Choosing Segregated Education – “Parental Choice” or “Parental Concession”?

By Catia Malaquias

This is a topic I will approach as diplomatically as I can, yet firmly as I believe I should.

It is a topic that often polarises the community of parents of children with disability, and indeed, the wider community.  Rarely however does it polarise the disabled community, who continue to fight for rights and inclusion in every area of life and whose fundamental human right it is to access an inclusive education.

It is also a topic where, frequently, judgments are clouded by cultural beliefs, pre-conceived stereotypes and subconscious bias in the decision-makers themselves, the absence of quality information and advice, and where self-justification can sometimes compromise the capacity to reflect and re-evaluate.

Should parents have the right to choose educational segregation of their child on the basis of their disability?

That is, whether their child attends a special school, a special unit co-located with a mainstream school or a regular school.

In our society, we recognise that it is parents who should determine, in the first instance, what is in their child’s best interests.  When it comes to educational decisions about their child, most parents recognise these types of decisions as critical to their child’s best interests; and want to exercise choice to give their child the best chance of success in life.

When a child has a disability, the decisions that parents make are in some ways even more significant for the long-term outcomes of their child.

The Australian Government, many disability service providers, national parenting websites and “special needs” magazines present the decision of the learning environment for a child with disability as one of “parental choice” – a choice between “equally good” options for the parents to make in light of the circumstances of their child.  By providing a range of educational environment options, they say that the parents can make the choice that is best for their child.  Like shoes, “one size doesn’t fit all” – the mantra of the “parental choice” view.

The choice is presented as a natural compromise or trade-off between a sliding-scale of “specialist support” for the child – the more segregated the environment, the more specialist supports available (i.e. smaller classes with higher specialist staff-student ratios) – but with a corresponding reduction in social and academic contact with same-age non-disabled student peers.  The message, consistent with societal expectations founded in a long-history of excluding, institutionalising and segregating people with disability, is that children who require more significant supports need more “specialist” attention in more “specialised” environments and that is more important – and more beneficial – than social and academic learning with same-age regular peers in a regular school environment. The thing is, the empirical evidence doesn’t support this view.

An article I recently read sought to justify “parental choice” as to educational segregation as being akin to the natural variety in working environments – big corporate office in a CBD building, a warehouse in a suburb or a home-office – they were all places from which people do good work and the colour of the money earned is the same.  By analogy, students in segregated learning environments still do “good learning” like everyone else and get something out of it.

But the education of students with disability is not some life-style decision to be made by parents on poor information and subject to their own limiting pre-conceived expectations, guided by medical professionals conditioned to see disability as deficits to be “treated” and “advised” by school administrators operating in an education system designed to preserve the status quo.

Choosing a segregated specialist classroom is not like choosing a private school over a public school, or a catholic school over a non-denominational school.  With over 40 years of research evidence in favour of educating disabled students in the same classrooms as their non-disabled peers and demonstrating superior long-term academic, social and economic outcomes, we know that the decision to segregate is a decision that goes to the quality of the education – and therefore it goes to equality of educational opportunity and provision  – and therefore to discrimination against segregated children with disability as a group.

They are not things that are sacrificed in choosing between the usual “philosophies” and preferences in education options (public v private, denominational etc.) – they are things sacrificed in choosing segregation, a mode of delivering education to students with disability, against the objective research evidence and human rights standards.

Inclusive education is the optimal and most direct pathway to living, working and fully participating in the community, whilst expanding diversity and reciprocal acceptance of diversity at each stage – in classrooms, workplaces and society itself.

The “special” path, lined by a well-meaning culture of low expectations and outcomes, is too often a sugar-coated path to social and economic marginalisation and exclusion – and serves to further entrench outdated societal attitudes to disability.

Inclusive education – a human right of people with disability, not parents

As a matter of international human rights, the rights of parents to choose is subject to the right of their child to an inclusive education – to an education alongside their same-age typical peers in a regular classroom with appropriate supports and curricula adjustments – in accordance with Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – to which Australia is a party.  In fact, the UN recently affirmed this position in defining and explaining the right to inclusive education, stating that inclusion education is:

“A fundamental human right of all learners. Notably, education is the right of the individual learner, and not, in the case of children, the right of a parent or caregiver. Parental responsibilities in this regard are subordinate to the rights of the child.”

The idea that parental rights to choose have some limitations is not radical.  In Australia, government law and policy both enable and restrict educational options in a range of ways.  For example, parents don’t get to choose not to educate girls or to choose that girls shouldn’t be taught academic subjects, even though these beliefs were not uncommon that long ago and parents did exercise educational choices between girls and boys in that way.  Nowadays, we see it for what it is – educational discrimination.  Similarly, children with some disabilities used to be denied access to any education.  As a society we no longer believe that is acceptable.

“Parental choice” in the context of considering segregated schooling options should be seen for what it is – a decision to concede, to segregation, the right of the child to an inclusive education.

There are many reasons for this and in many cases parents are in fact responding to pragmatic limitations and deficiencies of the regular education system.  The fact is, many children with disability and their families have very poor experiences in regular settings for a range of reasons – from “gatekeeping” by schools that don’t welcome and support their child, to poor practices, safety concerns, inadequate responses to bullying and social vulnerabilities, to school cultures that are not inclusive of students with disability and their families. Ironically, these failures are sometimes attributed to “inclusive education” itself – but they are due to a lack of inclusiveness, not because if it.

While every parent would like to make choices in their child’s best interest, when it comes to education of children with disability, the range of options that some families are provided with are so poor that parents are effectively forced to make a “least worst” choice – between a low outcomes segregated setting (i.e. a special school or education support unit) that welcomes them and their child but separates them or a regular setting that fails to welcome and accommodate their child.

In most cases, parents accept segregation of their child because the regular education system did not, would not or was not expected to provide the appropriate supports and adjustments – which under Article 24 it is obliged to do.

I don’t see “parental choice” in this context as a free choice between “equal options” made on a fully-informed basis – I don’t see “one size doesn’t fit all” as a legitimate analogy in justifying segregation of people with disability.  

I see “parental choice” as Hobson’s choice for many parents – it is an exercise in “parental concession” – parents conceding the rights of their child to an inclusive education to an education system unwilling or unable to transform itself into a system that is accessible to all children and which accommodates their diverse functional needs – indeed a system that should assume and accommodate the diverse needs of ALL children, whether or not they have a disability.

Segregation is the price many parents are transacting, and that their children with disability are paying, for an education system that excluded children with disability since its very beginnings and that continues to resist their inclusion today.

This systemic leakage of students to segregated settings as a result of these factors – politically dressed as driven by “parental choice” – serves to preserve the status quo, namely the parallel segregated “special” system alongside a general education system that provides only limited and conditional access to students with disability.

The flow of students to segregated settings is not evidence of parental support for segregation of their children.  It is not.  It is the symptom of how far the regular education system has to go in order for it to be a genuinely inclusive system.

The Australian Government, many disability service providers, national parenting websites and “special needs” magazines cannot take a superficial approach to the issue of segregating students with disability.  It is irresponsible to merely leave such a critical life-affecting decision to “parental choice”.  Any discussion of the issue must recognise the relevant human rights framework, the right of each child to an inclusive education and must reference now long-standing evidence-based research and information.

For more information see:

All Means All – “Inclusion Toolkit for Parents”

All Means All – “The Human Right to an Inclusive Education”

All Means All – “Inclusive Education – What Does the Research Say”

*Catia Malaquias is a mother of three young children, a lawyer, Founder of Starting With Julius and co Founder of All Means All – The Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education.  

[Cover photo © Scott Webb]

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