The true costs of difficulties with accessing education
'It has been 15 years since I left school and I am now 26. I
have not once had a job. I fear the only way I can work is to work as
self-employed because then at least I won't reflect badly or embarrass anyone'.
The barriers to education faced by students with disability and their
families are significant and inevitably incur costs. The committee heard
evidence about costs affecting students, families and the broader Australian community
throughout this inquiry, and this chapter will highlight some of the more
significant of these.
It is important to remember that these costs are not limited to
financial costs, but are many and varied. They include social, developmental,
intellectual and emotional costs.
By failing to properly educate students with disability in their school
years, Australia is setting up these students for a lifetime of disadvantage,
unemployment, low levels of mental and physical health and social isolation, along
with ongoing welfare dependence. Poor education access at an early age will
have long-term effects on the students, their families and the broader
Australian community. For these reasons, the committee is convinced that access
to education for all students must be improved.
Costs to students
The variety of effects on students who have been unable to sufficiently
attain educational outcomes from the school system is wide and includes issues
such as intellectual and social development and future employment or earning
potential. This is of concern because it suggests that students with disability
may be condemned to a lifetime of disadvantage because of early failures to
gain an education.
Mr Sebastian Cordoba from the Australian Association of Social Workers
told the committee about why this issue is so important:
There are marked and profound benefits across the life span
when students with a disability have a positive experience with their
schooling. When students are fully engaged with their education they can
develop a greater sense of self-worth, improved mental health outcomes and
better career pathways and create strong social support networks that lead to
greater independence and less reliance on welfare and disability services.
The Redfern Legal Centre outlined some of the benefits, and the converse
costs, of students' capacity or otherwise to access suitable levels of
Outside of the clear imperative to ensure all students have
access to education, including students with disabilities, having inclusive
access to education providers also plays a crucial role in students' social
development, as they interact with staff and peers. While this is of paramount
importance for all students, this is of particularly significance for students
with disabilities who may face social exclusion as a result of their
disabilities. Currently, students with disabilities in mainstream schools
experience incidents of bullying at a higher rate than other students.
Education providers should be alert to the additional support needs of students
with disabilities, particularly in responding to bullying. Appropriate response
and training in this area can lead to a more inclusive education environment
for students with disabilities.
It is also worth noting that, while inclusive educational
experiences can produce positive social, economic and personal benefits for
students with a disability, the converse is also true. That is, a failure to
provide adequate access to education will be actively detrimental to the wellbeing
of students with a disability, causing significant psychological and social
harm with long-term effects.
The Australian Association of Social Workers similarly noted the
benefits of improved educational outcomes for students with disabilities:
There are marked, profound benefits across the life span in
all domains when students with disabilities have a positive personal and
learning experience in school, and further education, training and employment.
Social workers involved in this field observe that when
students with disabilities are seen as valued/valuable members of society,
there are far-reaching, predictable consequences. These include:
students with disabilities grow up
with a sense of self-worth and optimism at school and in the community, linked
to better social experiences and mental health outcomes;
the school community benefits from
a cohesive student body;
the message to society is that all
people are valuable, impacting positively on social capital, inclusion and
acceptance of diversity;
education/learning becomes a
positive experience and students are more likely to seek lifelong learning
opportunities, impacting on their access to employment and reducing welfare
positive relationships in the
school and broader community result in social capital and informal support
structures being established and maintained, leading to less reliance on funded
appropriate levels of support in
school lead to the development of better system-wide pathways to streamline referrals
and structures. As a result, fewer students fall through the gaps in
Down Syndrome Australia noted that Australia, currently and
historically, has not done well in this regard, with the consequence that:
Whilst this is very hard to talk about—it can be depressing,
and it is, no doubt, complex—I also want to bring to your attention the fact
that this is doable. There are other countries in the world who have done a
better job at this. In fact, Australia has one of the lowest educational
attainment rates in the OECD countries and, therefore, not surprisingly, has
one of the lowest employment rates of people with a disability in the OECD.
Clearly these are related.
Witnesses from People with Disability Australia, a major advocacy group,
after noting shortcomings in the education opportunities for students with
disability, pointed out the problems caused by failing to set these students up
... as a result of these multiple failures within the
educational system, children with disability turn into young people with
disability and adults with disability who have greatly reduced life chances,
life choices and opportunities. Those are not just opportunities within the
education system—for example, the ability to transition to vocational education
and training, TAFE, university but also employment. People with disability face
a continuous struggle to gain and maintain employment throughout their lives.
