Canberra families and children with a disability are being offered a “false choice” between mainstream and specialist schools because of resourcing discrepancies, an ACT Assembly inquiry into education and inclusion has heard.
Advocacy for Inclusion’s policy head Stacy Rheese said the ACT’s current regime did not give parents a true choice because support within mainstream schools was not available for their children.
Some schools told parents that they would not be able to adequately handle children with a disability, while others indicated that their school would not be a welcoming environment for the student, she said.
“As long as resourcing and funding are separated between [segregated and mainstream school] systems, can a parent really go to a mainstream school and have the full knowledge that their child with a disability is going to receive the best support?
“The concern is … we cannot give parents a true choice in engaging with a mainstream school when we are not providing those schools [with the resources] to give the best possible support they can.
“Some parents are choosing segregated schools because they feel like their child will not be welcomed or supported [at a mainstream school].”
Ms Rheese said there were instances where children were being separated, and equipment or infrastructure was being used to seclude or isolate them from others.
This included zipping at student with a disability inside a trampoline safety net enclosure while the other children participated in a physical education class.
ACT Council of Social Service’s (ACTCOSS) policy manager Craig Wallace said there could be a perception from parents that their child with a disability would be bullied or abused at mainstream schools, but the evidence showed that students were no safer at segregated schools.
“Children with a disability are not safer in segregated environments either in terms of violence, sexual abuse or other forms of safety,” he said.
“It is being in an open setting that is proximate to the community, and other children and families, that keeps people safe.”
There are two specialist primary schools and two specialist high schools for children with disabilities in the ACT.
But while some schools are classified as mainstream, they engage in segregation under another name, Mr Wallace said.
This might include placing students with disabilities in separate learning environments without the same opportunities as other students. This is equally detrimental to the student, Mr Wallace said.
“There is minimal evidence to suggest that the [segregation] model is successful,” he said.
“Students with a disability deserve to be wholly included physically, socially and academically within mainstream schools in the ACT. The evidence shows that children with a disability educated in general education environments outperform their peers who have been educated in segregated settings.
“For that to happen, there needs to be a focus on upgrading school classrooms, playgrounds, toilets, ingress and egress so they meet standards of disability access.”
CEO of Carers ACT Lisa Kelly said that even when inclusive measures were put in place in schools, they often failed to work in practice because they were inaccessible to those who needed them.
“We have had some examples of sensory gardens being put into schools, but they have been put in part of the school that you have to have permission to use,” she said.
“If a child needs a sensory space, they are not capable in that moment to ask for permission to use it. So, good idea, poor layout design.”
She added that work needs to be done to understand the challenges of physical accessibility.
“We are using this idea that accessibility is around can someone get through doorways? Have we got rid of stairs? But we are not thinking about anything outside of a wheelchair to some degree.”
Ms Kelly said schools often did not consider psycho-social disability, such as sensory perception issues, within the school’s design.
These issue could include light brightness, how busy some spaces are and echoing classrooms.
“What we see more often than not is that young people with mental health conditions stop attending school because the school is not inclusive and accessible for them,” she said.
In her tenure of more than half a decade at Carers ACT, the organisation had not once been asked for input into school design by the Education Directorate, Ms Kelly said.
If this story has brought up any issues for you, you can contact Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support line on 13 11 14.