Seeing Through the Mirror – ABC 7.30 on “Inclusion” at Condell Park High School

By Catia Malaquias

On Wednesday of this week ABC 7.30 reported on an award winning program that has been run for 10 minutes a day for the last 10 years at Condell Park High School.

The program – awarded with the 2018 Minister’s and Secretary’s Awards for Excellence – Secretary’s Award for Outstanding School Initiative no less – is called “Talk Time” and involves autistic students from the school’s segregated education support unit interacting with students in general education for 10 minutes a day.

The story was tweeted by Justin Stevens, executive producer of ABC 7.30, with the heading “Condell Park High School’s brilliant program for students with autism”.

You can watch the trailer video of the story here.

Here is the transcript of the trailer video:

Student (from the mainstream school) to Anton Castro (student with autism from the segregated unit): What did you think of Tom Cruise?  Was he a good actor or you didn’t like his acting?

Anton: I think he is a good actor.

[Students spill out of a door into a large room and take their seats.]

Heading Captions: This school runs a program that helps students with autism to communicate – every day students from the autism support unit meet with mainstream students for 10 minutes

[Indistinct chatter]

Sadia Corfield (student with autism): I get really shy around new people sometimes.  So I don’t always speak.

Interviewer: And Talk Time helps you to speak?

Sadia: Sometimes, yes.  A lot of the times.

Yvonne White (Teacher): There is a moment when they feel like ‘I am included and I belong in a social situation just as much as anyone else’.

Dawn Castro (Anton’s mother): Lately he is very confident in talking to people, interacting, high-fiving them, ‘good job’ – especially in sports. So yeah, it’s a marked difference, yes.

Interviewer to Anton: What do you think of your teachers?

Anton: Well, they’re fine.  Some of them are nice.

Dawn Castro: [Giggles.]

Susie Mobayed (Principal): We’re judged by our NAPLAN data and our HSC data, but nobody can tell me as principal of this school that we haven’t added value, the best value to these kids in their lives by the time they have left this school.

[Report closes with male student with autism clapping and playing ‘handsies’ with another student.]

The ABC 7.30 story has received two diametrically opposed responses.

Many on social media have said the story was “good news”, made them feel emotional – teary – and that it was inspirational.  This was no doubt the anticipated response of ABC 7.30, corroborated by the fact that the school’s “Talk Time” program had received a Minister’s and Secretary’s Awards for Excellence.

But at another – more substantive level – the 7.30 story, the “Talk Time” program and the conferral of the Minister’s and Secretary’s Award – highlights the perceived “elasticity” of “inclusion” as a concept in New South Wales education and the degree to which New South Wales is failing to genuinely include students with disability – including autistic students – in general education.

For a teacher to recognise that Talk Time represents a “moment” in their day when the students feel “included” – what does that say about how they feel for the rest of the day?  That this social interaction has been recognised as beneficial for 10 years, yet the program has remained stunted at 10 minutes a day, says even more.

The 7.30 Report story confirms one thing – the culture of low expectations for students with disability – the setting of the bar at a very low level and celebrating the under-achievement of the education system – or worse, celebrating the substantive denial of the human right of each of the students to access the general education system and learn alongside and together with their mainstream non-disabled peers – the denial of their human right to an inclusive education.

The graphics of the story – the fast forwarding of students spilling into a large room for Talk Time and their immediate engagement in conversation with students from the unit – leaves impressions of a time restricted prison visit.   That may sound harsh – but what the story doesn’t show is what happens when the allocated 10 minutes ends and the “right” to belong is again “revoked” and the “special” children head back to their “special places”.

What message does the 10 minute limit per day send to the participating students – disabled and non disabled alike?  A simple, exclusionary “othering” one – that students with autism are not really part of society; that for the most part “special” people belong in “special” places.

The story – ultimately – is an exercise in “inspiration porn”, an expression coined by the late ABC great – Stella Young.  Stella called out people with disability being used by non-disabled people as objects of charity to make non-disabled people feel good about themselves i.e. it shouldn’t be about the person in the mirror.  People with disability should not be used to reflect “warm glows” on the viewer.

Perhaps the ABC story will serve one useful purpose –  it will be shown to future generations of teachers and school administrators around Australia – the world – in university lecture theatres – conferences – as a depressing example of poor practice and ableist school administration thinking – ultimately rewarded within the back-slapping echo chamber of its formulation – by a Ministerial award, no less.

Last, to the well-meaning principal, it is actually readily apparent from the story that students like Anton and Sadia are not getting “the best value” from their schooling experience and deserve – and are entitled to – much, much more.  The “momentary” feeling of inclusion – animatedly celebrated by their teacher – should be the norm for each of your students – every hour of every day.

An award – for underachieving an outcome – that amounts to a breach of the human right to inclusive education – is a hollow award.  It is hoped that the principal, and those who saw it appropriate to award this program might come to understand it from a different inclusionary perspective.  A perspective shared by Alastair McEwin, Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner, who has also asked about the inclusiveness of the educational experience of the students for the remaining 6 hours of the school day.

It is time to squint and see through the mirror.

[Cover photo © Erik Eastman]

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