As part of our series on the Disability Royal Commission’s Final Report, Kiind Systemic Advocacy Lead, Renée Darbyshir discusses what it means for inclusive education and students with disability.
The Final Report of the Disability Royal Commission contains recommendations for the phasing out of segregated schooling, employment, and housing for people with disability. There was some disagreement among the Commissioners on the recommendation to phase out segregated education – half of the Commissioners argue that this must occur to align with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) while the other half of Commissioners advocate for individual autonomy and the right of families to have the option of specialised education for children with disability.
Those advocating for de-segregation argue that if mainstream education was truly inclusive, then the needs of all students could be met. Those who argue for the need to maintain non-mainstream specialist schools for students with disability are wanting to ensure families have choice and control about the type of education and care their children receive.
Regardless of where you sit on the continuum between specialist disability education and inclusive education, it is clear from the findings of the Disability Royal Commission that the mainstream education system is failing to achieve mainstream inclusion.
“I saw and felt the pain of these children and their families who have tried so hard to be included in the mainstream system only to be dismissed and excluded by that system that did not welcome them.”
Commissioner McEwin, Final Ceremonial Hearing of the Disability Royal Commission, September 15 2023.
The poor design and resourcing of mainstream spaces, the lack of understanding about what inclusion means and what it takes, and low willingness to make meaningful changes in mainstream settings, has led to the ongoing segregation, exclusion, neglect and harm of children with disabilities in mainstream schools and classrooms.
The right to belong – addressing ableism
It occurs to me that the debate about inclusive education could be framed differently – not a phasing out of specialist schools for children with disability, but a phasing out of mainstream education – we need to replace mainstream settings with safe, inclusive spaces where our children belong.
We need a drastic culture shift where we no longer tolerate the notion that there is such a thing as a ‘main’ stream of education delivery, outside of which students with disability tend to sit.
The implication of a phrase like ‘mainstream’ is that there are other, less ordinary, separate streams of education. This is an example of ableism: the harmful social norm that devalues people with disability as deficient. Ableism leads the system to ‘other’ those whose needs are not met in the mainstream: inclusion is seen as the exception rather than the rule, located as a problem in the individual (fought for individually) rather than understood as a responsibility of the system to uphold.
As one young person’s testimony to the Disability Royal Commission stated:
“Disability is not something that should need to be accommodated for. This sounds ridiculous, but hear me out. It should be accepted as part of the natural spectrum of human diversity. There should be no need whatsoever to go above and beyond to ensure children with disability have access to an education because there should not be a system, there should not be a world, there should not be a country, there should not be a department that perpetuates systematic inequities and inequalities and discrimination…This is the bare minimum, and it is needed, and it is required.”
This is why it is more helpful to understand the recommendations of the Disability Royal Commission as the phasing out of a broken mainstream system, replacing the system with inclusive spaces that cater to the needs of all students and provide the same levels of support and assistance that are currently found in non-mainstream settings designed for students with disability.
We should design systems for everybody, focusing first on designing for the people with the highest support needs – not considering these needs as afterthoughts to be negotiated on an individual, case-by-case basis. That is not inclusion. There should not be an education setting such as the current mainstream system that excludes or side-lines students with disability. We need to keep pushing for the voices of children, their parents and carers to be heard and understood. We need to continue to highlight the need for collective advocacy, system change and significant resourcing to support real inclusion and belonging.
Belonging is a word I have been reflecting on a lot these past weeks. We all have the same basic needs and drives as humans – we all have a need to belong, to have a place, to love and be loved. The Disability Royal Commission found that our current systems do not meet these basic needs for many people with disability. Belonging is more than an action or an attitude, it is a feeling. Most of us have experienced the pain of rejection; the uneasy feeling when we sense we do not belong in a group or place where our needs for safety or acceptance have not been met. Too many of us feel we don’t belong in a world that wasn’t built to accommodate our physical, emotional, or social needs.
I want a world where our children are not merely integrated or even included, but where they are embraced, respected, and know that they are valued. For me, a key measure of success for the Disability Royal Commission would be that felt sense of belonging among the disability community – children and adults, families and carers – across all the systems and places we interact in – not just in the safe, secluded spaces we have carved out for ourselves.
In case you missed it, read Renée’s summary of the Disability Royal Commission’s Final report and discussion on human rights here.
In the next blog of this series, Renée discusses the proposed ‘provider of last resort’ scheme and what it means for families. Click here to read it.
To find out more about Kiind’s systemic advocacy, click here. If you would like to share you child’s experience in education to help inform our systemic advocacy click here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.