Parents of children with disabilities around Australia are nodding their head in agreement and with approval of the Senate Committee’s report on students with disabilities and schools, released this month.
The report doesn’t tell them anything they don’t already know, or haven’t already experienced themselves, but it validates the pervasive experience of the failure of mainstream schools to provide truly inclusive schooling to children with disabilities in Australia.
Most parents take as a given the principle of inclusive schooling. Take, for instance, the child who requires glasses: they are included, possibly with a few modifications to their environment to maximise their learning potential, with little or no comment. If a child has diabetes or asthma, or suffers from anaphylaxis, schools have clear guidelines and procedures to ensure that those children can be safely and effectively included into their local school community. But if they have autism, for instance, that assurance – that basic trust that each child’s individual needs can and will be met by his or her school – is severely undermined.
They are what are categorised "high-functioning", in part because they are verbal and have no "obvious" public signs of disability.
I use autism as an example because – apart from being in the public eye after the Canberra cage and similar incidents – two of my three young boys have Autism Spectrum Disorder. They are what are categorised "high-functioning", in part because they are verbal and have no "obvious" public signs of disability. Indeed, to most passers-by, my three boys are just part of a "normal" family: their disability is invisible to all but those with whom we share our lives intimately.
My eldest son was one of those kids that preschool teachers label "quirky". He knew lots – far too much for someone his age – and stayed obsessed with Thomas & Friends far after his peers had lost interest in such babyish preoccupations. He wasn’t disliked by his peers, but then he didn’t have friends either. And he was annoyingly literal, with little sense of social nuance.
I remember one of his preschool teachers complaining that he was oppositional because he refused to follow the transition routine which required children to "read" a book on the mat. Since my son knew that he couldn’t actually read, he had no idea how to accomplish this seemingly impossible task, and he couldn’t understand that by "reading" his teacher meant "looking at"; she refused to modify her language to accommodate him.
Then there was the time where he was devastated by getting in trouble because he had stomped on someone else’s sand castle, not maliciously mind you, but to emphasise the fact that sand castles were oxymoronic constructs since sand was necessarily weak whereas a castle’s purpose was to be strong.
When my son started at his local mainstream public school, I held my breath. I knew he was probably on the autism spectrum, but I didn’t want him to wear that label unnecessarily. I pre-emptively alerted his teacher to his various, profound anxieties. I checked in with her every day. I tried to steer her away from referring to him in the classroom as her "Little Professor". I notified her, the school counsellor and the principal, when, as the year progressed, he came home catatonic or so distressed that he would hit and kick and bite himself, and his father and I, just to release some of the anxious energy he had amassed through the day. And when he began refusing to get ready for school every morning by lying on the floor and beating himself, I made sure the school knew that too. They knew that my child keened like a dying animal every day in anticipation of going to school. Nothing happened. He was ignored. I was ignored.
Things got progressively worse. Eventually my husband and I had him diagnosed with autism. Not to confirm what we already knew, but, we hoped, to provide the school with some understanding – some sympathy – for who our little boy really was.
It was a rude shock to realise that his school had no expertise in the condition, let alone in educating a child on the spectrum or diffusing the anxieties that seemed inherent for him in just being at school.
It was a difficult time. We had always been staunchly "anti-labelling" and pigeon-holing him as "autistic" seemed risky. In the end, the promise of an empathetic audience from his school outweighed the potential for stereotyping and stigmatisation. I informed the school of his diagnosis. Nothing happened. I had hoped that with a label would come the requisite knowledge to make school a successful, happy and safe experience for my son.
It was a rude shock to realise that his school had no expertise in the condition, let alone in educating a child on the spectrum or diffusing the anxieties that seemed inherent for him in just being at school. In the end, the diagnosis was ignored, just as his plight had been ignored all year. He slipped into a clinically depressed state, from which he is still struggling to emerge.
To be fair, my son has incredibly complex educational, intellectual, autism and mental health profiles which makes schooling him difficult to say the least. I don’t envy his teachers who are faced with his implacable risk aversion fed by a sense of perfectionism and bolstered by an ingrained failure mentality. I don’t envy trying to challenge his exceptional intellect within the bounds allowed by that fragile approach to learning. But not to try, to give up on him in his first year of formal schooling, a lost cause whose best hope was to "limp by" at school: well, that is unforgiveable.
I don’t retell my son’s experiences to elicit sympathy, but to offer yet another voice to the multitude of parents who struggle to have their children with disabilities adequately educated.
We all take a shocked breath when the sensation of caging autistic children hits the headlines, or at the number of accusations of bullying and abuse revealed by the Senate Inquiry. But your child doesn’t have to be caged or bullied to be failed deeply by the educational system. Mine was just ignored. It isn’t on the same scale by any means, but it was a failure and a betrayal nonetheless.
Don’t take for granted that the university degree that your child’s teacher took many, hard years to be awarded has taught them how to educate your child.
So don’t take for granted that your child has been taught to read in their first years at school. My child hasn’t. Don’t take for granted that your child’s academic, social and emotional needs are being addressed (and if you’re very lucky, met). My child’s aren’t. Don’t take for granted that the university degree that your child’s teacher took many, hard years to be awarded has taught them how to educate your child. That degree doesn’t give most teachers the slightest insight into educating my child.
We live in a world in which diversity – neurodiversity and physical diversity – is becoming a norm rather than an exception. We live in a world in which your child is almost certain to sit alongside a child like mine, a child with a disability, at some, or indeed many, points in his or her educational career.
It is in all our best interests that the government action the Senate inquiry’s recommendations so that our teachers and our children – all of our children – are valued as inquiring, worthy, and respected members of the educational community: so that my child might be as safe, content, and educated at his school as yours is at theirs.