So poor educational opportunities and outcomes can lead to poor and lower
economic security in adult life and it reinforces the low expectations that
there are of people with disability and it reinforces a life experience of
inequality and poverty. It is mentioned in our submission briefly, but the
recent employment figures for people with disability show that only 54 per cent
of people with disability between the ages of 15 and 64 are employed, as
opposed to about 83 per cent of people without disability. Forty-five per cent
of people with disability live at or near the poverty line. A recent OECD
statistic states that Australia is 21 out of 29 countries for employment of
people with disability.
National Disability Services further illustrated this point with the
following statistics on education attainment for students with disabilities:
26% of people with a disability do not go beyond Year 10,
compared to 18% of people without a disability;
36% of people aged 15 -64 years with reported disability had
completed year 12 compared to 60% of people without a disability; and
38% of young people aged 15–24 years with disability either work,
study, or do a combination of both on a full time basis compared to 56% of
young people without disability.
On that point, Mrs Andrea Evans-McCall, of the National Disability
Coordination Officer programme, noted that the career options for students with
disability are often subtly dismissed within the school system and individual
And in a school, the person in charge of the young people
with a disability is quite often a support worker, not someone with a qualified
education background. Quite often, we even find that in the careers area:
because they have a disability, the careers teacher does not deal with them;
the person who is the support worker does, and they do not have a career
development qualification. So they are just sort of left to be looked after by
someone who is probably loving and caring but does not necessarily have the
qualifications that they need to.
Clearly this does not acknowledge the rights and needs of individuals to
be provided with the skills to manage life after school.
The St Vincent de Paul Society National Council noted that people in
Australia with a disability face significant levels of exclusion and structural
For example, people with a disability are less likely to
participate in the labour force, and more likely to be unemployed. If employed,
on average, those living with disability earn less than those without a
disability. People with disability are also far more likely to experience
abuse, including sexual abuse, and also face worse housing outcomes.
The St Vincent de Paul Society National Council also pointed out that
disability tends to intersect with other 'indicators of vulnerability',
including gender and indigeneity:
For example, women with disabilities are less likely than
their male counterparts to receive a senior secondary or tertiary education,
and over 51% of women with a disability earn less than $200 per week compared
to 36% of men with a disability. Similarly, one in three Indigenous Australians
is likely to experience discrimination in any year, compared with one in five
members of the general population.
After pointing to research on the issue, Dr Lisa-Marie Scott, a Clinical
Psychologist who was worked in the disability and mental health sectors for
nearly two decades, noted that:
those with disabilities want to be involved in both education
and employment activities. It does not take referencing from numerous research
papers for us to understand that most people want to feel included and needed
in society. Children and adults with disabilities are no exception.
In her submission to this inquiry, a former student with disability
wrote of the ways in which the attitudes she encountered affected her:
[I] was banned from going on work experience, so instead I
was forced to remain at school doing odd jobs around the school grounds with
the school staff, such as laundry, gardening, library, etc. These actions have
scarred me for life. Because of these events I have been given the impression
and message that I cannot hold down a job, I will reflect poorly on myself and
my employer and I am of no use in the community, so despite my desire to have a
job the treatment I received at school has left me terrified and unable to work.
It has been 15 years since I left school and I am now 26. I
have not once had a job. I fear the only way I can work is to work as
self-employed because then at least I won't reflect badly or embarrass anyone.
School has left me feeling ashamed and worthless and I wonder if I will ever be
able to work.
The committee notes with concern the wide range of costs borne by
students with disability whose education fails them. School should be an
experience which sets students up for the rest of their lives, but for many
students with disability, this is not the case.
Costs to families
The committee also received evidence of the associated costs to
families. These take two primary forms: financial impacts and emotional
A major theme in submissions to this inquiry from parents and advocacy
groups was that families of students with disability can incur substantial and
often ongoing costs connected to education access. For most families, this can
result in financial hardship, but it also highlights concerning questions
around equity, since the capacity of families to bear these costs varies
The committee heard that parents with the means to be able to do so
could spend considerable sums to improve their children's access to education:
Some of the women that I interviewed over three years were
providing one-on-one support. These were wealthy families, basically. One
mother I spoke to was providing more than $25,000 a year in wages to a
paraprofessional within the system. Part of that is to do with therapy choices
in autism—people who go for applied behavioural analysis. This costs an
enormous amount of money. It is a gold-standard treatment. The model of that is
that you have 40 hours a week in the home of one-on-one. Then you continue some
of that through school, and then hopefully you gradually fade that out. Parents
who are committed to that and able to afford it were often continuing that in
the government system.
