On Monday 19th October 2020, I (Leanne) was invited to be part of an ABC radio interview to discuss the education of students with disability in South Australia. In particular, the discussion centred on the education of a five-year-old boy named Nate, who has several disabilities. Nate is starting school next year in a mainstream setting. Nate’s mother was concerned that her son was not offered a segregated placement within a special school, class or unit, as she felt that a mainstream placement would not be suitable. I agree. A mainstream placement is not an inclusive placement.
Mainstream education is generally not accessible for all learners and cannot be assumed to be the same as inclusive education. Yet, it is often utilised as a proxy for inclusive education. Mainstream education was designed for the mythical ‘average student’. However, there is no such thing as an ‘average student’ as each student is a unique person with individual needs. Todd Rose in his book ‘The End of Average’ describes the traditional mainstream education system as ‘treating each student as an average student and aiming to provide each one with the same standardized education, regardless of their background, abilities or interests’ (2015 p. 51). Therefore, mainstream education offers the same education for all students by treating all students equally. It is an ineffective way of delivering education and has poor outcomes for students from diverse backgrounds, including students with disability.
Alternatively, inclusive education is a way of providing equity for students with disability. It involves a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers. Inclusive education has a vision of providing all students with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences. Inclusive education occurs when the concept of ‘average’ is discarded, and learning experiences are based on student’s strengths while providing appropriate support for areas of growth. Inclusive education is an evidence-based approach to teaching all students, including those from diverse backgrounds. It ensures that all students, not just students with disability, have improved academic and social outcomes. Inclusive education seeks to include all students in the same lesson with appropriate adaptations. However, most of what is labelled as inclusion is actually integration. Inclusive education is not providing a separate curriculum taught by a special educator in a separate place in the classroom.
At the beginning of the radio interview, David Bevan asked ‘What support should Nate receive at school in order to receive the best education he can have?’ Bevan focussed on Nate’s disability labels and described a placement in a mainstream context as a ‘disaster in the making‘. It was apparent from the direction of the conversation that Bevan had already decided that the best education for Nate was a segregated one and he dismissed the idea that inclusive education exists in South Australia. There was no room in his mind, or this discussion, for the notion of inclusive education where Nate could learn alongside his non-disabled classmates. Bevan was simply articulating the widely held belief that an inclusive agenda denies students with disabilities a good education. But does it?
Four decades of evidence-based research indicate that inclusive education results in the best outcomes, both academically and socially, for all children, those with disability and those without. There is progress taking place within our education system, and a number of schools in South Australia are moving toward an inclusive model. There are children with disabilities, and some with severe, multiple disabilities, currently experiencing inclusive education. Parents of disabled students in inclusive settings have told me how their children are thriving as they are valued members of the class, learning alongside non-disabled classmates. I have also had conversations with the school leadership in inclusive schools who are proud of the cultural shift their schools have implemented that enable them to welcome students from diverse backgrounds. Dr Kathy Cologon, a senior lecturer in Inclusive Education at Macquarie University, lists the many benefits of inclusive education below:
Benefits for students who experience disability:
• better academic and vocational outcomes than their peers in non-inclusive settings
• greater social interaction, resulting in more opportunities to establish and maintain friendships
• increased independent communication and speech and language development, in turn supporting greater inclusion and active participation
• a sense of belonging and a self-concept of not just being a receiver of help but also a giver of help
• access to a broader range of play and learning activities, which can stimulate physical development and enhance children’s experiences.
Benefits for all students:
• a more positive sense of self and self-worth
• improved behavioural development, with less ‘challenging’ or ‘disruptive’ behaviour
• greater independence
• greater social development and the opportunity to develop friendships they may not have considered or encountered otherwise
• enhanced communication and language development
• the development of qualities such as patience and trust, as well as greater awareness and responsiveness to the needs of others
• an increased awareness and valuing of diversity, and understanding of individuality
• higher quality education and care
• higher quality instruction that is better suited to individual needs.
Children and young people who do not experience disability have also been found to benefit academically from inclusive education, with equal or better outcomes than their peers in non-inclusive settings.
Benefits for teachers and educators:
• professional growth
• higher quality of engagement with students
• increased personal satisfaction
• greater confidence in their ability as an educator.
Benefits for families and the community:
• greater psychological and economic wellbeing for parents
• parents may feel more supported and confident to return to work
• a more inclusive school community
• greater community cohesion and the breaking down of discriminatory beliefs and ableist practices.
Inclusive education is the preferred model in most education systems. The Department of Education in South Australia states within the July 2020 ‘Children and students with disability policy’:
The department is committed to inclusion, taking reasonable steps to ensure that children and students with disability can attend their local preschool, children’s centre or school, on the same basis as a child or student without disability, without experiencing discrimination.
But is inclusive education a new idea? The concept of inclusive education was first recognised in the 1990s and was articulated through the Salamanca Statement in 1994. However, the necessary systemic reform to enable a shift for all schools to be inclusive has not been realised. The main barriers to inclusive education for students with disability are not due to resistance by schools or teachers, but originate in systemic failures within our society to value diversity.
So why do parents advocate for segregated settings when inclusive education offers so much more? All parents want the best for their children, and some parents, particularly those of children with significant disabilities, attempt to protect their child from a world where disability is viewed as a deficit. As well, many parents of children with disabilities have not been introduced to the disability rights movement. The disability rights movement is primarily led by adults with life-long disabilities (Darling & Heckert 2010) and parent movements tend to exclude adults with disabilities (Seligman & Darling 2007). The concern is that parents, and subsequently their children with disability, may only be aware of the medical model of disability. The medical model focusses on a disability diagnosis and there are rigid and restricted ideas about the educational and social life of a disabled person. However, a social model of disability views disability as another form of diversity and barriers to participation are considered to be in the environment. It seeks to change not only the physical barriers, but the attitudinal and social barriers as well. Parents of children with disability may also face resistance to their child receiving an inclusive education from parents of non-disabled children.
I am mindful of advocating for inclusive education without adequate resourcing, capacity development of staff and a cultural shift in expectations, language and beliefs. Parents will continue to push for their child to be enrolled, and funding to be directed to, segregated settings until they have some degree of certainty that their child will be valued in inclusive settings. Until our society hears more positive stories on inclusive education, segregated education will continue to be in demand. I would like ABC Radio to provide a balanced account of the issue by interviewing a parent whose child is experiencing an inclusive education. I wish Nate and his family all the best for his education.
Darling, R.B. & Heckert, D.A. (2010) Orientations Toward Disability: Differences Over the Lifecourse in International Journal of Disability, Development and Education Vol. 57 Issue 2
Rose, T. (2015) The end of average: How we succeed in a world that values sameness San Francisco: HarperOne/HarperCollins
Seligman, M. & Darling, R.B. (2007) Ordinary Families Special Children: A Systems Approach to Childhood Disability New York: The Guildford Press