Stepping into the right side of history

By Catia Malaquias

It’s Book Week this week, and as I dropped off Julius and his sisters at their school, dressed up in their book character costumes, I was drawn into the atmosphere as I looked around and saw several Harry Potters, more than one Cat In The Hat and a scattering of Dorothies, Lions and Scarecrows.  Even Toto The Dog was there.

I planned to leave for work but instead I stayed to watch the whole school assemble on the basketball court for the costume parade.  And I’m so glad that I did.

Last week I lodged a Submission to the Australian Senate Inquiry into the Education of Students with Disability, asking the Committee to consider the need to ensure that all Australian students, including students with disability, have access to a quality inclusive education.  And today, as I watched my son swept up in the collective excitement and taking his place in the Book Week parade with his classmates, alongside his sisters and the whole school community, it was a joyful reminder of why inclusion is worth fighting for.

In my Submission to the Inquiry I made the following points:

  • Access to a quality inclusive education system is a right of ALL students and it is recognised under international human rights law.
  • Over 40 years of research supports the provision of inclusive education for ALL students.
  • Despite those things, many students in Australia are not accessing an inclusive education and are still being directed to segregated settings in “special schools” or “special units” within mainstream schools. There are many reasons for this – sometimes it is because of lack of information for parents and educators about rights or the benefits of inclusion, failures to understand what is and isn’t inclusive education and how to implement it, which can result in extremely poor experiences for students in mainstream schools, lack of funding for supports and adaptations, attitudes that assume that students with disability should be “separate” and school cultures and practices that do not welcome all learners.

The current situation in Australia for students with disability is far from satisfactory.  Apart from the many troubling incidents that continue to hit the mainstream media, ABS statistics have shown that from 1999 to 2013 the number of “special schools” increased by 17% while the number of schools generally only increased by 3% – and we need to ask why.  Part of the answer is that the laws and policies that have been put in place to support students with disability to access an inclusive education have been insufficient to overcome barriers and in some cases, probably counter-productive.  But what we need to do now is to develop a coherent approach to transforming our education system so that it a system where every child is welcomed and every child is able to realize their fundamental human right to education.

imageIn my Submission I wrote about the SWIFT Schools program in the United States which aims to transform schools and make sure that they are geared up to deliver full inclusive education to ALL students. It is a science-based, cutting edge, best practice approach to system-wide school transformation which has shown significant benefits for all students and it is funded by the Federal Government in the U.S.  It is exactly the sort of approach that Australia should consider.

I don’t know what will come of the Inquiry but I hope that it prompts Australia’s law and policy makers to develop the necessary vision and courage to step into the right side of history and away from the segregation of students with disability – it may be a bold step but it is one that would be backed by human rights and research evidence and one for which many people with disability have already waited too long.

You can click here if you would like to read my Submission in full.

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