27 February 2019
All Means All – The Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education is saddened but not surprised that yet another story of abuse of students with disabilities has come to light, in this case involving serious allegations of physical and verbal abuse of a 5 year-old student with Down syndrome in a segregated special unit co-located with a mainstream government school in New South Wales. Unfortunately, we know from our work with families that for many students with disabilities, abuse in our schools is a pervasive and devastating reality.
The story which aired on Channel 9’s “A Current Affair” program today, included audio recordings taken by the child’s parents after they suspected physical abuse but had their concerns dismissed. We understand that they decided to approach the media after contacting the NSW Department of Education and feeling dissatisfied with the response and desperately concerned for their child.
“Students with disabilities, including the young student featured in the A Current Affair report, have the right to be safe from harm at school and to access a fully inclusive education in regular classrooms with their non-disabled peers, in the general education system.” said All Means All Chairperson, Gina Wilson-Burns.
While we know that entrenched prejudice, devaluation and ableist attitudes means that all students with disabilities across all educational settings are at increased risk of violence, abuse and neglect, we also know that segregation of students with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities, into separate classrooms and settings is a factor that materially heightens this risk.
This was identified in the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and in its published research, “Disability and child sexual abuse in institutional contexts”, which concluded that “[s]egregation and exclusion in closed institutional contexts away from public scrutiny leaves children (and adults) with disability at heightened risk of violence and harm including sexual abuse”, and noted the reduced oversight within segregated settings and the reduced capacity of children with cognitive disabilities to share concerns about abuse and neglect.
The right not to be segregated – whether in special classes or units in mainstream schools or in special schools – and to access a quality inclusive education is encompassed in Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which Australia is a party.
A range of international human rights instruments including General Comment No. 4 (The Right to Inclusive Education) have made it clear that the segregation of students with disabilities is a form of discrimination against them and that it is not compatible with their right to inclusive education under Article 24. For example paragraph 13 of General Comment No.4 states that “the right to non-discrimination includes the right not to be segregated and to be provided with reasonable accommodation”.
Research evidence over the last 40 years has also consistently found that students with disabilities benefit academically and socially from education in regular classrooms in the general education system. A 2008 review of comparative research found that “[n]o review could be found comparing segregation and inclusion that came out in favour of segregation in over forty years of research”. A 2017 comprehensive review of the research comprising 280 studies from 25 countries also found that inclusive education produced superior social and academic outcomes for all students and that academic and social outcomes for children in fully inclusive settings are without exception better than in segregated or partially segregated environments (e.g. special support units or classrooms).
“It’s time for governments across Australia to denounce the myth that ‘special’ segregated settings keep students with disabilities safe and are in their best interests, and to commit to real reform so that children with disabilities can be safe and fully included within the general education system. Safety comes with being valued, known and connected and that starts with being in the same classroom as all the other children.” said Ms Wilson Burns
All Means All calls on the Australian government to:
- immediately institute the announced Royal Commission into violence, abuse and neglect against people with disabilities, extending to the treatment of students with disabilities in our schools, across all settings; and
- unequivocally commit to systemic reform to implement a universally accessible, quality and fully inclusive education system in accordance with its international human rights obligations.
We also call on the NSW government to commit to genuine inclusive education reform, including by abandoning its policy decision to increase segregated support classes for students with disabilities as outlined in its response to the report of the NSW Legislative Council Portfolio Committee No.3 into “Education of students with a disability or special needs in New South Wales”:
“Support class establishments will increase in 2018 at a greater rate than general enrolment growth, consistent with trends in recent years. The trend since 2012 is for the majority of new support classes to be established in mainstream schools.”
Increasing the segregation of students with disabilities – whether in separate classrooms in mainstream schools or other segregated settings – will not achieve an inclusive education system.
The answer lies in genuine systemic reform that begins with resource-allocation driven change, guided by a national inclusive education strategy.
We hope that the young student in the A Current Affair story and her family will overcome this traumatic experience, and that they receive the support they need to ensure their child can be safe at school and access a genuinely inclusive education experience, to which she is entitled.
All Means All – The Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education is a multi-stakeholder alliance working for the implementation of an inclusive education system and the removal of the legal, structural and attitudinal barriers that limit the rights of some students, including students with disabilities, to access an inclusive education in regular Australian classrooms.
You can visit our website for more information at www.allmeansall.org.au
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