Disability education mess a throwback to Victorian times
There has been a fair bit of media coverage in the last few weeks around the education of children with disabilities. The latest round concerned the reporting of another discrimination case against the Victorian Department of Education (DoE) by a young woman with a learning disability and a language disorder.
Fifty years ago, there was little expectation that people with disabilities would gain functional literacy and numeracy skills.
However, these days, with what we know, all that is required is best practice programs, the attention of the relevant professionals, and intensive structured teaching. All apparently beyond the abilities of the DoE.
What is it like to be a child with a disability in the Victorian education system? The answer lies in a few places - the number of children self harming, requiring counselling, being bullied and leaving school without being able to read and write.
The numbers of calls to parent advocacy agencies, the numbers of mothers developing psychological problems due to the pain and stress of watching their child suffer at school. The number of children being home-schooled, receiving Distance Education (despite living close to their local school), or not attending school at all.
Well, at least we have the Disability Standards for Education, part of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), right? These Standards were developed in order that schools might have a better understanding of what their obligations are under the DDA.
Upon reading the Standards, most regular people can form expectations of what support children with disabilities should receive.
Unfortunately, those Standards have not taken into account bad faith and lawyers. The DoE have no intention of reading the Standards and understanding it the way the rest of us do, and with the help of their lawyers, have mangled the definitions of words and terms we all thought we understood.
In 2010, W vs State of Victoria, a claim of discrimination by a boy who had Aspergers, Learning Disability, and Severe Pragmatic Language Disorder, it was decided by the judge at the urging of that DoE that “consultation” could actually mean a chat at the bus stop, or over the school fence rather than anything formal. And to you students with disabilities and/or your parents, don’t think that “consultation” means that anyone has to take any notice of what you actually say.
“Consultation” now means that there can be no proof of the “consultation” and if there is any proof, DoE staff have no compulsion other than to do exactly what they wish to do, regardless of what your opinions are.
Take another term: “Individual Education Plan”. Those of us who have taken the time and trouble to read DoE policies and guidelines, or even typed up the term into Google, understood that such a plan is a written document, capable of being monitored, reviewed and evaluated for success and altered accordingly.
In W vs State of Victoria and S vs State of Victoria the DoE have made it clear that they have a different view, and Individual Education Plans for students with disabilities can be in teachers “heads”. Conveniently, when they are in someone’s “head”, no one knows what the plan is.
The Standards talk about adjustments to be made for students which are “reasonable”. Apparently, “reasonable” means anything that doesn’t cost any money (unless you are one of the very few lucky students who attract funding), doesn’t require any expertise, and doesn’t require much out of the norm - in order that other students with disabilities can take advantage of what you’re doing, whether that is appropriate for them or not. After all - they’re all the same aren’t they?
“Professional development” would be another example. This now means any generic two-hour staff training session that instantly, according to the DoE, makes the teacher an expert in Little Johnny’s high functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder - making the necessity for an actual expert, completely redundant.
However there is absolutely no need to get depressed and disheartened about the fact that the Standards are fairly meaningless.
Firstly, the constitutional challenge that the DoE are mounting against the child with multiple disabilities in S vs State of Victoria reported on in the papers may succeed, and if so, according to the DoE, no one can tell them what to do in the education of children with disabilities. All that waffle in about bringing in sign language interpreters, speech pathologists, communication support workers etc may be nothing for us to worry our pretty little heads about in the future.
Secondly, how many people with disabilities and their families can access the DDA anyway? Hands up who can afford to pay a lawyer and barrister to represent them at the Federal Court! Hands up who wants to take the risk of losing a court case and owing the DoE or the local university hundreds of thousands of dollars! Hellooo??? Strangely, I can’t see you.
The community legal service that is able to represent you for free consists of 2.6 staff. Enough said.
Let’s look at the American Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to confirm the backwater Victorian students with disabilities live in.
I have a dream. That all young people with disabilities receive the supports they require to reach their educational potential. That children with ADHD and Autism are not regarded by teachers as belligerent troublemakers.
That teachers are given every resource they need to do what they want to do - ensure the successful learning of ALL their students. That children with disabilities have a school life free of bullying, depression, self harm and ostracism by other students and staff. I have a dream.
Julie Phillips is a Disability Advocate and manages the Disability Discrimination Legal Service in Victoria.
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