Education is life itself! – By Gina Wilson-Burns

We are honoured to share the following Submission made to the Australian Senate Inquiry into Education of Students with Disability.

By Gina Wilson-Burns

“Education is not about life, Education is life itself.” Ms Maryanne Diamond (speaker at UN Day of General Discussion on the Right to Education for Persons with Disabilities, 15 April 2015, Geneva)

What happens when the ‘most disabled child ever to be mainstreamed’ attends his local school, a school with no prior experience in supporting students with multiple and severe disabilities, a school in a regional area where specialist disability knowledge and supports are thin on the ground?

What happens to this child who has no communication, no mobility and a significant vision impairment when he goes to his local school with his peers from his neighbourhood?

What happens when he attends the same classes, no pull-out services, no segregation?

What happens when you immerse this child, so often considered “too disabled” to be included or educated, in an ordinary and vibrant learning environment?

What happens when you foster an inclusive setting, not an integrated setting, in a school where the core values are respect, doing your best, fairness, kindness, responsibility and caring?

Well, when those core values are adopted, when inclusion, real inclusion, happens – well that’s when the magic happens.

That’s when this young boy, once considered the perfect example of “he wont, he can’t, he’ll never”, now enjoys a rich experience of inclusive education, where he is considered likely to attend university (or similar) and is not destined for 60+ years of being “warehoused” in segregated and special disability “programs” post school.

Indeed, education is life itself!

This is my son’s story, he is 12, about to start high school but, sadly, he still appears to be in the minority of students with disabilities receiving adequate support and respect as valued learners and valued contributors to our society.

Australian’s National Disability Strategy says: “All governments are committed to a national approach to supporting people with disability to maximise their potential and participate as equal citizens in Australian society.” Inclusive education is the starting point of this approach, and we should never underestimate what it means for all members of society to learn together – as children, adolescents and adults, throughout life. Inclusion has a transformative impact on the community – it makes us all better. Inclusion has a transformative impact on the individual when their learning needs are met and their full learning potential reached in this environment.

Current levels of access and attainment for students with disability in the school system, and the impact on students and families associated with inadequate levels of support

As the National Disability Strategy clearly states, “at present there remains a significant gap between students with disability and those without, notably in the attainment of year 12 or equivalent, vocational education and training qualifications, and participation in university studies. Targeted support is needed to assist people who are disadvantaged in education and in the workforce, but mainstream education programs need to be designed for people of all abilities.”

There is plenty of evidence to support full inclusion of all students with disabilities and it has been around for a long time. The reality is, it is being ignored. There is no possible way to run two parallel systems of schooling, segregated and inclusive, and expect things to change. Legislation must be made to identify an end point to the segregation of students with a disability. You need to stop listening to those whose ‘livelihoods’ depend on ongoing segregation of students with a disability – they have a conflict of interest and it is dangerous to our children whose actual LIVES depend on the being included, educated and respected.

Inclusive schools are better for all children because learning together teaches students to value diversity, build social capital and it lays the foundations for inclusive communities. That’s the Australia I want for my son, it’s the Australia I want for me.

The reality is that as long as special programs exist, systems will find students to fill them – this flies in the face of our National Disability Strategy.

The social, economic and personal benefits of improving outcomes for students with disability at school and in further education and employment

How many more generations do we need to lose to segregation, under education and low expectations? What is the cost to our society when we discard and “warehouse” children with disabilities? Who is going to have the guts to say “enough”? We have a National Disability Strategy, the convenors of this Parliamentary Enquiry would benefit from reading and understanding it and then simply “doing it”.

How possible changes as a result of the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability will be informed by evidence-based best practice of inclusion of students with disability

The collection of data can’t inform evidence based best practice of inclusion of students with a disability, the evidence has existed for years and been ignored and discarded or turned into ‘something it never was’. The collection of data only serves to allow teachers to reflect on what they are doing, not why or how they might do better in the future.

What should be done to better support students with disability in our schools

The National Disability Strategy has outlined this information, and the Gonski review has outlined this information. While those in decision-making roles refuse to listen and learn nothing can happen. Action is required. If a short-term consequence of ensuring all students are supported in an inclusive setting means there is a greater monetary cost, then so be it. The long-term gains to our societies, to the outcomes, to the futures of 20% of the population who might identify as having a disability should not be ignored. The increased costs in the early years cannot be ignored. Teachers do need to be supported to learn how to better include all students but they also need to be educated on inclusion as a “social justice issue” and understand the history of prejudices that have existed (and remain) for students with disabilities.

Early intervention should be a resource for every pre-school childcare facility and students supported to attend their local day care or preschool centres. Early Intervention that occurs in a segregated setting, clumping children with disabilities together only weakens our societies and sets a vast number of students and families up on a path of ongoing segregation and congregation by seeing them move from segregated EI, to special schools to day programs or ADEs.  That is not “living” that is being enrolled in “programs”.

I have written more about the importance of inclusive education in the pre-school period here.

If education is ‘life itself’ then it’s time we stop ‘discarding lives’ of people with disabilities.

200015_178099138893226_4767399_n* Gina Wilson-Burns is an advocate, parent, idea sharer and tech lover. She writes at Inky Ed! where you can follow the journey of Mac, since he started in kindergarten in 2009. Now in Grade 3, Mac is working at grade level using a combination of partner assisted foot switches, typing in morse code, auditory and visual scanning and his ‘old faithful’ yes/no foot switches.  Mac’s biggest complaint with school is there isn’t enough maths.

Mac has achieved much of this without any specialised support (but does have a moderately tech savvy Mum) – we hope we can share some useful informaton, break down much of the ‘guff’ around all things disability and share tricks and tips to make everyone’s life easier.

Inclusive Education is nothing exceptional.  It really only needs two things… “the will” and “the skill”… and even the lack of ‘skill’ shouldn’t be a deal breaker.  There are so many more benefits to an inclusive life that won’t be found in the curriculum to make the pursuit of an inclusive education worth it, WHATEVER IT TAKES.

You can also keep up with Gina on Twitter and Facebook

[Cover photo © Jessica Duensing for Open Source]

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