How policy makers fail students living with disabilty

| March 1, 2013

Assessing recent education reforms throughout the country, disability advocate, Theresa Duncombe, shares her experience as a mother of a child living with intellectual disability and the constant struggle in campaigning for equal education opportunities.

As parents we strive to do what we believe to be in the best interests of our children. Having a child with disabilities places an added layer of responsibility on families and, often, the fight to have our children appropriately educated in our wealthy, democratic and free society can be very stressful.

Attitudes regarding disability however are changing – the Gonski recommendations and National Disability Insurance Scheme are proof the concerns of students living with a disability are on the national agenda. But the sad reality remains, where families like mine continue to beg to have their cries for fairness, respect and dignity heard.

We would like to think those who have taken on the responsibility of serving in public office and make decisions which shape our society would act in the best (short and long term) interests of EVERY citizen. After having a child with a disability I have learnt many lessons, particularly the lesson that comes with standing up for what is right in spite of great adversity. This is very much worth the fight.

Education should never be compromised, or outcomes sacrificed to fit budgets. It takes a great deal of effort for parents to locate even basic information or understand departmental policy and processes relating to education of a child with a disability. This makes it extremely difficult to make informed decisions regarding education for our children.

My family and I have, for years, been fighting with the NSW Education Department, pleading with the Department to put their words into actions and simply apply the guidelines that are contained in their ownpolicies. This fight eventually led us to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission.

In late 2012 the NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC) implemented the initiatives, Every Student, Every School and Local Schools, Local Decisions which effectively stripped (already inadequate) funding and support for children with special needs and learning difficulties, leaving them un-supported in the classroom. The consequences of such will see classroom teaching staff and school Principals become scapegoats for the “failure of special needs students” due to a lack of resources and the inability to meet the unique educational needs of these students.

Further cuts of $1.7 billion to the education portfolio were announced by the NSW State Government late in 2012 and will almost certainly affect “every student in every school” across the state. In the current federal political arena we now also have a political deadlock where NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia are essentially unwilling to compromise on their budget contributions for the implementation of the Gonski model.

The NSW State government and NSW DEC are not isolated in their policy and funding deficits for ‘special needs students’. The Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity of Commission’s report Held back: The experiences of students with disabilities in Victorian schools report, released in September last year, substantiated claims of inadequate funding, discrimination and inequity throughout the Victorian education system. People like disability advocate and Manager of the Disability Discrimination Legal Service Victoria, Julie Phillips, and Children with a Disability Australia Executive Director, Stephanie Gotlib, lobbied long and hard to have this report commissioned.

In other States around the country parents, teaching staff, researchers and academics and various community members are voicing their concerns about the continued drop in funding. In NSW the Every Student, Every School and Local Schools, Local Decisions initiatives are seriously impeding students from reaching their full potential and breaching their right to an education, as support by the findings of the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity of Commission’s Held Back report.

The fight is certainly not with teachers (most are trying their best to be good teachers in a bad system) but with the policy makers. Our children have the right under many laws – Human Rights Agreements and Department of Education policies – to be fairly educated. Our society has the right to expect that all students will be treated with respect, dignity and have equal access to education.

‘Evidence-based research’ (such as Gonski and the National Disability Strategy Consultation’s 2009 Shut Out report) is a current catchword used by policy makers, along with ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’. But these are words and phrases that, unfortunately, are not supported by actions or appropriate funding.

Investing in the education of students living with a disability will give rise to real long term results, not only financially (as they will not be part of a welfare system) but also physically and psychologically. Above all else this investment will craft the beginnings of a truly inclusive society.



  1. Theresa Duncombe

    Theresa Duncombe

    March 9, 2013 at 9:27 am

     My aim is to link families

     My aim is to link families across state boundaries so that all families have information and support from others in the same position. The basic right of children to be educated is severely compromised as families have issues in receiving information to make correct and informed decisions regarding their child’s education.