“But we haven’t heard from the Special Schools” – The Disability Royal Commission is about upholding the rights of people with disability, not the structures that oppress them

9 November 2019

By Catia Malaquias

The first hearing of the Disability Royal Commission was held this week in Townsville, Queensland. The focus of the hearing was education of students with disability, and in particular, inclusive education.

Undoubtedly the choice to hold the first hearing in Queensland was a considered one, since it is the only State in Australia with an ‘Inclusive Education Policy’ drafted to accord with the international human rights framework.  Queensland’s Inclusive Education Policy expressly recognises that students with disability placed in separate ‘special’ schools, units and classrooms are not, by definition, experiencing ‘inclusion’, but ‘segregation’.

The glaring omission of testimony from people with disability and children and young people with disability in particular has rightly been the subject of criticism for contravening the principle of “Nothing About Us Without Us”.  Further,  concerns remain about the sufficiency and adequacy of supports for people with disability to engage with the Disability Royal Commission. However, another ‘concern’ angle being advanced by some journalists highlights the challenges that people with disability continue to face in the way disability issues, including in education, are reported and framed by media.

Yes, you guessed it.  “But we haven’t heard from the special schools …”

After hearing from parents sharing the abuse and neglect experienced by their children within the Queensland education system, advocates, academics and the Queensland Teachers Union, it was clear that the Queensland education system, like every Australian State or Territory education system, still has much work to do to transform itself into a genuinely inclusive education system – into a system in which all students with disability receive their education in regular general education classrooms together with and amongst their same-age non-disabled peers, with appropriate support and curriculum adjustments.

But while the media as expected reported the confronting personal stories of student neglect and abuse – and the Teachers Union mantra that more money, training and resources were needed to better support students with disability and, until that ‘never never’, segregated ‘special’ education was here to stay as the economic rationalist ‘compromise’ – it gave little attention to the powerful stories of three North Queensland schools that are practicing inclusive education with no separate ‘segregated’ places for any student with disability.

Representatives of those three schools expressed a number of views challenging the usual assumptions of many in the Australian community and the “it’s all too hard” mantra of teacher unions.  They said:

  • Inclusive education is more about a school-wide cultural transformation that acknowledges that inclusive education is not only a human right – but it is also morally right.
  • Increased investment in inclusive education is important – but secondary to school culture and leadership.
  • Inclusive education can be done – it requires work and effort – planning – engagement with all stakeholders – and ongoing professional development.
  • All students with disability learn in regular general education classrooms and have been accommodated by the three schools – none have been ‘leaked’ to separate ‘segregated’ settings.
  • The academic and social outcomes of students that were previously in segregated ‘special’ education settings have improved in regular general education classrooms.
  • Parents of students with and without disability, although some sceptical and even fearful at first, have come to acknowledge the benefits of inclusive education at the schools.
  • From a teaching perspective, extra non-teaching time to engage in lesson planning, including curriculum adjustments, is probably the most important resourcing aspect of delivering inclusive education.

What was laid plain by the hearing was that the most significant barrier to the realisation of the human right to inclusive education for students with disability is the (un)willingness of many school leaders, teachers and teacher unions to ‘step up’ and do what is legally and morally right.  And they don’t need to, so long as there is a parallel segregated ‘special’ education system to which students with disability can be diverted – tacitly ‘gatekeeped’ to, or ‘chosen’ as an exercise in compromised and often under-informed ‘parental choice’ between ‘special’ segregation or pushing against an unaccommodating mainstream system.

The media in recent days – as expected – is succumbing to the ‘two sides to every story’ argument presented at the end of the final day by counsel for the Queensland Department for Education – that the merits of inclusive education for long-term outcomes of students with disability cannot be determined in the absence of an opportunity for the segregated ‘special’ education system to put the case for its value.

But the flaw in that argument is that segregated ‘special education’ and inclusive education are not two equally legitimate sides of an argument that should be balanced against each other, when under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, one is a fundamental human right and the other is a discriminatory practice against students with disability.  Inclusion and segregation do not share moral equivalence – let alone equivalent legitimacy under human rights law.  Segregation is not a valid alternative to the realisation of the human right to inclusive education.

In accordance with its Terms of Reference and the human rights framework that is to guide the Disability Royal Commission’s inquiry, the proper role of the Commission is not to question or interrogate the human right to an inclusive education nor to endorse discriminatory models or practices – rather it is to acknowledge the educational neglect and abuse consequent on the denial of the human right to an inclusive education, to identify the barriers to the realisation of that right and to make recommendations to alleviate and overcome such barriers for the future – the inclusive future that has long been denied to people with disability.

Segregated ‘special’ education is an enduring relic of an institutionalised history – it is not supported by research evidence, by morality or by anything other than ‘convenience’ – but whose ‘convenience’?

Segregated ‘special’ education settings operate as a ‘pressure’ release valve – for the systemic leakage of students that do not readily or easily fit within the ‘general education mould’.

In the last decade the segregated ‘special’ education  ‘release valve’ has been opened further by Australian governments  – and certainly not shut, as called for by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The media by repeating the complaint of  the Queensland Education Department calling for ‘special schools’ to have a “right of reply”, as if not giving them the opportunity to defend their model is some great truth and injustice, is an insult to people with disability.  Special schools aren’t marginalised, students with disabilities who are denied their fundamental human rights are marginalised.   The long-standing societal assumption, that ‘special kids’ need ‘special education’ in ‘special places’, was powerfully challenged by the evidence presented at the hearing … but the incumbent and entrenched ‘special’ education system and the vested interests it supports will never willingly stand aside.

To borrow Martin Luther King’s words about racial segregation, which are equally applicable to the wrong that is educational segregation of students with disabilities:

“[O]ld man segregation is on his death bed.  But history has proven that social systems have a great last-minute breathing power and the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive.” (10 April 1957)

Read also:

“3 myths of ‘special education’ – Thoughts for parents”

“Bias against school inclusion in Toronto Star Reporting, 2019”, Autistic Media Watch, Canada

[Cover photo © Nicole Honeywill]

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