Enrolling Students with Disabilities: Getting it Right!

12 December 2019

According to The Conversation, more than “12% of students with disability are being refused school enrolment, and over 40% are being excluded from school events and activities”.

Their report is based on the findings from Time for change: The state of play for inclusion of students with disability, a survey of almost 500 parents and carers of primary and secondary students with disability, recently published by Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA). CYDA is the national peak body which represents children and young people (0-25) with disability. 

In their media release of this survey, CYDA found that over the past year approximately:

  • one in 10 students had been refused enrolment
  • almost half had been excluded from school events or activities
  • one in four had been restrained or secluded
  • half had experienced bullying
  • one in five didn’t attend school full time
  • 14 per cent had been suspended.

Issues such as bullying and abuse of students with disability, noted from the same CYDA survey, have been raised in other articles, such as this one from The Feed. Within this article, the author notes that students with disabilities are experiencing “unacceptably high levels of abuse and violence at school” and that they are being physically restrained, isolated and bullied by both students and staff in educational settings.

Families in the survey said that students were denied enrolment for reasons including schools advising that they lack the necessary resources.


Can a School Discriminate Against a Child with a Disability?

The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians declares that “all Australian governments and all school sectors must provide all students with access to high-quality schooling that is free from discrimination based on gender, language, sexual orientation, pregnancy, culture, ethnicity, religion, health or disability, socioeconomic background or geographic location” (emphasis added). The Australian Government, Department of Education notes, “The focus on students will help achieve the goals set out in the Melbourne Declaration: that all young people in Australia should be supported to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens”.

Based on the Melbourne Declaration, can a school discriminate against a child with a disability?

I recall conversations that I had with other principals of schools around the country and we all shared a common understanding. As registered schools receive Commonwealth funding, we had to have a fully inclusive and open enrolment policy and process – although allowing for certain types of ‘discrimination’ such as that based on age (i.e. primary schools) or gender (i.e. single sex schools). In those conversations, we all agreed that 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.

According to The Conversation, and I believe that most school principals would also agree with this, “unless the situation is extreme, Australian education providers are legally obliged to accept all students, and provide “reasonable accommodations” and appropriate adjustments and support to facilitate access, participation and inclusion”. The concern raised by the outcomes of this survey suggests possible discriminatory practices by schools that could breach state and territory discrimination laws and the federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) (Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act).

The Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act and the Disability Standards for Education 2005 (Standards)  are the key legislative instruments that apply in this area. Under 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 relation to their education on the same basis as students without a disability. In previous School Governance articles, we discussed the definition of “reasonable adjustments” or “reasonable accommodations” and how these terms can be put into practice.

Unfortunately, there is no doubt that some schools encounter difficulty with facilitating the social, physical and education needs of students with disabilities due to a lack of funding or other resources. Under extreme circumstances, a case could possibly be made where the enrolment of a particular student will result in an “undue burden” or “unjustifiable hardship” for the school.

However, reasonable adjustments can include specialised technology or computer software and equipment, modification to physical barriers to ensure access to facilities and additional personnel such as education assistants or tutors and modified teaching strategies for a particular lesson such as the use of visual learning aids. Therefore, if a school is to deny the enrolment of a child on the basis of “unjustifiable hardship”, they need to have a very strong case to support their argument for not accepting the enrolment.


The Value of Children with Disabilities

According to The Conversation, “there are often concerns raised that inclusive education may be detrimental to students without disability”. Just as I have discussed this issue with principals of schools from time to time, I have also spoken with school leaders and school board members about this subject. While most of those discussions have been extremely positive about students with disability and in my experience most people take an inclusive approach, one statement from a leader at another school still leaves me speechless and absolutely dismayed. They said “We need to be careful about enrolling too many kids with special needs. We don’t want to get a name as a school that has a lot of children with special needs. It may turn off other possible enrolments”. This is probably one of the most preposterous (and to me offensive) statements that I have ever heard.

I am sure that there are still some outdated and questionable social concerns associated with enrolling children who have disabilities. There are also financial concerns. If the concern is financial, there are avenues for schools to apply for government funding to support the students with disability, and that funding is now transferable if the child moves school. Sometimes, there may not be any funding for a particular issue, or the funding may be less than the actual cost to accommodate the child. Nonetheless, the value that the child brings to the school must not be ignored.

Having been involved in schools for many years as a teacher and as a school leader, I agree that it can be challenging sometimes to teach certain children with disabilities. Yes, it can sometimes cost more to provide them with appropriate adjustments and support to facilitate their access, participation and inclusion. However, how often do we hear about the talents, skills and personality that they BRING to a school?

Young children do not discriminate. They do not see skin colour, or religion or disability. They simply see each other as friends and classmates, and they work with everyone. Unfortunately, this can change as they grow. Their opinions can be shaped by their peers, their families and the school – all depending on the type of culture in which they are immersed. What I saw as a school leader was that children with disabilities showed other children exactly what you could achieve even if you had challenges that, for example, affected your mobility, or speech, eyesight or learning. All children bring their own skills, their personalities and their own talents with them to school.

Children who have had to deal with adversity of any sort in their lives bring an immense amount of resilience and a desire to do the best that they can do with the talents that they have. The other children can learn so much from this! Watching children working in groups and supporting each other, especially those with disabilities, is something that teachers yearn to see. In addition, having children with disabilities can assist teachers to hone their pedagogical skills.

In the CYDA document Towards inclusive education: A necessary process of transformation, it states “For students who do not experience disability, research finds that inclusive education results in: enhanced learning opportunities and experiences; education that is more sensitive to differing student needs; growth in interpersonal skills and greater acceptance and understanding of human diversity; and increased flexibility and adaptability. Furthermore, inclusive education has benefits for teachers in the form of improved teaching practices, with all the benefits that entails.” Arguably this is what true ‘education’ (of the whole person) is all about.


In Summary

When parents apply to enrol their child at a school, they are required to provide details about the child as per the requirement of the relevant Education Act or Regulations in each specific state or territory. They are obliged, in many cases, to provide “details of any condition of the enrollee that may call for special steps to be taken for the benefit or protection of the enrollee or other persons in the school”(School Education Act 1999 (WA)). Similar statements can be found in Victoria, Queensland, the Northern Territory and New South Wales.

If the initial or even later documentation provides advice that the child has a disability, the disability on its own should not be used to refuse the enrolment. Unless a school is prepared to show irrefutable evidence of “unjustifiable hardship”, the enrolment needs to be assessed as any other enrolment would be assessed for the school. The school’s enrolment policy must be applied in a fair and reasonable manner.

CYDA argues that it is now well established that inclusive education is a positive and necessary progression for education systems the world over. Although there are still some barriers to inclusive education, “inclusive education is recognised as a fundamental human right” that benefits students with disability and students and teachers without disability.

Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.