All children, all schools: making education accessible

By Marisa MaCague, Meredith Fordyce and Kathryn Finemore

By Marisa McCague, Meredith Fordyce and Kathryn Finemore. This article is part of our July focus on the rights of children and youth. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.

Recently a mother tried to enroll her child at her local primary school. The Principal took it upon himself to ring the Principal of the local Special School, and between them, without involving the family, decided the child should attend the Special School and informed the mother of this. Many parents are driven to tears when the Principal, as leader of the school community, is not prepared to enrol their precious child, just because the child has a disability.

Families choose schools for different reasons, such as individual child and sibling needs, locality and proximity to transport, curriculum, facilities and expertise. Their choices should be respected. Schools should be representative of the whole community. Yet many children with a disability are not accepted by the school of their choice. Is this because of prejudice? Lack of understanding or training? Or lack of funding, perceived or real? Ultimately it doesn’t matter, as the end result is the same. The Shut Out Report gives a clear picture of how Australians with a disability are included in education and more broadly – and the name says it all! The Report found that:

“Despite education standards drafted under the Disability Discrimination Act, the education system continues to fail to respond to the needs of students with disabilities and, as a result, these students continue to lag behind on a range of attainment indicators” (p.47).

Have you noticed the number of media articles that feature families of children with a disability describing the difficulties they experience accessing appropriate education support? Yooralla often hears similar stories directly from families, who, as outlined on page iv of the Shut Out Report “face a constant struggle to obtain what the rest of the community would consider to be an ordinary life. They do not want special treatment – they just want the barriers removed so they can get on with living.” Such challenges and set-backs are incredibly isolating and emotionally stressful for families.

Being included in the community and having access to appropriate education should be upheld as basic human rights. The Disability Standards for Education 2005 provide a framework for this, but they place the onus on families to complain, rather than placing the responsibility on schools to be accessible and inclusive. On many levels the philosophy is sound but the implementation flawed.

Can you remember the last time you went to vote? Often it is at a school, and at the last election there was not one fully accessible school listed in my local area. If children cannot even get into the building how can they hope to be welcomed into the school community? If principles of universal design are considered in the buildings and the playground when schools are planned schools would be much closer to becoming accessible and welcoming environments. This gets us inside the gate but can we enrol? And if we get through that hurdle will our child be supported?

This gets us inside the gate but can we enrol? And if we get through that hurdle will our child be supported?

Many children with a disability do not get the support or resources that they need to participate, learn and develop in school. For example, one Yooralla staff member reported:

A child was left in a pram for years, without any appropriate therapeutic assessment and wheelchair fitting. This resulted in permanent damage and muscle contractures due to the lack of physiotherapy input to provide ideas and support with exercise, stretching and appropriate positioning. Other children may have communication devices that are left in the cupboard, effectively gagging their ability to communicate.

If a family has a child with a disability, they can be forced to supply resources for their child that other students receive as a matter of course.  A Yooralla therapist reported:

A mother on a pension had to pay hundreds of dollars she could not afford so that her child would have a chair he could sit in at school. Other parents are expected to provide aides for the classroom, or keep their child at home from school part or full time. Many families are told “funding will only cover assistant time for your child so your child will not receive any therapy or equipment”.

There can be a focus on open enrolments, physical access to buildings, and access to the curriculum, but what every parent wants is for their child to be happy and make friends at school. Some children with a disability may have support, but may not be included:

A child with complex medical needs was continually flanked by aides and kept indoors, socially isolated from his peers for their entire schooling. Others experience bullying because they are seen as different or vulnerable.

Policies of “inclusion” reinforce difference – should we instead be embracing diversity? Every child has individual needs and strengths, and must be supported accordingly; every family is different and supports their child in different ways. Imagine if that was the starting point – difference was accepted and embraced, rather than trying to fit everyone into the same mould. Children themselves can teach us how easy it is to be accepting and inclusive . A child included in their community, supported to thrive, will be better prepared to be a valued member of the community in adulthood.

Children themselves can teach us how easy it is to be accepting and inclusive .

There are some schools that are fantastic; they are welcoming, focused on individual student outcomes and work in partnership with the family. If only this was our educational standard. The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Yooralla is advocating for is based on the premise that Every Australian Counts, and support should be a right rather than a luxury. We look forward to the day this is the case and children with a disability are welcome and supported in every school.

…Every Australian Counts, and support should be a right rather than a luxury.

Marisa McCague, Meredith Fordyce and Kathryn Finemore are Yooralla Group Managers for Children’s Services. Yooralla provides a range of supports to childen and adults with disabilities and their families. For further information on Yooralla services call (03) 9666 4500 or TTY: (03) 9916 5899 or email