Exclusion and isolation for young students with disabilities in Australia
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Who’s not in the room? Exclusion and isolation for young students with disabilities in Australia

Who’s not in the room? Exclusion and isolation for young students with disabilities in Australia

A public education should not be restrictive – a public education is a human right.

EmbraceAbility’s vision is to work for a society in which every person is valued equally. At the crux of equality lies the need for equal access and equal opportunity. At the moment, we are working within communities on Koh Dach Island, Cambodia to promote and facilitate the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all areas of community life. Barriers to equality, however, exist everywhere and raising awareness of these issues is imperative.

Working towards getting children into an inclusive education is a large part of EmbraceAbility’s strategy to improve the lives of children with disabilities and their families in Cambodia. Today, we take a look at studies detailing the exclusion of children with disabilities from education in Australia, and how this enduring problem might be alleviated. It is important to recognise that problems facing persons with disabilities are not restricted to those living in developing nations. Disability awareness and the promotion of disability rights is a new and rapidly evolving field – we owe it to our communities to be honest and aware of the problems faced by persons with disabilities on our own doorstep as well as abroad.

Who’s not in the room? Exclusion and isolation for young students with disabilities in Australia

According to multiple Senate inquiries released in 2015 and 2016, and a report compiled by early education expert Kathy Colgan on inclusion for Children and Young People with a Disability in Australia, schools are disregarding disability standards. This might manifest itself in the restriction of access to school activities, offering minimal support to children with disabilities, or rejecting school places altogether.

Further research conducted by Gill Rutherford at the University of Otago confirms this startling pattern of exclusion. She asserts:

“Essentially we value the normal over the abnormal, thus our resources are aimed at normalising. The normalising approach of special education, therefore, is one that conceals the rights of students in and of themselves as human beings not regardless of difference but because of difference.”

Perhaps the most concerning indictment of the Australian education system is its inability to provide school places for children with disabilities. This problem was illustrated in a report published by the New South Wales auditor-general in May 2016. Of the 300 NSW residents interviewed, 75 (25%) had been told that their local school could not accommodate their child. For those that could find a place for their child, the report found that enduring poor attitudes to disability meant teachers were reluctant or unable to make adjustments to accommodate children with disabilities.

Not a ‘safe’ place 

A recent report by the Victoria Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into experiences of school students with a disability found that of the 900 teachers surveyed, over half said they had not received the adequate training for catering to needs of children with disabilities in a broad sense. This is indicative of a wider problem, that being the needs and rights of children with disabilities are not well recognised. As a result, their experience in school is isolating, exclusionary, and often abusive.

According to teachers and administrators interviewed by Southern Cross University in 2014, they felt that school environments and students were becoming increasingly complex. With this increase in perceived complexity has come fewer resources to draw on. Teachers find it extremely difficult to locate the information and support systems that they need in order to support students with disabilities, particularly in mainstream schools. The resultant lack of support can have a profoundly negative impact on the participation and well-being of vulnerable students, with abuse and inadequate engagement strategy forming the basis of isolation and exclusion.

A qualitative piece published by Southern Cross University in 2014 detailed the abuse faced by students with cognitive disabilities in Australian schools. Most notably, abuses tended to be ongoing and interpersonal, largely from other students, teachers and transport staff. All of these negative interactions had significant impacts on students confidence, happiness and overall well-being. The families of these students highlighted negative attitudes held by school officials, poor communication systems, and an overall lack of concern expressed by schools for the distress of their child. A recurring theme among the studies mentioned was the lack of accountability held by school leaders for ensuring adjustments were made to better accommodate children with disabilities.

While the problems in this article have been identified and described in small detail, the idea is to draw your attention to the large number of contemporary studies and literature that identify the exclusion of students with disabilities in the Australian school system. The rights of children with disabilities to the benefits of an inclusive education have been, and continue to be, poorly recognised in many cases.

What can be done?

Most of the problems outlined above are the direct result of a lack of awareness, information, and adequate training. A lot of measures suggested by the reports mentioned seem obvious, and they are by no means limited to the education system of Australia. Effective responses from schools to issues of exclusion were those that dealt with the problem promptly under an organised leadership structure with accountability. Primarily, it came down to a student being acknowledge and valued by someone who could take their concerns seriously. The formation of these connections and the feedback loop it creates is crucial to improving the inclusion of persons with disabilities. As a result, targeted and effective change is sparked by those who can be active participants and ambassadors in the school community.

With regard to training programmes and school review, contemporary studies have brought up a number of ways schools can enhance their services at a systemic level. These include ensuring teachers’ understanding of support for students with a disability, regularly reviewing how schools support the behavioural needs of students with a disability, mandating more teachers complete disability standards training, and making effective use of support officers in the classroom environment.

Ultimately, true inclusion comes down to creating an inclusive culture. Starting with law and policy, a united national commitment to the promotion of disability rights should be easily transferred and reflected in local policy and school practice. Policies should be responsive to the input of persons with disabilities – putting them ‘in the room’. With effective early intervention strategies in place to limit abuse, and training and educational programmes working to inform teachers and the wider community in general, inclusive schools and communities are made possible.


By Oliver King