THE level of discrimination children with disabilities experience in school is equal to that of black South Africans under apartheid, says a Western Australian advocate.
Curtin University Faculty of Health Sciences Adjunct Associate Professor Robert Jackson says the apartheid regime consciously used the education system to prepare black people for life as one of the under-class.
“It is hard to explain the segregated education system for people with a disability in Australia in any other way,” Dr Jackson, who has a PhD in psychology, says.
“It’s separating children with disabilities into separate classrooms and even separate schools, telling parents they need to be with their ‘own tribe’.
“After a century or more of segregated education we know that the outcome is a life apart; in institutions or group homes and sheltered workshops.”
Federal Government figures show that 17 per cent, or nearly 70,000 of all WA’s 407,562 school children across Government and non-Government schools, have a disability or learning difficulty, after a surge in recent years in the number of children diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
Many are segregated from other students into Education Support Units – separate buildings located alongside schools – and in many cases individual students are accompanied to mainstream classes by a teacher’s assistant.
Other children, considered to have higher needs, are placed in Education Support Schools – entirely separate schools.
And parents are increasingly angry.
Among their litany of complaints is that children in ESUs are excluded from learning the curriculum and largely taught by education assistants, not qualified teachers.
Dr Jackson says such segregation contravenes the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with a Disability – to which Australia is a signatory – which says students with disabilities have the right to learn alongside other typically developing students in mainstream classrooms, not in segregated, separate or self-contained programs.
He explains; “If you walked into a school and saw all the girls being taken to a separate section of the school and they were being taught cooking and all those life skills and the boys were in the main part of the school learning academic skills – how would you feel about that?”
“You walk into a school in Australia and you see all the kids with disabilities in a separate section learning life skills and all the mainstream kids learning things on the curriculum. Why is that different?”
WA education minister Sue Ellery says the decision about whether to send children to a local school or an Education Support Centre is ultimately up to parents.
“That decision would be based on what the school offers and the needs of their child,” she says.
“If they would like their children to attend their local school, the school will make adjustments to cater for their needs.”
However, research released in 2017 on ‘gatekeeping practices’ shows a staggering 70 per cent of parents of children with disabilities nationally reported that schools employ a range of tactics to exclude children with disabilities from schools and mainstream classes.
They included refusing to enrol them, telling parents their children are better off with their disabled peers and that they won’t cope outside an ESU.
The number of families resorting to legal action against education departments across Australia on the grounds of discrimination is increasing.
But Dr Jackson says the financial and emotional cost to parents discourages many from court action.
To help, advocacy group All Means All (of which Dr Jackson is a board member) is gauging support for a class action as part of a growing movement to overhaul the existing system and end segregated education.
Italy had closed all its special schools by 1977 and it is now considered a model for inclusive education internationally.
In a fully inclusive classroom, children with disabilities are supported by their classmates, teacher and teacher’s assistant who provides support across the entire class.
Ms Ellery says the State Government is fulfilling an election commitment by putting an additional 300 education assistants back into classrooms.
“Starting this school year, education assistants will be employed in 238 primary schools and district high schools and will work across kindergarten to Year 2 and be permanent on appointment,” she says.
However, Perth mother Michelle Lyons says the education assistant for her son Caleb, who is on the autism spectrum, was little more than a “babysitting service”.
“He was becoming increasingly stressed about going to school,” she says.
“He’d be crying and he didn’t want to be left there; he was very uncomfortable in the class so they asked me to come to school with him.
“I found it just wasn’t the environment for him; he was off in his own little world and no one seemed to care too much.
“Once I saw what was going on, I could see that as he got older he’s going to be shoved to the back of the classroom and it becomes more of a babysitter service; I could see there was no one guiding him and helping him.”
Ms Lyons withdrew Caleb.
They are part of a growing wave of desperate Western Australian parents turning to home education.
Today, about 3500 Western Australian children are home-schooled.
Peak home-schooling body Home Education WA co-ordinator Gabrielle Crosse says the percentage of children they have with disabilities has risen from an estimated 15 per cent to a staggering 50 per cent over the past 15 years and the most prominent diagnosis among them is autism spectrum disorder.
Ms Crosse said that at the end of each year she gets a flood of calls from distraught parents saying their child is not coping at school and they are at their “wits’ end” about what to do.
One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson controversially claimed in Federal Parliament in 2017 that education standards could be improved if children with disabilities were in ‘special schools’ to prevent them taking teacher time away from typically developing children.
Dr Jackson says such a move ignores extensive scientific research that proves the opposite.
It includes the most recent research by Harvard Graduate School of Education Dr Thomas Hehir (2017) that analysed 4.8 million students and found inclusive learning environments, where children with disabilities are embraced as part of the mainstream classroom, had no detrimental impact and some positive impacts on the academic performance of non-disabled students.
The positives include reducing fear of human difference and the development of ethical and moral principles.
However, Catherine McDonald of Perth says taking precious teacher time from other children was a major concern for her geologist husband Andrew, when they searched for the right education for their daughter Sofia, who has Williams Syndrome.
Sofia had been taught alongside neurotypical children in pre-primary but in Year 1 she was steered to an Education Support Unit attached to her government primary school.
Ms McDonald says alarm bells rang for her almost immediately when Sofia and another child with a disability from the Special Education Unit did not even appear on the Year 1 class list.
They did not exist to the mainstream school.
Sofia became increasingly isolated socially and regressed developmentally.
But the family stuck it out, only moving her after school staff took umbrage at their request to explore helping Sofia participate more fully in the mainstream school alongside her kindergarten peer group.
Mr McDonald admits he feared other students would suffer academically with Sofia in the class but as a scientist he could not argue with the research that said otherwise.
“It was black and white,” he says.
“When I started reading the research I started thinking of it a little bit more logically; the education support units and centres are management and if you are having a child in an environment where they are managed 24/7 and not have contact with their typically developing peers, what is it going to look like for them when they come out of Year 12?”
Dr Jackson says society has rejected people with disabilities for thousands of years.
“Now we have the UN saying these students belong in the mainstream school. We have had two generations; 25 years to get that together, and I reckon that’s long enough,” he says.
– Kerry Faulkner has three times been named Best Freelance Journalist at the WA Media Awards. She is the parent of a child with a disability.