Why I am in Geneva Today

Geneva, 15 April 2015

Guest Blogger: Cátia Malaquias

Earlier this month a story broke about a primary school in Canberra that had a metal-barred cage constructed in a mainstream classroom as a "withdrawal space" for a 10 year old boy with autism. Although people everywhere expressed shock and disbelief, the CEO of Children with Disability Australia, Stephanie Gottlieb, put the story in context when she said “Unfortunately, CDA is receiving an increasing number of reports of students with disability being subjected to restrictive practices in schools. ... this increased incidence is a clear indication that the system is not adequately meeting the needs of students with disability."

The ACT Education Minister responded with an announcement for an urgent investigation into the ACT school that constructed the cage as well as a proposal to appoint a panel of experts to review support for students with disability, taking into account best practice from other jurisdictions. But only a day or so ago, a new and similarly disturbing story broke; this time, footage surfaced of a student at a West Australian “special school” being dragged by his ankles down a hallway, clearly distressed, and being forced and locked into a room. Again, another investigation has been initiated.

Like the rest of the community, I have been disturbed by both stories but, as the parent of a child with a disability, they have affected me deeply and personally.

I have to say that, so far, my experience of education for my son has been positive, although not without its challenges.  But we have been lucky that his mainstream school has been willing to work with us to support his inclusion in general education and, when issues have arisen, we have been able to work through them.  However, the reason that I am not surprised by the two incidents reported in the media is that I am aware, from stories that other families have shared with me, that many students with disability and their families still experience significant exclusion, prejudice and lack of support in our schools. In some cases, they are also experiencing what may amount to abuse.

This morning, I am in Geneva, Switzerland, to attend the Day of General Discussion (DGD) at the United Nations.  This meeting is being held with State parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, human rights and disability organisations and other interested parties, arising in part from the concern of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities that the exclusion and discrimination experienced by children and adults with disability hinders broader social and economic inclusion in their later lives, in all spheres. The Committee will consider, together with leading international experts, the theme of "inclusive education" within the meaning of the obligation of State parties (including Australia) under Article 24 of the Convention.  The intended result being that the Committee will issue a "General Comment" on inclusive education to assist State parties in the formulation and implementation of relevant education legislation and policies. 

Why have I come here? Because I am deeply disappointed by the submission made by the Australian government to the Committee for the DGD.  Although many non-government organisations and a number of academics made submissions, only Australia and Norway made submissions as parties to the Convention.  

Norway explained its pathway to a truly inclusive education system based upon "Universal Design" - formulating lessons to the functional capability of individual students, without focus on medical diagnoses and their stigmatizing and prejudicial effects - and using evidence-based teaching strategies.  

Australia, on the other hand, merely asserted that the legal framework for its education system was "consistent" with the Convention.  This assertion carries with it the claim that Australia is complying with its obligation to “ensure an inclusive education system”. Australia’s submission then goes to considerable lengths to emphasise that the Committee should read the obligation to provide "inclusive education" as depending upon "available resources" and being only to the extent of "reasonable accommodation".

The inadequacies of the Australian government’s response to date to "inclusive education" are highlighted by the submissions to the Committee for the DGD by Children with Disabilities Australia, Women with Disabilities (Australia), Autistic Minority International (commenting on Australia) and the University of Melbourne.  These are significant groups representing people with disability or knowledge and expertise in the area of inclusive education and they are presenting a picture of a system that is still far from being appropriately resourced and “inclusive” at a general qualitative level.

I agree that Australia’s education system is not on track to achieve the goal of full inclusion envisaged by the Convention and I wanted to express my concern and add my voice to those groups, through my own submission to the Committee for the DGD emphasising the need for stronger leadership, commitment and action by government in developing inclusive school culture, better and more up-to-date information for families as to the evidence-based benefits of truly mainstreamed education, and collaborative relationships between teachers and parents, each critical to realizing the full range of greater benefits of successful "inclusion" in a truly mainstream school setting.  I hope that by attending the DGD alongside others calling for more urgent and appropriate action by the governments of parties to the Convention, we will be heard. 


You can read my submission here.  http://t.co/BzphEoWAkF


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