Young people with disability and parents have shared their experiences of segregation in the education system during the 24th public hearing of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.
To date the Royal Commission has received 4,677 submissions, of which 21 percent relate to education or learning for children and young people with disability, prompting the Commission to hold another hearing into the issues around education.
The current hearing, titled ‘The experience of children and young people with disability in different education settings’, began yesterday and will run until 10 June.
The first witness was Brittney Wilson, known as Britt, a 22-year-old “aspiring advocate” who spoke of her experiences in mainstream education as a person with disability, as well as her brother James’ education experiences.
Although Britt was part of a mainstream class, she says she still experienced exclusion from her peers and in primary school was particularly restricted while outside the classroom.
As she used a manual wheelchair, a teacher’s aide was required to push her around the yard at break times and she was often not allowed to spend time with her friends without an adult present.
At times she was prevented from going anywhere during her breaks as aides turned up too late or spent the break talking to other staff rather than supporting Brittney to play with her friends.
If Britt spoke up and asked to be taken out to play, she was told she was interrupting and being rude.
“It made me feel really insignificant,” she says.
“I felt like I couldn’t speak for myself without being labelled as rude and that was really damaging for me because I was raised to be respectful.”
Conversation between Britt and her friends was affected by the presence of the support staff, who sometimes would interrupt, making the children uncomfortable.
“Basically I wasn’t allowed to be a kid because I was constantly monitored,” says Britt.
“It became very very isolating, I was just very grateful that I had a few friends who would deal with it.”
Teacher’s aides caused segregation in mainstream school
Britt also told of an occasion when her teacher’s aide had erased her maths work and told her to do it a different way, insisting it was wrong until Britt called on the classroom teacher who confirmed she had been right the first time.
Her brother James also experienced teacher’s aides erasing his school work and re-writing it for him as well.
The family was told he was three years behind the average school level for his age, but when their mother attended the school for a week to observe she found the aides were erasing whole sentences from his work and re-writing it, while the teacher was not marking his actual work and was instead assessing him from what the aides reported.
James’ mother pulled him out of primary school for six months after several incidents with teacher’s aides, including finding scratch marks up his back from where the support workers had pulled his pants up after going to the toilet and other inappropriate toileting incidents.
Britt says this caused James to stop asking to go to the toilet at school, leading to another occasion when an aide refused to help him clean up after an accident, leaving him in his faeces for the rest of the school day.
James only returned to school when his regular carer could be arranged to attend with him.
Britt told the commission that in high school she was forced to go without support staff because she did not want to join the “learning centre” at her school, where students with disability were segregated from the rest of the school and didn’t learn mainstream subjects but had support staff.
She also experienced “extreme” bullying in the mainstream environment from other students, leading to a diagnosis of social anxiety.
In closing, Britt asked the Commissioners why learning had to be segregated for children with disability.
“Why does there have to be a learning centre that we bring disabled children into and pull them away from their peers,” says Britt.
“Why can’t we make a curriculum that is more accessible and more adaptive, because we know it doesn’t work, even for able bodied children?
“Segregation isn’t a choice anymore – mainstream [education] has become so inaccessible and so fraught with bullying.”
Separated school did not tailor learning to student
The next witness in the hearing was Kimberley Langcake, the mother of 20-year-old Mitch, who has a diagnosis of autism.
Mitch attended a completely segregated school after attending a very supportive childcare and kindergarten, where he received direct support from staff and was encouraged to interact with other children.
Ms Langcake says there was not much information given to her about what Mitch was learning or doing in the classroom in the segregated school and that his learning depended on the teacher he had.
“It felt very much like the classroom teacher set the tone for success and what they were doing,” says Ms Langcake.
“He had the same teacher two years in row, which was detrimental…it felt very much like a ‘treading water’ year.”
In addition to the lack of information about the schooling, Ms Langcake says the school usually only communicated with her if she initiated the communication or if there was a behavioural concern.
Ms Langcake says she feels Mitch’s education was “siloed” from the rest of his life.
She explains the communication systems they used at home were not always used at school and the school did not individualise Mitch’s learning to continue building on what he was doing outside of school.
Ms Langcake gave the example of a program Mitch took part in at high school where students rode trikes, despite Mitch having the ability to ride a two wheeled bike from a young age.
She said if the school had communicated with the family, they could have arranged for Mitch to bring his own bike in to practise the skills rather than using the three wheeled trike which was seen as a step down in skills.
When Mitch was in Year 12, Ms Langcake found there was no support to transition him out of school or to explore post school options.
Youth advocate says mainstream and special schools need to change
The next witness, youth advocate Gi Brown, told the Commission the lack of support to transition from school into post-school options also affected them in the mainstream system.
“The best way I can describe it is being pushed off the edge of a cliff,” says Gi.
“My routine disappeared, I lost almost all of my social connection and I had no idea what my next step would be… Upon leaving school I struggled so much with the change and was so unprepared and so distressed by it that I became quite unwell mentally to the point of a psychotic episode.”
While at school, Gi experienced bullying from other students which was not appropriately addressed when reported, damaging comments from teachers about their academic learning and social skills, and a complete lack of support to engage in learning.
“I had many teachers constantly acknowledge that I obviously struggle and needed help but help never came,” says Gi.
“Teachers said they suspected I was autistic and [had] ADHD but this was never followed up…It often left me feeling like there was something wrong with me.”
Gi says the school did not have a safe space for them to go when experiencing sensory overload or a meltdown, was not accessible, did not provide any assistive technology or resources to support learning, and did not accept that they had medical and other appointments during class time.
Gi discussed their sibling who has always attended a “special school” and Gi says this has been the only option offered to the family.
While Gi says their sibling wouldn’t get the support needed in mainstream school, they add the special school only focuses on life skills and does not give students the opportunity to pursue academics, arts or sport.
“The things my sibling is doing in Year 9 is almost identical to things he’s been doing since Year 5,” says Gi.
Gi adds that the “special school” is also constantly understaffed and under-resourced.
“As it is now, more time is spent scrambling for resources and constantly readjusting instead of being a place of development and learning,” they say.
Gi’s sibling has also not been given any support to think about the future after school and the family is worried about what will happen when he has to leave school.
Although there are many recommendations Gi wants to make, they say a main focus should be on seeing each student as an individual, not a number or a diagnosis, and supporting them to follow their own goals, then measuring their learning success against those goals instead of using tests and assessment rubrics.
If reading this has caused you distress you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or contact the Blue Knot Foundation on 1800 421 468 for trauma-informed support.