By Catia Malaquias

There was outcry in 2015 when it was discovered that a primary school in Canberra was using a 2m x 2m blue powder-coated steel cage to confine a student with disability.

Blue cage1447824086315But what if the cage had walls instead of bars? Would that make it better?

And what if the space was bigger and had a window?

Would there be outcry if the space was comfortable enough for a number of students with disability?

How about if the space had walls with bright pictures, multiple windows and three or four staff? Now isn’t that more like a nice room.

A small cage is visually confronting. It provokes a universal reaction.

Senator Pauline Hanson recently called for students with disability to be “gotten rid of from mainstream classes and put in “special” classrooms where they can get “special” attention and be “cared for”.

Senator Hanson, claiming to speak for many teachers and parents, in substance called for the segregation of students with disability from their mainstream peers and for their separate confinement – albeit in separate rooms rather than a cage.

A “special” classroom for “special” students to do “special” things while getting “special” care from “special” staff is actually not special at all – it is academically, socially and economically inferior as to short-term and long-term outcomes and morally wrong.

The adjective “special” is used to sugar-coat segregated education, not for the benefit of students with disability but for broader society’s comfort in sanctioning their separation and confinement.

Let’s be clear: the word “special” is a euphemism for “segregation” of people with disability and painting the separate classroom or separate building the colour of “special”, rather than say powder-coating it in a more confronting steel blue, doesn’t change its essence.

At what point on the continuum from the seclusion of a child with disability in a steel cage to the mass segregation of students with disability did the outcry of broader society become muted, a whimper – silence?

Does it matter that we can see into a cage – but we can’t see through the walls of a classroom?

Is it just “out of sight, out of mind”?

Every child has the legal and human right to be educated in their community and alongside their same-age peers.

“Caged birds accept each other but flight is what they long for.”

Tenessee Williams

Yet many are in effect contending that the right to an inclusive education – that most valuable of universal rights – can be sold down and traded by broader society – by our governments – for the burdensome outcomes of segregating society’s most vulnerable – all with a spoonful of “specialness”.

Seclusion is clearly more extreme than communal segregation – and seclusion of individuals also occurs in segregated settings where it is easier to conceal than in mainstream settings. But, returning to Senator Hanson’s ill-informed and insensitive comments, what is it about setting apart and socially isolating, say six students with disability from the mainstream classroom, that makes that “acceptable” – whereas setting apart and socially isolating one individual from their classroom is not.  Both involve the denial of fundamental rights – but one is sold with “specialness” to make it more palatable. For students with disability, segregation and its life-long inferior outcomes is a bitter pill and no amount of sugar-coating will disguise that unpleasant truth.

[Cover photo © Daria Nepriakhina]

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