I am a teacher who is committed to inclusive education, but I have not always held this belief. For a large part of my teaching career, I taught students with disability in segregated settings. These segregated settings were special education classes and units, as well in a special school teaching students with intellectual disabilities. It was not until I moved on from classroom teaching that I had the time and space to rethink my beliefs. It was then that I made the cultural shift from supporting segregation to advocating for inclusion. But before I share my journey and the reasons behind it, I will clarify the key differences between the two philosophies.
Special education and inclusive education are based on diametrically opposed philosophies. The former utilises the medical model of disability where disability is viewed as a deficit that resides in the individual. Within this thinking, disability must be remediated so students can fit into a normative idea of education. The latter is based on the social model of disability where barriers to education stem from the environment, structures within education and negative attitudes toward disability rather than from the student’s impairment. Inclusive education is where all students, regardless of their disability, are placed into age-appropriate, general education classes in schools in their own neighbourhood, to receive high-quality education that enables them to be successful. Inclusive education recognises that variability is the norm rather than the exception. It is based on the idea of equity, where everyone receives the supports they require to be successful, rather than equality, which is where everyone receives the same.
I initially studied to be a primary school teacher within general education, yet the teaching positions I was offered were in the field of special education. There was a shortage of teachers in this field, and even when new teachers took the opportunity to teach students with disability, there were issues with their retention and attrition, resulting in a teacher shortage. I largely attribute the difficulty in filling teaching positions within special education, to the negative perception of disability resulting in biases, stereotypes and misconceptions. This negative perception of disability was evident in statements regularly made by teachers within general education, such as ‘I could never teach kids like that’, or ‘You deserve a medal for the work you do’. I am now aware that these statements are a form of ableism, which is the belief in the superiority of non-disabled people, and they objectify and devalue students with disability. Ableism is a system of power rather than one person’s belief and it is deeply entrenched within our society.
I taught students with disability in several segregated settings over many years. Initially I had no training in special education and limited exposure to people with disability beyond my family. Consequently, I lacked confidence and knowledge, and I looked to older teachers and teaching assistants as mentors. The mentors were passionate about their work and committed to their students. Segregated schools were considered by many parents and the wider community to be safe, supportive places with staff who were nurturing and caring. With the benefit of hindsight, I am now aware that students with disability were viewed through the medical model of disability. This is where disability is considered to be a tragedy, evoking pity and charity. The staff within these segregated settings were well-meaning and deeply cared about their students. On numerous occasions I overheard comments about students being ‘angels in disguise’, and how the non-disabled could learn from them. The idea that the role of disabled people is to teach others is problematic as it denies the experience of humanity where disabled people can be as flawed as the rest of us. This notion creates a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Staff often talked about the moral impetus for their career choice in emotive language, yet, this served to undermine the empowerment of students within the school. They utilised language that portrayed disabled students as helpless and dependent on non-disabled teachers and assistants, and I absorbed these beliefs. For example, it was not uncommon for students to be compared to babies or toddlers, such as ‘…he is just like a two-year old’ or ‘…she is like a baby and will need to be looked after for the rest of her life.’ This infantilisation also impacted on students’ human rights. While the students were taught about hygiene (brushing hair and teeth), they were usually denied lessons about sexuality with the misguided belief that they would never have a partner or experience intimacy. When students excelled beyond the low expectations that were set for them, this was considered inspirational. This false binary between tragedy and inspiration was taken for granted that it was the natural way of thinking about disability, yet it failed to acknowledge the structures within our society that privilege non-disabled ways of being and oppress people with disability.
I gave birth to my first child five years into my teaching career, and she was diagnosed with severe, multiple disabilities. My daughter completely changed the way I viewed disability. I read widely on disability and education, obtained information from carer support groups and completed several degrees in this area, culminating with a doctorate that researched disability and education. I educated and empowered myself in order to be the best advocate I could be for my daughter. I was exposed to the notion of inclusive education and I enrolled my daughter within a general education setting when she began school. It was a very successful placement with a dedicated teacher and assistant and school community who were committed to inclusive education. I largely attribute the success of this placement due to living in a country town that did not provide suitable segregated education placements. Instead, the general education system embraced students with disability. However, after a few years at this school, my daughter developed a number of medical issues related to her disability, and this resulted in my family’s decision to relocate to a metropolitan area. The complexity of her care meant that for a period of time my daughter was largely excluded from education. However, an initiative in South Australia led to the opportunity to attend school with a registered nurse and my daughter was enrolled in an integrated setting. Integration refers to the placement in an existing mainstream educational school with the understanding that the student with disability needs to adjust to the way education is provided to non-disabled students. Within the integration model there may be minor changes such as a ramp built to access the building, but these are additions to the way education has always been provided. There is no transformation of education or sense of connectedness and belonging. While my daughter’s teachers tried hard for this to be successful, it required systemic change from the top. As this was not forthcoming, my daughter and I discussed the issue and I moved her from the integrated setting to a disability unit that was segregated from her peers without disability. Her teachers were lovely and it was a form of respite from the hard work involved with advocating for inclusive education.
I’ve often reflected on whether this decision to enrol my daughter in a segregated school was in her best interest at that point in time. And each time I critically examine this choice, I realise it was the only way of supporting her needs at that point in time. I’m often asked by parents about the decision they are forced to make regarding enrolment for their child in a segregated placement or within general education. General 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. General 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. In my daughter’s situation, an enrolment within general education would not have been successful as it was not inclusive. Inclusive education requires systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences. Inclusive education was not available for my daughter, and is still not available today for many students with disability.
Over time, I tried to convince myself that segregated education was in the best interest of all students, both for those with disability and those without. I returned to teaching in a segregated setting, and being surrounded by well-meaning teachers who believed in segregation, I stopped thinking critically on this issue. Segregated education was the path of least resistance, especially as the fight for inclusion seemed to be too hard. I saw teachers who believed in inclusive education become exhausted and disheartened in their attempts to implement change by themselves. These teachers failed because a school-wide, cultural shift is required for inclusive education to be successful, not superficial change in one classroom. And when solo attempts at inclusive education failed, it was invariably the concept and the teacher that was labelled as a failure, rather than examining the barriers within the school system that prevented inclusion.
When I completed a doctorate, I became aware of a long-standing, large body of research indicating that inclusive education results in improved outcomes for all students. I also realised that there is little to no evidence to support many of the collectively held beliefs about segregated education. These misguided beliefs include that some students are not candidates for inclusion due to the nature of their disability, or that students without disability are disadvantaged by the presence of students with disability. It was also at this point in time that I became aware of the social conditioning that I had unknowingly absorbed that shaped my deficit view of disability. And once I realised that difference was a social construct rather than a biological one, it freed me to think differently about my daughter’s place in the world, and the place of other disabled people, including students with disability within the context of education. Being confronted with these facts and my increased contact with people in the disability community who advocate for human rights, including the right to access education on the same basis as their peers, has helped to shift my stance.
Another significant shift in my fight for inclusion and human rights for disabled people was when my disabled brother died from neglect after his disability supports were accidently removed. This experience was shocking, but what I found unbelievable was the manner in which my brother’s death was dismissed by those with power to make sure that a death like this never occurred again. Consequently, I am a now a disability advocate who fights for human rights in the field of disability so our society is safe. And school is one of the greatest forces in socialisation. It plays a vital role in ensuring our society is welcoming for disabled people through inclusive education. When schools send a clear and consistent message that people with disability are valued in our society, and seek to empower students with disability to have agency in their own lives, it is a first step towards inclusion. Inclusive education will lead to a more harmonious society where everyone will benefit.