Senator Pauline Hanson, leader of Australia’s One Nation party, recently proposed that School Students with autism should be excluded from mainstream schools, and sent to establishments that specifically cater to students with disabilities. In her view, the presence of autistic children in mainstream classrooms is undesirable because they require “special attention” and disrupt the learning of their non-disabled peers, holding them back. The implication is that non-disabled pupils are disadvantaged if they learn alongside autistic school children because these children need more attention and support from teachers than the average student. Consequently, non-disabled students don’t receive as much support from mainstream teachers as they deserve.
Apparently, she came to this conclusion after speaking to parents and teachers. Hanson’s remarks on this subject are as follows: “We need to get rid of those people [i.e “do-gooders” who support the integration of disabled children into mainstream schools] because you want everyone to feel good about themselves. […] These kids [i.e. autistic students] have a right to an education by all means, but if there’s a number of them these children should actually go into a special classroom, looked after and given that special attention. Most of the time the teacher spends so much time on them they forget about the child who wants to go ahead in leaps and bounds in their education, but are held back” [sic] (Barlow, 2017).
As a person living with cerebral palsy, who was educated in mainstream classes throughout my time at school, this view strikes me as narrow-minded at best, discriminatory and prejudiced at worst. Hanson advocates the segregation of disabled and non-disabled students as the best policy, because it is supposedly in the interests of everyone, particularly non-disabled learners. On the surface, Hanson seems to be offering both the disabled and the non-disabled equal opportunity when it comes to education. She seems to push for education systems which are, in theory, “separate, but equal.” Whilst it’s true that mainstream classes aren’t always a good fit for students with significant cognitive and behavioural issues, separating students in this way should be a last resort, not a “go-to” solution. If this policy is unquestioningly adopted across the Australian education system and applied to students with autism (or indeed, other disabilities), the achievements of the disability rights movement to date will be set back decades, and an unequal playing field will be created for disabled students.
Hanson and other anti-integration advocates must understand that having a disability does not automatically mean that you cannot fit in with or benefit from mainstream education. Although I initially attended primary school classes tailored to the needs of students with physical and cognitive disabilities, I was soon fully integrated into mainstream activities and lessons. So were many of my peers, given that we enjoyed socialising with other children, (both disabled and non-disabled), and found it easy to cope with the pace and the intellectual demands of the curriculum, as long as we were supported by teacher’s aides and assistive technology. Why should others not enjoy the same opportunities we had? I have no memories of anyone saying that pupils integrated into mainstream lessons and activities were proving to be disruptive, or that we jeopardised the education of our non-disabled classmates. With the help of educational resources, as well as support from colleagues and parents, teachers can be trained to address the issues of disabled students in a mainstream classroom. I am living proof of this.
During high school, I was the only disabled student in a mainstream school, and flourished academically and socially. I have always had a penchant for writing and translation, and completed a doctoral degree specialising in translation two years ago. This has enabled me to pursue my goals of gaining employment as a teacher, translator, and freelance article writer. This would have been much more difficult to achieve, were I not offered the opportunity to attend mainstream classes and activities. Several people I know who live with disabilities are able to contribute to society in the same ways as individuals who don’t have disabilities. In most cases, they just have to face more challenges, and be given a little extra support in order to thrive. Unfortunately, people who doubt their intellectual capacity as well as their ability to integrate into mainstream education and society abound and they were often forced to prove themselves to school principals and others who questioned their right to be part of the mainstream. Not only were these experiences insulting for disabled students, based as they were on preconceived assumptions about their capabilities, they were often unnecessary, as it was demonstrated that they were able to cope as a mainstream student.
Hanson’s policy to exclude autistic students from mainstream education doesn’t take into account that people with disabilities can’t be slotted into convenient, “one-size-fits-all” boxes. Autism and cerebral palsy are conditions with varying degrees of severity, and can affect people in a variety of different ways that have little or no bearing on their intellect and social capabilities. People with autism are often able to match and even exceed the academic abilities of others, and autism is not necessarily an obstacle to a full and happy social and work life. A student’s ability to fit into main stream classes should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and where possible, they should be allowed to remain in the mainstream, albeit with support. They are members of society, and will have to deal with society at large at some point in their lives. This means that they will be put in scenarios where they aren’t segregated and given special attention.
The reality is that while special education facilities help students manage issues linked to their disability, they can often be detrimental for a child’s social development. They isolate disabled students from people without a disability, and in such settings, students aren’t encouraged to strive for the same levels of social and academic independence, or to acquire the same range of life skills. This reduces the variety of learning opportunities available to disabled students, and hampers their ability to financially support themselves in later years, and to become independent and socially competent. Furthermore, research has shown that disabled students in mainstream classes achieve higher grades than their peers in non-mainstream schools (Graham and de Bruin, 2017).
Finally, an inclusive school community benefits everyone. Most people will come into contact with a disabled person sometime during their lives, and exposure to people with disabilities can encourage children and adults alike to become more tolerant of people who are different, and willing to accommodate their needs. It is fear and ignorance that disables a person, rather than their disability, and Hanson’s policy of exclusion perpetuates this. All Australians deserve to have access to the same educational opportunities, and this includes people with disabilities.
Barlow, Karen. “Words For Pauline Hanson From A Disabled Child’s Parent, ‘Our Hearts Break On A Regular Basis’. The Huffington Post Australia. 21 June, 2017.
Graham, Linda J. and Kate de Bruin. “Pauline Hanson is wrong – we need to include children with disability in regular classrooms.” The Conversation. 22 June, 2017.