However, not all families are financially able to support their
children's additional needs in the same ways or to the same extent. As Dr
Lilley pointed out:
Current inequalities in access to support and services for
students diagnosed with autism are of great concern. Some families whose
children attended government schools were either providing funds to pay for
extra paraprofessional support or employing their own staff to work one-on-one
with their child through much of the school day. There is a clear inequity to
situations in which the socioeconomic positioning of families may be an
important determinant of the resources and supports a student receives, even in
the government sector.
For instance, the committee heard from the Association for Behaviour
Analysis Australia, who noted that ongoing therapy from a behavioural analyst,
while it can provide considerable benefit for the child, would cost 'an
The early-intervention ages where therapy is recommended
generally are 30 to 40 hours a week, and that cost could be around $50,000 a year
for the parent, which is a massive amount. Some parents can sustain that for a
year, two years or three years. Others can only do a few months of that.
Another parent told the committee of the costs she had incurred and the
impact that has had on their family:
I am a sole parent with three children. My son NEEDS to see a
psychologist on a weekly basis and he NEEDS speech therapy sessions on an
ongoing basis. So this is what we must 'choose' to pay for. The money for these
interventions comes after rent and food. We don't have anything left for
swimming lessons, play centre visits, blueberries, new shoes, holidays,
haircuts..... My son's funding covers the cost of an aide for three days so he
cannot go to school for the other two days a week.
Speaking on behalf of the Gold Coast Dyslexia Support Group, parents
broke down some of the costs commonly borne by families:
Many children are so distressed by their school or at school
that they require clinical psychologists for anxiety disorders and chronic
depression. Parents outlay large amounts of money to provide support that does
not occur in our schools. An assessment with an educational psychologist can
cost anywhere from $800 up to $2,000. Private tuition with a specialist teacher
costs between $70 and $120 per hour. None of this is subsidised under Medicare
or can be claimed as a tax deduction. This financial cost is worn solely by the
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.
Aside from the additional costs incurred, many families also experience
a substantial drop in total household income as a consequence of their efforts
to improve their child's access to education.
Most particularly, this occurs because one parent – often the mother –
leaves the paid workforce in order to homeschool their child (or children) who
has been otherwise unable to access education through the school system. One
mother explained the consequences of this for her and the whole family to the
Homeschooling means that I cannot work, I cannot save, I have
no future and I cannot study, because it is one on one—there is no down time.
Another parent noted that consequence of the inadequate support their
son was receiving at school was that:
I gave up my fulltime job as a Senior Environmental Health
Officer, which I had held with the Local Council for 13years, to be home to
support and battle for my son’s education.
A further parent noted that, because her child received inadequate
support at school, she had to leave her executive-level job to home-school her
child, while also incurring additional support costs.
As substantial as these financial costs are for many families, witnesses
gave evidence about the emotional impacts on their families as a consequence of
the struggles they faced in attempting to improve the educational prospects of
their children with disability.
For many parents and other carers who shared their experiences with this
committee, the battle to improve their children's education access – and
therefore prospects – dominated their time, energy and emotional reserves. Many
parents and carers recounted how their own experiences led them to found or
join advocacy or support movements for families in similar positions. In many
cases, involvement in these groups also served as an information-sharing
service, often the only way parents could learn more about their child's
education options and prospects.
As noted by a parent and advocate, Mrs Leonie Ponder:
I ran an ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] support group on the
Sunshine Coast. When I started there were 250 families; there are now over 700.
For about three years in a row we had, on average, a family a week drop out of
education and go into home schooling because it was just failing kid after kid
after kid. And there are marriages failing because of it, as well. The stress
Another parent pointed out to the committee that the difficulties they
faced in accessing education for her daughter were on top of all the other
struggles faced by parents of children with disability:
You are talking about families. It is really hard to go watch
your child on life support. Lily has epilepsy. She stopped breathing. She has
had brain damage. We have had such traumatic experiences. Then I have to turn
up to school on the Monday and smile and fight more, when you are
constantly—and it is not just education; you are doing it in health; you are
doing it in all facets. That is not to mention the 90 per cent divorce rate for
This was echoed by other parents, who wrote of the widespread sense of
exclusion and the consequent emotional toll felt by the whole family:
From the outset, this transition has been a very stressful
and isolating process for our family. We have already experienced
discrimination in other parts of our life such as sporting clubs, and that’s
one of the issues that is hard for others who don’t experience it to see...
feeling like we are a burden, and thus less welcome is not the exclusive domain
of schools. This occurs in many aspects of our daily lives and the individual
experiences each take a toll, but the collective experience leaves us feeling
exhausted, overwhelmed and at times feeling like we can barely get through the
day. These feelings do not come from Scarlett, or from Down syndrome. We have a
beautiful daughter who is the light of our lives. These feelings come almost
entirely from the social experience of having a family member with disability
in our society.
