Will There Be Special Schools On Mars?

* This article was first published on the website of GLOBI – Global Observatory for Inclusion and has been republished with kind permission.

By Catia Malaquias

International recognition of the formal right of people with disability, particularly people with intellectual disability, to an inclusive education occurred in the context of the right to education being a fundamental and universal human right. However, the practical reality is that in many places, people with disability are still denied access to education and, almost everywhere, people with disability do not yet receive a genuinely inclusive education.

Article 24(1) of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) establishes, as a matter of international law, the right to, and corresponding obligation of State Parties (including Australia) to provide, education within an “inclusive education system at all levels”. Article 24(2) expands upon the content of this obligation in providing that a State Party shall ensure that persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability. Article 4 provides that a State Party is to adopt all appropriate legislative and other measures for the implementation of rights recognised by the CRPD, including the right to an inclusive education, “to the maximum of its available resources”.

In Australia, the education system consists of mainstream schools, separate “special schools” for students with disability and “special units” for students with disability located within the grounds of a mainstream school – the last contemplating some level of interaction by students with disability with the mainstream school setting.

There are 2 questions that arise from Australia’s education system in terms of Article 24 of the CRPD:

  1. which of these education models, if any, can be properly regarded as being part of an “inclusive education system”? and
  2. what is the impact, if any, on the inclusiveness of an education system of component education models that are not inclusive?

Although every student in Australia has the right to attend their local mainstream school, a significant proportion of students with disability (approximately 30%, a high proportion with intellectual disability) currently attend special schools or special units. This is the case notwithstanding the weight of research evidence that the academic and lifelong social development outcomes for a student with disability are maximised in a mainstream school environment that applies high expectations and reflects the diversity of society itself. The corollary being that the greater the degree of segregation from mainstream experience – whether in a special school or in a special unit (which may in substance operate as a stand-alone special school despite its co-location within the footprint of a mainstream school) – the more that academic and social development outcomes are compromised.

Put simply, segregation is detrimental to outcomes for students with disability.

There are many factors that explain the continuing high numbers of students with disability in segregated schooling despite the existence of legal rights and policy across Australia that purport to provide access to an inclusive education. I will focus on two such factors that are somewhat subtle or under-appreciated but act as significant barriers to the transition to a general, high quality and genuinely inclusive education system.

Factor 1 – Parents should decide which school is best for their child – defaulting to the “special” segregated system due to preconceptions and lack of information

Who would object to the principle that “the parents should decide which school is best for their child”?

However, the merit in the principle is based on one key assumption – that parents have the information and knowledge to make a decision that is in the best interests of their child.

Like much of society, many parents view the experience of disability through historical, subjective and preconceived notions and stereotypes. The implication that a “special” segregated environment, with “special” resources trained and designed to cater for the “special” needs of their child, will lead to better academic outcomes seems logical and is therefore powerful. Without objective information to challenge and dislodge that assumption, segregation will remain the “default” position for many parents.

The word “special” is a barrier in itself – it reinforces the notion that a child with a disability is to be singled out and his or her idiosyncratic needs pathologised, diagnosed and addressed, albeit in a seemingly positive “special” way. On the other hand, true inclusion focuses on minimising differential treatment and the consequent stigma of difference – inclusive education recognises that all students have the same basic needs and that the focus in education should not be on medical labels but on maximising educational potential of each student (whatever the functional impact of disability) in a socially inclusive environment, representative of human diversity and social experience – the prism to the reality in which a child with disability will find himself or herself seeking employment, social relationships and fulfilment in general.

“True inclusion focuses on minimising differential treatment and the consequent stigma of difference.”

Further, it is well recognised that many families with a child with disability are frequently under more pressure and stress than others (including the stress of having to continuously advocate for their child in education and other settings). Again there is a natural assumption that a “special” education setting will come better tailored for the child, be less problematic to navigate and accordingly be more conducive to the situation of the family. As one parent said to me:

“I don’t want to have to be an advocate every time I drop my child off at school. I don’t have the time or strength to do it.”

However, the perceived “better fit” of “special” education settings would seem somewhat short-sighted given the weight of evidence pointing to the maximisation of long-term academic, independence and social development outcomes of inclusive education.

Then there is the “best of both worlds” argument for special units within a mainstream school setting – here parents can’t go too wrong – or can they? Generally a “special unit” operates as a “school within a school” and despite being co-located with a mainstream school, students are, to a greater or less degree, still educated separately. Despite the claim that is often made that special units try to approximate inclusive education, given their separate operation can they ever be more than just a different (though arguably lesser) form of segregation? And how could an inclusive culture ever develop in a structure that is built on the premise that disability justifies separation some or most of the time? The concept maintains the stigmatising signal to the mainstream that disability requires separation and differential treatment. Further, there is no guarantee that resourcing in a special unit is better at an individual student level than in a mainstream class or any real evidence that any such better resourcing will lead to better outcomes, especially given the limits of the model.

“And how could an inclusive culture ever develop in a structure that is built on the premise that disability justifies separation some or most of the time?”

