"Inclusion is based on the belief that students of all abilities have the right to an education that is meaningful, appropriate and equivalent to that of their peers".
It's not an easy decision when considering where to place your child with a disability for their schooling. In fact, it can be a frustrating and often lonely experience. Which is why I find it heartbreaking to hear stories of parents contacting schools about enrolling their child only to be told by the administration they are unable to cater for the child's needs. My first question would be "why?". In order to be prepared for the reasoning behind their answer, it is important you are able to confidently advocate, by arming yourself with the knowledge and understanding about the best approaches to accessing a meaningful and appropriate education for your child.
It has been said that 'knowledge is power', and in order to effectively and successfully advocate for your child it's important to get to know their rights and the range of information and options that are available when seeking an appropriate educational setting. My aim is to share a variety of websites, documents and blogs that are available in order for you to familiarise yourself about the rights of students with disabilities in education.
I want you to know that I will not be advocating for a specific learning context for all children with disabilities. I honestly can't claim that there is a 'one size fits all' approach. Ultimately, it is you, the parent or carer who knows better than anyone else what the optimal learning environment will be for your child.
In Australia, there are currently two public school setting options for a child with a disability - mainstream and special schools. Both have their benefits and it really comes down to which setting meets your child's needs. Rigorous criteria is in place for special school settings, meaning your option may only be the mainstream school setting. And this is ok. As a teacher I have seen many children successfully included in schools through all year levels with many positive outcomes. It can be done!
When you initially approach a school about enrolling your child ensure you are prepared with a list of questions about how the school will accommodate your child's needs. In addition to this, consider what you specifically require for your child to achieve successful outcomes in a school setting. This list should include questions about:
Access: If your child has a physical or visual impairment, are they able to successfully move around the school to participate in activities? Some children have issues with elopement when they initially start school. Check on whether there is adequate fencing. Is it easy for a child to open gates?
Levels of knowledge & understanding: Ask what experience the school has with other children who have had disabilities. How have they catered for them? Are the staff provided with many professional development opportunities to improve their knowledge and inclusive practices around students with disabilities? In their 2016 paper, Roberts and Simpson identified 'attitudes to inclusion', and 'knowledge and understanding' as some of the key factors impacting on the effectiveness and success of inclusive practices in mainstream schools for children with Autism.
Differentiation: what do teachers do differently in the classroom to cater for those children who have learning difficulties? Are they open to modifying curriculum content? If your child has learning difficulties, are there options of an Individual Support Plan (ISP) or an Individual Curriculum Plan (ICP)? (Note: These plans apply to Education Queensland schools however you should find the equivalent in other states). What processes are in place for monitoring the effectiveness of interventions and academic progress?
Flexibility: If your child is just starting school the experience can be completely overwhelming. Is the school open to flexible days? Are less days or shorter days an option?
Effective collaboration: ensuring the school provides open lines of communication as well as a shared vision is another essential component for cultivating student success.
If you're not quite sure about what your child's rights are when participating in or gaining access to an educational environment, I would recommend the following documents and online sites to support your knowledge and understanding of the rights of disabled students in education.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person because of their disability, in many areas of public life, including education. The Australian Human Rights website provides a detailed overview of the DDA as well as details of the contact agencies in your state or territory.
Australia has aligned itself with 80 other countries around the world and signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The contents of this international human rights convention outline the fundamental rights of people with disabilities. Check out their website for further clarification around the terms used in both the CRPD and the DDA.
Family Advocacy in NSW; Queensland Collective for Inclusive Education and Inclusive Schools Australia are three websites providing valuable resources and information for families and professionals about inclusive education. These organisations offer workshops and event opportunities as well. I'm sure there are equivalent organisations in most other states and territories.
Parents may also choose to send their child to alternative schools and there are a number of options other than the typical state-run 'mainstream' or 'special schools'. Disability specific schools are becoming more common across Australia. One example is the Woodbury School in Sydney who provide 'educationally sound, research-validated teaching and learning methodologies, catering for students with Autism from Kindergarten to Year 6. The learning environment at Woodbury uses a multi-disciplinary approach with a team consisting of teachers, SLP, OT and behaviour support specialists. Many alternative schools offer both short and long term placements. Sometimes it is a matter of your child learning a repertoire of prerequisite skills prior to transitioning to a mainstream school.
I highly recommend the blogs written by 'Michael's Mum'. Recently, Julia enrolled her son Michael who has Autism into a mainstream school. You can follow her journey to this point as she shares her experiences on advocating towards successful inclusion for Michael. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed at times check in with Julia's blogs, and you will realise you are not alone in your journey.
Finally, a meaningful, appropriate and equivalent education in relation to same-age peers can differ from one family to the next. As I mentioned earlier, a good place to start is to sit down first and think about what matters. Consider what is important to you about your child's education and go from there. The decision of where to enrol your child is your journey, and the place you navigate to is going to be the one where you feel is the best fit for your child. This may be dependant on many variables related to the specific needs of your child.
I have tried to give you an overview in this blog of information and resources you may find beneficial for building a knowledge base. This is by no means an exhaustive list and tends to have a greater Autism specific focus. You may find your state or territory agencies and local community organisations are able to provide more comprehensive, additional information covering other disabilities.
And remember, if the experience is overwhelming for you - reach out. There are many knowledgeable and experienced individuals out there from a variety of organisations (as well as parents and carers!) who are promoting and advocating for inclusion and social equity in both education and the wider community.
ADCET Home. (2019). Retrieved 30 August 2019, from https://www.adcet.edu.au/
Home | Australian Human Rights Commission. (2019). Retrieved 30 August 2019, from https://www.humanrights.gov.au/
Roberts, J., & Simpson, K. (2016). A review of research into stakeholder perspectives on inclusion of students with autism in mainstream schools. International Journal Of Inclusive Education, 20(10), 1084-1096. doi: 10.1080/13603116.2016.1145267
Home - Woodbury. (2019). Retrieved 1 September 2019, from https://www.woodbury.org.au/