly, the Association for Children with a Disability reflected on
the experiences of parents whose child was 'only allowed to attend for the
equivalent time that an aide is present with their child at school' and that
some parents have had to quit the paid workforce 'because the school has called
them so often to take the child home'.
The committee is shocked and saddened by the evidence provided of
schools failing to recognise their responsibilities to educate all children and
disappointed by the underlying assumption of some that students with disability
do not require or deserve to have their future life, especially career
prospects, taken seriously.
Lack of awareness and understanding
Multiple submitters told this inquiry that a significant barrier for
students with disability in accessing education, is widespread ignorance of the
Disability Standards 2005 (the Standards) or the right of all children to have
access to education.
The Standards were developed under the Disability Discrimination Act
1992, and set out the obligations of education and training providers in
relation to providing access to education for students with disability.
The key provision of the Standards requires all education providers to
'make reasonable adjustments to assist students with disability to participate
in education on the same basis as other students'.
The aspects of education included in the Standards are:
curriculum development, accreditation and delivery;
student support services; and
elimination of harassment and victimisation.
The Standards are reviewed every five years, including in 2015. The 2015
review made a number of key findings, including:
The Standards remain an important component of a wider policy
landscape seeking to ensure people with disability are able to access and
participate in education on the same basis as others. Stakeholders provided
near universal support for the Standards as a regulatory tool to set down the
rights of people with disability and obligations of education providers;
Awareness among educators and education providers is relatively
high, although there remains a need to continue effort on supporting
development of the skills to interpret and apply the Standards in practice.
Educators are generally positive about the value of the Standards to their work
and the reference point they provide. However, some aspects of the Standards
are less clear than others, and there is room to clarify areas of ambiguity;
Awareness of the Standards among people with disability and their
associates is patchy, and is likely to be lower among groups who experience
additional disadvantage, including people who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait
Islander, from new communities, from low socio-economic backgrounds or who live
in rural and remote Australia; and
A large number of submissions were received from parents of
school-aged children with learning disabilities who expressed frustration at
the limited effective supports available to their children. Many submissions
referred to school-based practices that on face value breach the Standards and
had resulted in a significantly negative impact on their child.
As the Redfern Legal Centre noted:
The introduction of the Disability Standards in 2005
represented a positive commitment to address concerns over access to education
for students with disabilities. However, in the years since their development,
there has not been significant adoption or adherence to the standards, with
many advocacy groups suggesting the standards are too vague or that education
providers are not sufficiently cognisant of obligations arising under the
standards. As a result, many education providers can misinform parents or
carers that they do not have the facilities or capacity to appropriately
provide education to students with disabilities, and therefore deny enrolment,
apparently unaware that the standards require education providers to be
responsible for the implementation of necessary adjustments.
Ms Therese Sands, of People with Disability Australia, argued that the
Standards are not having as strong an affect as they should do because:
I think it is still true to say that they are not well
understood systemically—across the schooling system. And how to apply them is
also an issue. So if they are not understood, they are not well known and it is
not clear how they are applied—it means they exist in law, but they are not
being implemented in practice. But there are also aspects of the standards that
need constant review.
Aside from the specific Standards, multiple submitters/witnesses argued
that many in the education system are unaware of, or do not consider, the right
of children to receive education in a form suitable to them.
This point was made by the Redfern Legal Centre, drawing on Australia's
Disability Discrimination Act (1992):
Disability Discrimination Legislation makes clear that
education should be accessible and inclusive for all students, including those
with a disability, and the Disability Standards provide significant guidance to
assist education providers to adhere to this legislation and understand their
obligations. Given this, it is inequitable that students, parents and
caregivers should be required to bear the burden associated with ill-equipped
or noncompliant schools.
More broadly than understanding of legal obligations under the
Standards, another barrier identified was of teachers' lack of understanding or
willingness to implement adjustments for students. A frequently made point was
that many in the school system – regardless of sector – lacked awareness of the
issues involved in education for students with disability, and that this
problem needs to be addressed by adding to or improving teachers' training on
One parent identified teachers' unwillingness to accommodate the
recommended adjustments as the greatest barrier for their child's education:
For me it would be the school denying adjustments written by
specialists. They either set them aside or they just flat-out say no.
Another parent, who is also a Clinical Psychologist, related a similar
I have heard clients in my professional practice, as well as
from other parents of special needs children, say time and time again that the
school or teaching staff are either unwilling or unable to provide adequate
understanding and commitment to support children with disabilities at their
schools. In our personal experience, we have heard a school official state that
in primary school, the students with disabilities 'can just get by' by doing
alternative activities at school, rather than adjusting the academic curriculum
for those with disabilities. If individuals are to have any chance at a
productive life, we need to plant the seeds in the early childhood years.
Witnesses from Down Syndrome Australia commented on the problem of
teachers and other school staff being unable, or unwilling, to access resources
which could help them meet the education needs of students with disabilities:
I think that the Department of Education across Australia
have done great things, obviously with the national collection of data. They
have put a lot of money into developing the resources for the teachers, but a
lot of them are not being used. I will go into schools and ask teachers if they
have accessed any of those resources, and some of them have not. They are not
aware of them. We hold professional development days for teachers. A lot of
them cannot get access to that because they are not given release time.
