Research has shown that when included in the mainstream school system, children with a disability thrive in their learning.
This practice is called inclusive education, which is defined as education free from discriminatory beliefs, attitudes and practices, including free from ableism. Inclusive education requires putting inclusive values into action to ensure all children and adults belong, participate and flourish.
Studies by Children with a Disability Australia (CDA), the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) and others has shown that the bringing together of mainstream and special education students has profound benefits to both.
One organisation, Family Advocacy, works with families to promote and defend the rights and interests of people with developmental disability.
The organisation’s senior systemic advocate, Meg Clement-Couzner, told The Educator that the most compelling argument for inclusive education is that separating whole classes of people based on their characteristics – such as race, religion or disability – is not only “wrong”, but leads to “tragic outcomes”.
“Australian and international evidence overwhelmingly shows that students with disabilities have poorer academic and vocational outcomes in disability-specific settings, compared to those who are included into regular educational settings,” she said.
“Children without disabilities also benefit both academically and socially from inclusive education, with equal or better academic outcomes. Both morally and logically, inclusion is the right thing to do”.
Clement-Couzner added that when the educational system is not inclusive, what it reflects are assumptions that children with disability cannot learn or do not deserve the same standards of education as others – something she said “is just not true”.
“People with disability, including intellectual disability and very profound disability, can have education, jobs, friends, partners and meaningful lives – if society lets them,” she said.
How principals can help
Family Advocacy runs workshops and information sessions for families who have a child with a disability. However, Clement-Couzner pointed out that there are also meaningful steps that principals can take to ensure an inclusive education for such children.
“While there is a legal right for children with disability to attend the regular class in the local school, often there is not the expectation that they will do so,” she said.
“The number one thing principals could do to complement the effort of inclusion advocates is to set an expectation of inclusion by communicating to parents at the stage of enrolment that not only can their children with disabilities attend the regular class; they are welcome and expected to do so.”
Clement-Couzner added that principals can also communicate this expectation clearly to their teachers and staff.
“Parents of children with disability regularly receive the message that there is a ‘special place’ with ‘better resources’ away from the regular children,” she said.
“The best thing principals could do is say: ‘yes, we can teach and support your child right here with everyone else,’ and then organise themselves as a group to make sure that message is being communicated consistently across the State.”
Culture of anti-discrimination ‘going backwards’
Clement-Couzner said that in the last five years, enrolment in special schools in NSW has been increasing at around four times the rate of enrolment in regular schools, and there appears to be no comparable increase in rates of disability.
“Based on the evidence that all kids do better with inclusion, this amounts to an educational short-changing of our children with disability by the education system in NSW,” she said.
“When children with disability are in the regular class it is due to huge determination on the part of parents and a good attitude on the part of individual teachers – not a culture and practice of inclusion.”
Clement-Couzner said that while legally, Australia has Federal Government anti-discrimination laws that say children can attend regular school, the culture and outcomes in NSW appear to be going backwards.
“We know inclusion can be done, and is being done well, for example, in New Brunswick, Canada, Italy and some parts of the US,” she said.
“With the right government and political will we can turn this around for students with disability in NSW and Australia.”
David Roy, a lecturer in Education and Creative Arts at the University of Newcastle, is a firm believer in the benefits of inclusive education.
Roy, who was a teacher for 17 years before becoming an academic, told The Educator that including children with a disability into mainstream classes “creates a better community and societal cohesion in the long-run”.
“All the international data tells us that when children with a disability are allowed to learn in mainstream classrooms, not only do they learn to succeed, the other students in the classroom without the label succeed to a higher degree.”
Roy added that by removing the separate facilities, schools can also save money and improve the learning conditions for special needs students.
“Inclusive classrooms take the financial pressure off schools, as they will no longer require those separate classroom areas. These are often a demountables and not the best conditions for children to learn in anyway,” he said.