Beyond Bricks and Mortar: Designing Schools for Inclusion

By Catia Malaquias

Implementing inclusive education, the right of students to learn together with their same-age non-disabled peers in regular classrooms, is mainly seen as requiring the transformation of the culture, policies and practices of our educational institutions and schools.

The practical and immediate focus is on changing the way education is delivered within our existing educational infrastructure so that learning is accessible and engaging for all students, through curricula adjustments, differentiated learning and the provision of reasonable supports and accommodations.

Accordingly, the primary barriers to the realisation of the right to inclusive education in our regular schools that are usually identified are those that stand in the way of achieving the necessary transformation in education delivery in our regular classrooms, including:

  • societal prejudice, discrimination and low expectations towards people with disability driven by continued adherence to the medical “burden and therapy-based” model of disability – rather than the adoption of the human rights social model to disability which underpins the right to inclusive education under Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD);
  • lack of knowledge and awareness of the evidence-based benefits of inclusive education for all students;
  • lack of disaggregated data necessary for accountability, impeding the development of effective policies to promote inclusive education;
  • lack of technical teacher training, knowledge and capacity to deliver inclusive education;
  • inappropriate and inadequate funding mechanisms to incentivise inclusive education, including funding for reasonable supports and accommodations; and
  • lack of effective, proportionate and accessible legal remedies to redress the denial of inclusive education and associated discrimination.

These are essentially the factors listed as “barriers” to inclusive education in paragraph 4 of General Comment No. 4: The Right to Inclusive Education – which clarifies the inclusive education obligations of State Parties (including Australia) under Article 24 of the CRPD.

However, General Comment No. 4 further recognises that the realisation of the right to inclusive education also depends on the physical design of our education institutions and schools – and in particular the physical design of our classrooms.  Poor physical design of learning spaces in itself may be exclusionary and accordingly discriminatory. In drawing on the obligation of State Parties under Article 9 of the CRPD, dealing with the general right of people with disability to accessibility of the physical environment without discrimination, paragraph 21 of General Comment No. 4 provides:

“The entire education system must be accessible, including buildings … .  The environment of students with disabilities must be designed to foster inclusion and guarantee their equality throughout their education.  … State parties must commit to the prompt introduction of Universal Design.”

Our existing classrooms and schools must be modified to facilitate the inclusive education of students with disability – however this is “tinkering”.  What is far more critical is that new regular school infrastructure is designed and built so as to maximise the opportunity for inclusive education practices and to open regular schools to all students with disability, including students with intellectual disability and sensory needs who can find some school environments particularly inaccessible.

In Australia, approximately 50% of students with intellectual disability (including Down syndrome) are still being educated in segregated settings – separate special units co-located with mainstream schools and stand-alone special schools.  Students with intellectual disability or Autism together comprise approximately 75% of Australia’s students in segregated education settings.

Notwithstanding Australia’s ratification of the CRPD more than a decade ago to implement inclusive education, new segregated schools and units have been constructed at a faster rate than regular schools, particularly due to the growth in separate Autism schools and classrooms ostensibly due to the lack of accessible sensory design of regular settings.  This growth in segregation has proceeded in the absence of any evidence-base and in fact against a growing and consistent body of international research supporting better academic and social outcomes from inclusive education for all students (see A Summary of the Evidence on Inclusive Education“, 2017).

In 2016, the same year that the United Nations issued General Comment No. 4 which in paragraph 11 makes clear that “the education of students with disabilities … in separate environments designed or used to respond to a particular or various impairments, in isolation from students without disabilities” is “segregation” and not inclusion, the Victorian Education Department issued its “School Provision Planning Guidelines for Students with Disabilities”.

Although the Victorian School Provision Guidelines state that their purpose is to “rebalance provision planning towards inclusive education approaches which provide more opportunities for students with disabilities to attend a mainstream school in their local area” [p3], the Victorian Guidelines present separate units and separate classrooms as “supported inclusion” [p12].  While encouraging Universal Design in school design, the Victorian Guidelines’ acceptance of segregated settings and “pull-out” teaching as part of inclusive school provision goes against its own first principle of Universal Design – “equitable use” – with the aim of:

“[a]void[ing] segregating or stigmatising any users”.

The removal and separation of students from the regular classroom and from their non-disabled peers is inherently “segregating” and “stigmatising”.  That is the simple and direct consequence.

The objective of school design, using Universal Design principles, should be to design schools and classrooms that welcome and are safe for all students.  In Australia we will continue to fail, particularly our students with intellectual disability, if we do not redesign our classrooms so that the teaching of every student can effectively take place within the same spaces.  Each student has an equal right to receive their education together with their peers and without being stigmatised or “othered” by “pull-outs” or their transfer to separate units due to their physical or functional differences.

New classrooms and learning spaces must have sufficient space to meet the needs of all classroom members.  Quarantining a student with disability in the back corner of the classroom – under the separate supervision of a teaching or education assistant is not inclusive but micro-segregation “in plain sight”.  There must be space for all students to share in their learning – to participate in group and, more significantly, whole-of-class activities and discussions.

At the heart of the academic and social benefits of inclusive education is the connection and inter-dependence of students with disability and their same-age non-disabled peers – anything that threatens the strength of that connection and the sense of belonging that goes with it must be challenged.

Safety can also be a critical consideration for some students – particularly in the context of advancing the inclusion of students whose impairments may impact their ability to assess certain risks.  Many students with intellectual disability are currently in segregated “fenced” schools and units for no greater reason than that their local regular school is located upon, adjacent to or near high traffic roads or other infrastructure (like railways) that create an unacceptable safety risk for those students.  That should not be a reason to justify placing any student upon a segregated pathway through life.

In this regard, the recently released New South Wales Government Architect’s “Design Guide for Schools” recommends at p14 in relation to “inclusiveness” that:

“New school development should … [b]alance security with accessibility and inclusiveness by minimising the use of fencing particularly along street frontages.”

New schools must be designed with greater focus on safety for all students – particularly on the capacity for all indoor and outdoor areas and spaces to be easily monitored with clear lines of sight.  Similarly, the merits of appropriate boundary fencing or gated entrances must be considered as an accessibility and safety issue, rather than as primarily a matter of aesthetics, particularly for primary schools.

Future school building design must be seen as an absolutely fundamental and critical component of implementing an inclusive education system in accordance with Article 24 of the CRPD.  Community consultation for new school projects – being long-term infrastructure – must extend beyond the short-term interests of the immediate community.  The consultation process should also include representative organisations of people with disability, particularly intellectual disability, to represent potential end-users and adopt co-design approaches reflecting the fundamental principle of “Nothing About Us Without Us”.

The development and renewal of school infrastructure is capital intensive and long-term in its consequences.  The opportunity cost of the continued and accelerated investment in segregated school settings and facilities – or in sub-optimally designed regular settings – is inevitably the prolonging  of the segregation, exclusion and discrimination of students with disability.  The UN Committee urged the opposite in General Comment No. 4 paragraph 68:

“The Committee urges State parties to achieve a transfer of [scarce] resources from segregated to inclusive environments.”

Watch this video about Berkley University’s Ed Roberts Campus (California, USA), a landmark for Universal Design in architecture.

[Cover photo © Cel Lisboa]

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