Or you might have an educator going out there to talk to the
educator in the school about giving them some strategies to work with the
child. They are not given any class release time. Our educators might be
chasing them around on their lunchtimes trying to impart this information,
because it is not valued. That is of great frustration to us. We have this
service that we can get being funded by the Victorian education department and
we are going into schools trying to impart this knowledge, but the teachers
say, 'I've got all of these other kids here that I have to teach. You're
talking to me about one child.' That sort of attitude is very difficult.
Submitters noted that students would benefit simply by teachers being
more aware of issues students with disability face, which would allow the
teachers to focus more on education than on behaviour management.
Asked what should be the top priority for teachers, Mrs Andrea
Evans-McCall of the National Disability Coordination Officer program suggested:
It is the whole disability awareness factor, especially under
the autism spectrum, because a great focus is on behaviour management rather
than actually teaching the individual how to learn. And that point of view is
really just ignorance, and partially fear based, because you will do anything
to avoid the conflict in the classroom, and behaviour management—it is just
Similarly, People with Disability Australia argued strongly that
understanding of disability standards and inclusive education practices in a
broad sense should be central to teacher education and training:
If we are going to say that inclusive education should be at
the core of our education system then it should be at the core of our teacher
training... It should not be an optional extra or a selective stream that a
student teacher might decide to undertake. If we are saying that there needs to
be an outcome of inclusive education and there needs to be data collected that
shows we are achieving it, that there are indicators that show we are achieving
it, that schools have to demonstrate it, that it is built into our testing and
our standardised testing across schools, then it becomes something that is not
just an add-on; it becomes something that is critical to the education of
teachers and it is embedded in the curriculums.
The committee notes that a key barrier to students' achievements at
school is a lack of even basic awareness in some schools of the rights and
needs of students with disability. This lack of awareness has significant and
unacceptable impacts on the education of students.
The committee is of the view that awareness of the rights and needs of
students with disability should be a uniform and key component of all initial
and ongoing teacher and school administrator training.
A related issue raised by submitters to this inquiry is of the
importance of a relationship between teachers (and schools more generally) and
the families of students with disabilities. Multiple parents shared their
frustrations at not being adequately consulted about – or often even informed
of – decisions made regarding their children's education.
As the Redfern Legal Centre noted:
A crucial area demonstrating the lack of adherence to the
Disability Standards is in the area of communication between education
providers and the parents of students with a disability. The requirement for
consultation between education providers and students with a disability, or an
associate of the student, is evident throughout the Disability Standards. These
standards recognise the important perspective students and their parents can
contribute in determining strategies and approaches to the provision of
education to specific students with a disability. This is of particular concern
for students with a disability, who may, in some circumstances, have difficulty
communicating to their parents any difficulties or concerns they are
experiencing. Parents and caregivers will therefore be even more reliant on
consultation with education providers to grasp an accurate sense of the
Despite this, RLC has encountered multiple clients who have
felt insufficiently consulted on matters relating to students with a
disability, and, frequently, are only contacted once situations have escalated
to a more serious level. This can cause significant distress for students,
parents and education providers, and could be avoided through close adherence
to the requirements for ongoing and detailed consultation between education
providers and associates of the student.
Some parents reported that their relationship with their child's school
was based on feeling shame, rather than a productive relationship concerned
I was working with a family not that long ago and I was
struck by something the mother said. She said that every time the phone rings
she gets the shivers, because the only reason the school calls is when her son
has thrown a chair. For her the relationship with the school was around shame.
That is how she experienced it—and that there was no relationship built outside
of just those key incidents. Because we do not have support for students at the
earlier levels, that is what the system is relying on—a more punitive approach,
which just further excludes students.
Lifestart made as one of their main recommendations that schools need to
prioritise improving both formal and informal communications with parents and
carers. They pointed to the resources developed by The Education Institute at
the University of Canberra in collaboration with the Department of Education
and Training to help teachers identify the best ways to forge collaborative
relationships with parents.
The committee received multiple submissions from parents and carers
which described the use of restrictive practices, such as physical restraint or
isolation in separate rooms, and abuse in schools against students with
disability. While not strictly falling within the terms of reference for this
inquiry, and noting the recent Senate Community Affairs References Committee
report into violence, abuse and neglect against people with disability in
institutional settings, the committee strongly condemns this practice.
Further, the committee notes that students suffering violence, abuse or
neglect in the school setting will face significant and concerning barriers in
their access to education, alongside the other barriers discussed in more
detail in this chapter.
The committee is deeply concerned at the number of barriers which can
face students with disability and their families as they attempt to access
education, including financial means, geographic or cultural considerations,
the gatekeeping practices and lack of awareness of students' needs faced by
many families and the failure of some in the education system to take seriously
the rights of all students to a proper education which will set them up for
The committee recognises the challenges faced by students with
disability, their families and sometimes their schools. However, it is the firm
view of the committee that each and every child deserves an education and that
further attention is required to address the concerning issues raised in this
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