Disability RC must reckon with education



Imagine sitting in a classroom where you are different from your peers, because of disability or disabilities. Now, imagine what you would want for yourself. You would want to feel and be treated like every peer in your class. You would want to know at the end of the day, you can achieve an education and go on to forge a career in your chosen profession. This is not always the case.

High school students studying at desk in classroom. (Credit: Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury)The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability (Disability RC) was opened at the Brisbane Convention Centre on 16 September, with all the gravity and ceremony expected from a royal commission. This royal commission had been fought for by disability bodies and advocates for years.

Those of us in attendance at the first public sitting felt a mix of sadness, anger, fear and hope as we listened to the contextual framing of this royal commission and for the outcomes which will presumably be reached as a consequence of the testimony and submissions from people with disability and their supporters. A multitude of memories from my time in primary, secondary and tertiary education also waded into the forefront of my consciousness when the issues surrounding education were mentioned.

The initial public sittings and submissions are examining disability education and learning in Australia. Australia is meant to have a regulatory position of equitable access and delivery of education across the life span, by virtue of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disability (CRPD). Specifically, Article 24 sets out the requirements for disability education and learning, dictating the practice of equal opportunity to access education without discrimination. The reality, however, is a far cry from the ideals aspired to by Article 24, and the CRPD in its entirety.

The Education and Learning Issues paper issued by the Disability RC identified several barriers to equitable access to education and learning for people with disability in Australia at primary and secondary school: physical and environmental barriers, inaccessibility of materials and communication methods, gatekeeping (formal or informal denial of access to education), partial enrolment (part-time attendance), segregation, exclusion from school activities, suspensions and expulsions.

Many of these barriers continue to exist in tertiary education, with other specific barriers arising in the university context: lack of reasonable adjustments (accommodations to enable equitable participation in education with peers), lack of individualised supports and planning, inflexible curricula, lack of culturally responsive teaching (failing to address intersectional barriers faced by students with disability), workforce capability issues and inappropriate behaviour management.

The issues identified by this paper reflect my lived experience, and that of my peers. Although I had a relatively smooth experience, the issues increased in magnitude as I progressed through my education. From the minute I entered the education system, I experienced barriers to achieving my education.


"I was fortunate that these early years were free from distressing incidents; for others, these formative years can be steeped in trauma."


I was initially enrolled in Early Intervention. After this period, I entered primary school. This is where my differences started to become pronounced, both explicitly in instructions given in classes and implicitly when quietly sidelined from activities. I was fortunate that these early years were free from distressing incidents; for others, these formative years can be steeped in trauma.

Progressing into upper primary and high school, I started to experience micro-aggressions from some people — statements spoken as truths about my abilities, and equally about our perceived limitations. I wanted to ask: 'What if you let me try? I might be able to do it!' My cries of determination were smothered by a society telling me what I could or couldn't do. These experiences were also reflected by students with vision impairment interviewed by Melissa Cain and Melissa Fanshawe, researchers at the University of Southern Queensland. 

By the time I reached this stage in my education, reasonable adjustments were being made to accommodate my needs while my learnings were becoming more complex. Some teachers were fabulous, accommodating every need. Others, less so. In addition to the previous barriers mentioned, I was now fighting repeatedly to have these adjustments made: sheets enlarged to A4, font size to 16, bold contrasting. I spent hours out of classrooms and in staff rooms getting materials enlarged after yet another teacher forgot my adjustments, and instead of classroom teaching, I was engaging in self-directed learning in my own time.

By the end of this period, I had discussions about my career, entirely shaped around notions of what I could or could not undertake with my vision loss. Consequently, my decisions about tertiary study were dictated by these beliefs.

Eventually, I got to tertiary education. I continued to have all of the previous issues. I got through my initial study to finally achieve the aim of having that elusive piece of paper that leads to a job and a career. Until I hit postgraduate study, and found that the barriers to achieving my education were too great. I couldn't overcome the lack of reasonable adjustment, largely stemming from misguided beliefs about my capabilities due to my disabilities. That's when I chose a different pathway, in entering the workforce.

For people with disability, the risk of being excluded at any stage of our learning is high, due to our needs being deemed to be too complex to reasonably accommodate within the context of mainstream education. The systemic failures of inaccessible technology, inaccessible materials, lack of physical access to classrooms and a multitude of other things all culminate in one stressful, detrimental outcome: an inability to obtain a certain level of education, and thus, a job leading to a career.

In addition to any or all of the above, some people with disability may experience even worse incidents — the types of experiences this royal commission will bring into stark focus: violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. Individual trauma becomes a collective trauma which leads to silence and dissociation from the experiences inflicted upon us. Some may never speak this truth, until a royal commission is opened to address it.

Imagine this is about you and you've experienced all of these things mentioned. What would you ask the royal commission to address in relation to disability education? What would you want to change?

Firstly, all forms of discrimination within education should stop. How? The voices of people with disability must be front and centre in the shaping of disability education into the future. The royal commission needs to hear from people with the lived experience of disability. It was disheartening to learn that the first hearings did not have anyone with lived experience present to the RC.

The media also needs to report on systemic failures in some parts of the education system to support students with disability. These reports need to be conducted respectfully, reflecting both the lived experience of people making submissions and their aspirations for change.

Finally, after hearing the stories of people with disability, we want people, organisations and institutions to reflect upon what they have learnt from hearing the lived experiences of people with disability: what can be changed and how it can be changed. We need people to be held accountable for historical wrongs and for educational institutions and organisations to implement policies and rules to enforce standards of accessibility and equitable access for all. This includes implementing reasonable adjustments by making appropriate accommodations by listening to the student's needs and acting on them, minimising exclusions from education, and overall, minimising the barriers to having the same educational experience of peers.

Overall, the cumulative impact of all of the barriers and all of the issues faced across a lifetime of education should be acknowledged, heard and acted upon; the effect of each event is heightened by the cumulative impact of all the barriers faced.

After all, equitable, accessible education should be for everyone.



Jane BrittJane Britt is a National Policy Officer for Blind Citizens Australia, freelance writer and disability consultant for many organisations.

Topic tags: Jane Britt, disability royal commission



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Existing comments

Thank you for your clear, considered and committed reflections on this very important educational and societal issue, Jane.
John RD | 13 December 2019

Dear Jane I went, with a blind relative, to a recent public award ceremony for those Graduating in some faculties, at the University of Queensland. Of over 200 on the day, not a single graduand had a physical disability, visible to me, a lay person with normal sight. Anguished Relative. 13/12/19
Anguished Reliative | 13 December 2019

When my sister was a student at Melbourne University in the late 50s, early 60s, she was an enthusiastic member of The Newman Society. One of their peers was studying Law and was blind. A roster of all students was set up to read the text books to him and read material for his assignments. I do know he Graduated with a LLB and nothing more. I also know the law students who read for and with him did exceptionally well in all exams. This was of course before the days of Technology.
Gabrielle | 13 December 2019

I remember the blind lawyer who graduated from Melbourne, who I believe went to a local Catholic school, where they obviously made special provision for him. Blessed Seraphim Rose, who is well on the way to becoming an Orthodox saint, volunteered as a reader for the blind Indian author Ved Mehta at Pomona College in California, where both were students. Neither the Catholic school, the Newman Society, Pomona nor Seraphim Rose were in any way patronising, each did what they did because of a real sense of and commitment to community. I was not a member of the Newman Society at Melbourne when I was there slightly later but I knew people who were and I admire how they operated. Their way is certainly part of the answer to inclusion and healing society's perceived ills. A big part.
Edward Fido | 15 December 2019


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