NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes has just released The Disability Strategy. Whilst it is a step in the right direction, the Strategy ultimately fails to address Australia’s commitment to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goal to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030.
Family Advocacy, a NSW organisation working with families to promote and defend the rights and interests of people with developmental disability, has been involved with disability and education over the last 28 years. Last year, they launched the “Same Classroom, Same Opportunity” campaign for inclusive education, which is about ensuring that all students in NSW, of all levels of ability, have a valued place in their local public school. In the same classroom, with the same teacher, with the supports they need, so they can have the same opportunity as their non-disabled peers to reach their full potential. As such, Family Advocacy were involved in the consultation process for the development of the Disability Strategy. However, Family Advocacy are unable to endorse the final document due to a number of concerns.
“Firstly, the definition of inclusive education needs to be expanded to be in alignment with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities' definition,” says Cecile Sullivan Elder, Family Advocacy’s Executive Officer. “What is key about this definition is that it defines not only what inclusive education is, but what it is not; making a clear distinction between inclusion, integration, segregation and exclusion. Without being clear on the definition of inclusion, how can we measure the success (or not) of Inclusive Education practices within NSW? A lack of inclusive vision and direction results in weak signals to schools around the expectation and implementation of the best inclusive schooling practices.”
“Secondly, inclusion must be supported by policy,” says Ms Sullivan Elder. “NSW requires an Inclusive Education Policy Statement. The Queensland government adopted one last year and NSW requires political leadership in order to keep up with the other States if it strives to achieve its vision ‘to be Australia’s best education system and one of the finest in the world’.”
“Finally, one of the main areas of focus of the NSW Department of Education’s Disability Strategy is to increase the number of specialist teachers. Inclusive education is not possible if it is highly dependent on special educators. A much more sustainable model is to focus on inclusive education as a requirement for all teachers, so they are confidently equipped to teach all children, including children with a disability. We are also concerned that the word “special” is being used as a euphemism for segregation. And segregation is discrimination.”
Sydney resident Mr Joe Naim, one of Family Advocacy’s champions for inclusive education, has experienced this type of discrimination. Mr Naim’s son, John has autism. John’s parents, Joe and Mary believed this should not be a hindrance to his education and wanted him to attend school together with their other children. However, when they approached one of their local schools two years before John was due to start, their hopes were dashed: the Principal refused enrolment on the spot. “Sadly, it is almost a rite of passage; if you want to enrol your child with a disability in a mainstream school it is common to experience discrimination. The challenge is to find a school that believes in your child, respects their disability and is willing to support and make adjustments for your child to succeed.”
Mr Naim’s family eventually succeeded in finding a local mainstream school for John where he could attend with his siblings. “He is now in Year 3 and this has evolved into the greatest decision for John and for our family,” Mr Naim says. “He enjoys school, is learning the piano at a local music school, swimming at our local swim school, his future is bright.”
There are many success stories like John’s, and mounting evidence that everyone benefits when all children learn and belong with their peers, in the same classroom, with the same teacher, working on the same curriculum. In fact, four decades of research in Australia and internationally, have shown that not only does the child with disability benefit from inclusion but so do all their peers. Yet the Disability Strategy’s focus on special education will continue to prevent them from attending their local school in a regular classroom and steering them to a special school or support unit.
“This segregation sends a clear message to that child that they are different, to be placed “over there” and of lesser value than a child without a disability,” says Ms Sullivan Elder. “In addition, this exclusion from the local school for children with disability is in conflict with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disability.”