Last week Senator Pauline Hanson called for “them” – students with disability – to be “[gotten] rid of” from mainstream classes and moved to “special classrooms” where they could get “care” and “special attention” – so that “others” could again advance in “leaps and bounds”.

Senator Hanson stated her office had been inundated by parents and teachers and the Australian Government, relying upon her vote, was first silent and then meek in condemning Senator Hanson’s comments.

In the social media aftermath, Education Departments, school administrators, teachers and parents of non-disabled children have also been largely silent in their condemnation, with some welcome exceptions.  Maybe Senator Hanson said what they wanted to be said – she said publicly what they felt they could only say in private.  Nothing needed to be added.

The legal right to education for people with disability is a recent development. The legal right for people with disability to be educated alongside their same age peers as part of their local communities, and access the same opportunities to advance in “leaps and bounds”, is even newer – Australia is a signatory to the relevant UN Convention.

The objective research evidence says that inclusive education benefits all students – this finding has been consistent over the last 40 years. But research evidence is abstract – to a parent and to a teacher the reality of the specific classroom and playground is what matters.

Why is modifying a school environment so hard?

Designing a building that is accessible to people with disability – “universal design” – improves accessibility to the same building for everyone.  Similarly, designing learning that is accessible to students with disability also will naturally benefit everyone.

The problem is that buildings are inanimate – made of brick and mortar – while learning is made of people –  of human resources – of values, beliefs and prejudice of school leaders, teachers and parents.

Changing the design of a building can be mandated by laws.  But changing the values and beliefs of, and prejudice inherent in, our education system depends upon leadership – particularly social leadership outside of the education system that is being sought to be culturally transformed.  That leadership, to be effectual and orderly, must come not only from outside but also from “above” – it must also come from our political leaders.

This is why the meekness of the federal Government’s response is so disappointing – it in effect acquiesces in the prejudice – the status quo – in preserving the privilege of the non-disabled – in ableism.

Senator Hanson gave the Australian Government a high-profile, high-media interest platform to show its social leadership – its respect for the rights of the most marginalised and vulnerable group in Australian society.  But the same Government that covets a seat in the Human Rights Council instead tip-toed into the social background.

The Australian Government maintains the mantra that the choice of education environment for a student with disability is a matter for the parents – “parental choice”.  At the same time successive Australian Governments have failed to provide adequate support of both mainstream teachers and students with disability in mainstream – because both need support – each struggles to function well in a learning setting that does not provide the necessary supports and accommodations.  The inevitable result – the self-fulfilling prophesy – is what Australia has experienced for the last decade, a proportionate increase in segregated “special” education as:

  • school administrators, entrenched in the status quo and unsure of how to lead and meet the challenges of teaching all, have overtly and subtly encouraged; and
  • parents protective of their children, scarred or fearing being scarred by unaccommodating mainstream schooling, have sought or accepted,

“better resourced” segregated settings.

The proportionate growth in segregated schooling against the research evidence is nothing other than an indictment on our society – an indictment on the lack of courage of its leaders.

People with disability have been disabled by society for hundreds of years – they have been murdered, demonised, institutionalised, stigmatised and today continue to face violence and abuse, including sexual abuse, well above society-averages. Yet people like Senator Hanson as still calling for their greater segregation – ostensibly from a “caring” perspective.

A particularly sad aspect of the social media aftermath to Senator Hanson’s insensitive and ill-informed comments is that the “debate” has probably been nastiest within the parent community of children with disability.  It is in part the collateral damage of an education system that has failed and scarred children with disability and their families. Parents who love their children naturally feel the need to justify to themselves and to others their “parental choice” in favour of segregated schooling they made – or were more accurately pushed to make.  Listening to, embracing or advocating for inclusive mainstream education is difficult when you have “chosen” to place your own child in a segregated setting – particularly after seeing the harm that their child has suffered in their exposure to an inadequately resourced or culturally resistant general education environment.

Leadership from the disability community is critical to this change – but it needs to be backed by leadership from our elected politicians to effect the necessary cultural transformation in our education system.

In this sense, political spinelessness is disabling – it will continue to result in the denial of basic rights and in harm to the current generation of our students with disability as well as those students whose educational needs are also not being met by the system, and risks disabling future generations.

If as Senator Hanson says that teachers and parents involved in mainstream schools are advocating against the inclusion of students of disability, then our politicians should not be taking the easy and counter-productive option of excluding students with disability.  Rather, they should be considering how they can show leadership that is required at this time in history and better support teachers and students with disability in regular schools and classrooms.

[Cover photo © John Salvino]

Thank you for visiting our website.  You can also keep up with our mission by liking our Facebook page or following us on Twitter @StartingWJulius