The decision on how best to maximise the life-long academic and social development outcomes of a child – in particular a child with disability and as such more vulnerable to the effect of sub-optimal decisions – is left as a matter for the parents – sometimes guided by school administrators, themselves often operating under the same assumptions and preconceptions. Many Governments would appear to go to greater lengths to ensure consumers make sound decisions regarding financial products and the purchase of second-hand cars.

This is all against the background that placing children with a disability (as well as children with no disability) in an education setting that is not inclusive is contrary to the right of the child to an inclusive education under Article 24 of the CRPD – a breach that parents are, at one level, asked to be complicit in.

Factor 2 – “Integration” being served as “Inclusion” – A Culture of Compliance rather than an Inclusive Culture

A second reason that serves to maintain the alternate “special” system and hold back the development of “inclusive education” is the propensity for adverse mainstream schooling experiences of students with disability to be wrongly characterised as failures of “inclusive education”. The irony is that the mainstream failures are often caused by the lack of inclusiveness.

“The mainstream failures are often caused by the lack of inclusiveness.”

A mainstream education system that is only willing to “integrate” a child with disability into its prevailing narrow range of normality is not “inclusive”. Such a system lacks the willingness to accommodate – it lacks an inclusive culture – it is an “integration” system that tells a child with disability that you are “accepted”, in the sense of being tolerated, if you can “comply” to our existing range of normality – if you can learn like us and behave like us – but otherwise you do not belong here.

“Integration” denies the most critical component of an “inclusive” system – the conferral of a genuine sense of belonging in the individual for who they are – without preconditions as to learning and behavioural outcomes. “Inclusion” is about maximising the academic and social potential of each child – whilst respecting them for who they are – without judgement of their potential and the rate of learning and social development their potential allows.

A simple but effective analogy is the “round peg and square hole”. A “square hole” mainstream education setting that is only prepared to “integrate” a “round peg” child with disability will not make adequate adjustment to receive and develop that child and will inevitably damage the child and others in the constraining “conforming” process – it is not culturally inclusive. On the other hand, an “inclusive” mainstream setting will modify the square hole to better receive and embrace the child for the individual that they are – with or without disability – and foster an understanding of human diversity as “normal” in the eyes of its teachers, students and the community, deepening the inclusiveness and empathy of its culture to the benefit of all students and, accordingly, future society.

“Inclusion” goes to the mentality of the education system and the degree of leadership with which it is willing to cater and respond to circumstances that affect the education experience of each of its students – be it historic attitudes and misconceptions, sub-optimal technology, safety issues, bullying etc. That mentality and leadership, although perhaps focussed and sharpened in accommodating students with disability, carries life-long benefits for all involved – for school administrators, teachers and students generally, the building blocks of future society.

An inclusive culture, the willingness to lead, embrace and adapt, is critical to a truly inclusive education system. Unfortunately, many mainstream settings continue to serve “integration” as “inclusion” to children with disability and their families and it is served on a table without a warm invitation.

The exhausting and consuming need for parents to advocate against the damaging effects of “integration” on their child often leads to enrolment in, or subsequent transfer to, the “special” segregated system – furthering the maintenance of that system.

The parallel “special” segregated education system as a ball and chain on the development of a genuinely inclusive mainstream education system – the need for only one inclusive system.

To the extent that the “special” segregated education system is maintained and resourced as an alternate system, it will inevitably stunt and delay the organic growth of a vibrant and genuinely inclusive mainstream system. Its existence as an alternate system obscures the current limitations of the mainstream system, alleviates the pressure on Governments to address those limitations and denies the transfer of valuable resources to the mainstream system.

The simple economic fact is that Governments cannot afford to, and in any case do not, properly resource two alternate education systems for students with disability.

The need for Governments to dismantle “special” segregated systems and channel their resources into inclusive education was a clear and common theme of the Day of General Discussion regarding Article 24 of the CRPD held in Geneva on 15 April 2015.

In Australia, mainstream schools that are anecdotally regarded as leaders in inclusive education seem to be disproportionately found at the fringes of urbanisation – in newly created residential areas – away from the established “special” school infrastructure – where the effects of the “special” segregated system as an alternative to the local mainstream school are, as a practical matter, minimised or largely removed. In these new areas, mainstream schools have greater incentive and need to embrace inclusive education and they are succeeding.

So now returning to the initial question, “Will there be special schools on Mars?” I would say that, on the basis that Mars is a blank education landscape free from the imprint of special school infrastructure and remote from our historical propensity to segregate, the answer will be “no”. But we can’t afford the timeframe for reaching genuinely inclusive education for all children on Earth to be comparable to that for inter-planetary settlement. As self-advocate Mia Farah posed at the Day of General Discussion:

“How many generations of persons with disabilities have [already] been lost.”

 Watch panellists at the Day of General Discussion speaking to some of these themes.

Mr Jorge Cardona, Member of Committee on the Rights of the Child:

Ms Diane Richler, former President, Inclusion International:

* This article is written in my personal capacity and represents my personal views and perspective. It does not purport to represent the views of any other person or organisation, including any organisation on the board of which I may serve, in which I may be involved or which I may represent from time to time.

[Cover photo © Nick Harris ]

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