Representatives of the South Australian and Western Australian Education Departments have admitted they need to work on supporting students with disability, after hearing about students’ experiences this week.
Public Hearing 24 of the Royal Commission into the Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability concluded today.
The hearing began with young people with disability sharing their experiences of segregation in education and parents of students with disability telling the Commission of the challenges they faced in fighting for the rights of their child.
Over yesterday and today Commissioners heard from representatives of the Education Departments of South Australia and Western Australia.
During questioning by the Counsel Assisting, Department of Education WA Director of Disability Inclusion, Stuart Percival, agreed the Department’s current policies were ableist because it has not fully engaged with people with disability on those policies.
Mr Percival says the lack of consultation and the ableism of policies is something the Department “intends to correct”.
Questions for Mr Percival also covered the Department’s position on supporting students to develop a method of communication that works for them, following evidence earlier in the week of a young man living in WA who completed school to Year 13 but still left without an established method of communication.
Mr Percival says the outcome of students leaving school without a communication method is “disheartening” and happens “regularly”.
The same young man had been sent to a small room when having a meltdown or sensory overload that could be locked from the outside, in a practice known as ‘protective isolation’, when he was in primary school.
His parents were concerned about this practice and told the Commission it also confused behavioural consequences for their son as he was sent to the room for both positive and negative reasons.
Mr Percival confirmed this practice was still in use, but with stricter requirements for schools to have the rooms approved and reviewed, and that there were currently three schools in WA with protective isolation rooms that were in use for seven students.
The process for families to complain about their child’s experiences or seek more support for their child above the school level was criticised by the Commission, but Mr Percival says he believes the existing processes are satisfactory.
Dr Caroline Croser-Barlow, Executive Director of Support and Inclusion at the Department for Education SA also discussed the funding system of her Department in relation to disability supports and admitted in South Australia there is no compulsory training for teachers around identifying learning adjustments.
This is despite the teachers often being the ones needed to start an application for support funding for a student with disability, which requires assessing the adjustments the student would benefit from.
Dr Croser-Barlow says there are ways teachers can learn about adjustments through online resources and professional development through the Department, it is just not mandatory, and that the panel assessing applications for funding also makes suggestions about additional adjustments that might help the student.
Reflecting on the experiences of witnesses from SA who have been part of this hearing, Dr Croser-Barlow says the Department has work to do.
“One of the things I really took away from the evidence of Ms Langacake and Isabella* was the extraordinary challenge of ensuring a consistent experience,” says Dr Croser-Barlow.
“It’s a significant challenge the Department has in ensuring high quality experience in every class and every school.
“Their experiences are not consistent with our expectations and fell below expectations…we aim to change that.”
Both SA and WA Government representatives confirmed no more segregated special schools were being built in their States and that new schools were being built with more “inclusive spaces”, but that existing special schools would still be maintained.
Dr Croser-Barlow added, “We are continuing to establish new special classes and disability units as demand for [these options] requires.”
Peter De Natris, Special Advisor Early Childhood Intervention and Autism at the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), told the Commission there is no policy for inclusive education within the NDIS and that it would be useful to have one.
When discussing the options offered to students to explore work, further study or other options after school through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), he admitted that support for students with disability to transition from school has also been lacking.
"It hasn't been a strength of the NDIS thus far and we are addressing it," says Mr De Natris.
Witnesses focus on the experiences of girls with autism
Katie Koullas, Founder and CEO of Yellow Ladybugs, told the Commission today that she hears from many girls and gender diverse young people with autism, and their families, about the challenges they face in the education system.
Yellow Ladybugs supports and connects girls and gender diverse young people with autism, in particular through inclusive social events.
Ms Koullas says many of these students have “invisible needs” and may be considered not disruptive enough in class to attract support.
Without the support they need this cohort is experiencing trauma from their schooling, Ms Koullas says.
“We are saying no more,” says Ms Koullas.
“We are changing things from the bottom up, we are coming together and saying enough is enough.
“We need them [the education system] to understand and celebrate different brains, just like any other difference learnt about at school.
"We need to actively promote positive, inclusive attitudes towards neurodivergence, through a whole school approach that actively involves students, staff and parents."
Learning about neuro diversity should be part of the school curriculum, Ms Koullas says, and the current practices of behaviour management need to take a more modern approach.
According to Ms Koullas behaviour management in school for students with autism stems from Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy, is not trauma informed and is “harmful and outdated”.
She says behaviour management should move to the Collaboration and Proactive Solutions (CPS) approach, which focuses on children and adults developing relationships to problem solve collaboratively, leading to “improving communication and connections and relationships” and resolving issues without conflict.
While other representatives from advocacy organisations Inclusion Australia and Children and Young People With Disability Australia (CYDA) have been calling for an end to all segregated education, Ms Koullas says there should be a more flexible and individual needs based approach to schooling.
She says remote learning, which was used by some families with great success during the pandemic, is an example of the flexible learning options that might better suit students with autism.
Alexa* accompanied Ms Koullas in appearing before the Commission to share the experiences of her daughter Bridget* who is autistic and now attends a special school after trying an independent and several public schools in her early years.
Alexa says despite Bridget being 14 she has not been granted her pen licence by her school - something that carries a lot of weight in primary school as it is supposed to show students have reached a certain standard of writing.
“In our opinion this is just another show of othering,” says Alexa.
“On some days we roll our eyes about it and laugh together and on other days she asks ‘why can’t the system be kinder to those that do things differently’?”
The special school Bridget now attends has been more understanding of her, Alexa says, as staff have worked through behaviours rather than sending her home, built trusting relationships and helped her to engage in her learning, but there is still more to be done.
Alexa back the Yellow Ladybugs’ push to have a more trauma informed approach to behaviour and says staff should also address self harming when it occurs at school, as this is a “fairly significant issue” for girls with autism.
The last recommendation Alexa has is to address sexual harassment by students, as special schools are on average attended by 80 percent male students and this causes a gender imbalance that fosters sexually violent language and objectification of women.
Alexa says she is worried about Bridget being in an environment where she may experience sexual harassment and be more vulnerable than her male peers.
“She loves going to school… and we feel supported but [sexually violent language is] a fact of each day and it can lead also to physical violence,” says Alexa.
“She could be kicked or hit with a chair, it’s contained as much as it can be by the school but it’s something that’s on my mind that she’s more vulnerable as a girl.”
Bridget’s class has just started learning about consent and healthy relationships, Alexa says, but with Bridget now in her mid teens she believes it could have been done sooner.
*These names are pseudonyms used by the Royal Commission to protect the privacy of witnesses.