The emotional impact on the students themselves will rarely be limited
to the school setting, as the Australian Association of Social Workers noted of
students with disability who have not received adequate support at school:
Typically the child's negative experience at school will
spill over into the home environment, adding to family stress. At the same
time, the family is stretched to commit additional time and effort to advocate
for their child’s support needs in the school environment.
The committee also heard that some families, after many years of
struggling to access education for their children, eventually find themselves
unable to continue to fight:
They are told that they can have that dual enrolment with the
special school and the mainstream, but they are excluded from things like
excursions and camps. So they are not really part of the whole school
community. The pressure is really on them to move across to the special school.
We have a really low success rate in secondary school. The transition into
secondary school is made much harder... We have had a boy who has been at a
really good secondary school in Melbourne, and he has gotten through year 7 and
year 8, but the family has given up now. It has been a constant battle for us
trying to work with that school to keep him there. They have had SSGs and the
local specialist school representative there to meet with the family without
even advising the family that he was going to be there. So the pressure has
been on from day 1. The family has fought that battle, but they have given in.
They are just battle-weary now. They also have other children they have to
think about. It is just so unfair that any family should have to go through
A further consequence of these long battles on behalf of their children
is that many families suffer negative effects across other areas as well, most
Notwithstanding the stress, that puts other pressures on the
system. That leads to ill health and that costs money. That is what I am saying
to you. It is bad enough at this point, when we are still in the process of
wanting to advocate strongly. But when you get to the point where you feel like
you are giving in, how does that feel? What are the compounding impacts of how
you have felt over many years on the entire family? It is not just the person
with the disability; it is the whole family. Again, I will remind you—and you
are probably well aware—that the health of carers in this country is amongst
the worst as well, and these are the reasons why. It may not be a cost to the
education system, but it costs money elsewhere in the system.
The committee notes with concern the severe financial stress placed on
families as they seek the best educational outcomes for their children. The
committee was dismayed to read and hear the evidence from so many families
whose financial position has been negativity affected in this way. For many families,
the costs of educating one or more of their children has impacted on the whole
family, potentially disadvantaging all of them in both the short and long term.
While the committee commends those parents and carers who have founded
or joined support movements, advocacy groups or other organisations, helping
both themselves and others, this widespread need indicates that the support
offered to families of children with disability is inadequate. The emotional
impacts on parents, carers and other siblings, as well as on the children with
disability themselves, cannot be overstated.
Costs to society
There are broader social costs in addition to the personal costs faced
by students who have been unable to fully access education because of their
disability and their families.
Most particularly, as discussed earlier, students without an adequate
education will find attaining employment difficult. While this primarily
affects the individual and their family, a further result is that they require
welfare support for the rest of their life, thereby becoming a net burden on
government revenue. As the National Independent Special Schools Association
School leavers with a disability such as Autism find it very
difficult to secure and then maintain employment without the provision of
support networks. This means that they are more susceptible to being welfare
recipients rather than wage-earners and tax payers. One parent will often have
to give up work to become a full-time carer, again increasing the welfare
Submitters also pointed out the lost resources Australia faces as a
consequence of failing to educate its children:
The irony is that many children who are on the higher end of
the Autism spectrum are extremely intelligent, but are unable to utilise this
intelligence due to their autistic traits being so strong. With the correct
supports in place, these children could achieve so very much – without the
support, their intelligence is wasted.
CDA noted that improved access to education for all students will
benefit society at large 'both socially and economically':
The OECD has cited 'social cohesion and wellbeing' as two
social impacts of education. Further, the same report found that high numbers
of people who do not experience the benefits of education in a society is
associated with higher costs regarding health, unemployment and income support.
Following on from this, society as a whole also loses from the paid
workforce those parents who are forced to resign their job in order to
home-school their child after finding inadequate support in the school system.
Parents who wish to work, and who have valuable skills for the workplace, are
also lost to the system because of inadequate support for students with
disability in many schools.
The committee notes with deep concern the many costs and impacts on
students with disability and their families as a consequence of difficulties
accessing education. This wide range of costs can affect individuals and
families in both the short and long term, and can entrench systemic
The committee further notes that these problems should be of concern to
all Australians, not just on the grounds of our obligation to provide the best
chance in life for all children, but also because of the ongoing costs to
taxpayers of failing to set students up for life during their school years.
The committee recognises that the barriers faced by students with
disability in the school system results in further losses to the wider
Australian community, as the lifetime of disadvantage which these students face
is coupled with the number of parents who leave the workforce to homeschool or
care for their children. Thus both parent and child are prevented from
attaining their full potential.
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