Disability Discrimination: What are Reasonable Adjustments?

04 August 2016

Schools have the responsibility to maximise learning outcomes and well-being for all students and ensure access to high-quality education that is free from discrimination.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (the Act) and the Disability Standards for Education 2005 (the Standards) are the key legislative instruments that apply in this area. According to these provisions, schools are required to provide additional support, or to provide adjustments to teaching, learning, and assessment activities for students with a disability. The Standards seek to ensure that students with a disability are not discriminated against or harassed and are able to access and participate in education on the same basis as students without a disability. However in many cases, schools encounter difficulty with facilitating the social, physical and education needs of students with disabilities due to a lack of funding or other resources (see our previous article).

Increasingly, State and Territory child protection frameworks also require that schools ensure the safety of students with disabilities by requiring the implementation of inclusive strategies.  See, for example, our article on the Victorian Child Safe Standards.  The issue for many schools is knowing how to make practical changes to help students with disabilities receive the care and support they need.

Recently, new support materials have been published by the Federal Department of Education. The Guidance on Personalised Learning (the Guidance) and the Exemplars of Practice (the Exemplars) were a response to the 2015 review of the Standards. Schools are encouraged to make use of these resources when managing adjustments for disabled students. We will discuss both resources and how they may help your school to meet its obligations under the disability legislative framework and relevant child protection obligations.

The Guidance

The Guidance promotes making reasonable adjustments as part of a 'personalised learning plan'. The Standards do not expressly dictate the requirement of a 'personalised learning plan'. What the Standards require, is that 'reasonable adjustments' are made. A reasonable adjustment is defined in the Standards as one that 'balances the interests of all parties affected'. Schools are not required to implement an adjustment if either it is not seen as reasonable, or if compliance would impose unjustifiable hardship on the provider (Section 10.2).

Personalised learning means:

  • quality teaching and learning for all students through reasonable adjustments in a safe and intellectually fulfilling environment.
  • communication between principals, teachers, students, parents, and carers. It is important that the student's family is advised before an adjustment is made and that discussions are held in an appropriate forum. Some parents may wish to speak face to face with the teacher, while others, for personal and cultural reasons, may prefer an alternative method of communication. In this way, families are empowered about their role in their child's education.
  • planning should be clear and transparent from the outset. The decision making process should be pre-determined to avoid uncertainty.

The key steps in implementing personalised learning plans are:

  • understanding the student's background by consulting with the student and their family/carer including seeking expert advice on their condition.
  • looking at the student's strengths and interests when assessing adjustments.
  • designing age appropriate tasks and learning material.
  • selecting and implementing teaching strategies to facilitate learning.

Schools creating learning plans should communicate clearly with all stakeholders; determine a decision making process that will be appropriate; understand and enquire about the child's background and interests when assessing reasonable adjustments; and select the best teaching strategies to accommodate the personalised learning plan. It is vital to provide continuing support for the student when making reasonable adjustments. (See the Standards - Section 3.5 as well as 4.2, 5.2, 6.2, 7.2).

The Exemplars

This resource provides schools and parents with examples of best practice. The Exemplars provide an analysis of 10 students with disabilities under the categories of early childhood education, primary school, secondary school, and post-compulsory education. Information provided on each student details their personalised learning plan. It is in these examples that schools, parents and carers have collaborated with each other to afford the disabled child an enriching education. Every example outlines the student and his or her learning interests. These students have disabilities that have been managed by reasonable adjustments, resulting in significant positive outcomes. For many of the students, the school bore a small cost that was far outweighed by the benefit to the students. We have included two examples below.


Age: Primary School

Background: Henry's focus was on self-management skills and articulating emotions. He aimed to improve his handwriting and group skills for his autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Reasonable adjustments: School sensory area, sensory yoga, communication tools, visual charts and schedules, activities broken down into individual tasks and steps.

Communication: Henry's mother and his classroom teacher discussed his progress throughout the day.

Cost: The school received funding from the Victorian Department of Education and Training's Program for Students with a Disability. Additionally, the school funds educational aids and provides assistive resources.


Age: Secondary School

Background: Richard was a very motivated student. His old school did not accommodate his Asperger's disorder so he was transferred. He was suspended for bad behaviour before the adjustments were made.

Reasonable Adjustments: Curriculum modifications, extra time for assignments, assessments conducted in separate room, provided with a scribe for assessments.

Communication: His mother spoke with the new school's inclusion support teacher.

Cost: The school received funding for an aide one day a week. At critical points, such as Year 12, more aide time was funded from both the budgets of the school's general and students with disability programs.


Both of these students have since excelled in their learning. Richard has continued his studies at University. Schools were able to deliver these outcomes through various support payments and small additional contributions. But the financial burden was low in comparison to the benefits garnered for both the students and also their classmates. Teachers were integral in rolling out the personalised learning programs through training and assistance from aides and the family.

Common Themes

From the Exemplars it is clear that the use of teacher's aides is integral for students who need support. They are instrumental in assisting teachers with their understanding of disability management. Another common feature of the personalised learning plans is to provide more time for students to complete assessments and exams. Great importance is placed on homework tasks and assessment tasks because it is the key aim of disability management to provide disabled students with the same standard of education and opportunities as other students. Also clear from the Exemplars, is the importance of family consultation.

Current issues for students with disabilities in Australia

Disability discrimination in Australia is a topical issue. The Senate held an inquiry in 2015 which uncovered the bullying, harassment and lack of opportunities for disabled students. The Education and Employment References Committee, who oversaw the inquiry, stated it was 'shocked and saddened' by the evidence. Since then there has been a growing call for reform, with one Labor Party Senator stating that, the public is 'failing children with disability in the school system'. In June, a range of disability advocates from Australia reported incidents of abuse in educational institutions to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of People with a Disability. The Autistic Family Collective, one such organisation, reported that 'children were hit, kicked, locked in storerooms, ridiculed, dragged, deprived of water, and held down with straps.' The UN is now assessing the submissions.

What next?

The Guidance and the Exemplars, discussed above, have set a new standard for disability management in education institutions. While the obligations in the the Act and the Standards provide the baseline responsibilities of providers, these new policies put forward best practice models that can be used as guidance when assessing reasonable adjustments and making personalised learning plans.


About the Author

Christiane Dean is the Legal Research Coordinator from the Melbourne office of CompliSpace. For inquiries please contact editorial@complispace.com.au.

CompliSpace Media

CompliSpace is an Australian company that helps over 600 non-government schools across Australia with their governance, risk, compliance and policy management. What makes us different is that we monitor over 200 sources of legal and regulatory change to ensure our clients have the updated policies and tools they need to meet new requirements. We share that knowledge with the broader Education community via School Governance.