Senator Pauline Hanson recently expressed the view that disabled or autistic children should be removed from mainstream classrooms, so they can receive the special attention they need and not hold their non-disabled classmates back. I wrote an article in response to these comments, because in my view, her comments are reductionist generalisations that fail to take into account an important fact about disability. This is that many disabilities, including autism and cerebral palsy, affect people in various ways with different degrees of severity which may or may not affect their intellectual capacity, social skills, and overall behaviour. The point is that a distinction must be made between students who have a slight degree of autism, a mild developmental disability, or a physical disability, (i.e. high-functioning individuals), and those which have disabilities that are coupled with severe intellectual delay (i.e. low-functioning individuals). Special education systems definitely benefit the latter group, rather than the former.
Pupils who have severe autism, significant behavioural issues, or some form of intellectual delay can benefit from the structure and extra support which the special education system can give them. Some children may find certain aspects of mainstream school life daunting, and may not be able to keep up with the intellectual demands of the mainstream curriculum. Others have behavioural issues that can lead them to act violently, or can trigger other counter-productive behaviour which may jeopardise the learning and safety of students and teachers. This category of students often benefits from smaller size classes and the one-on-one support that they offer.
Special education facilities are designed with these students in mind, because they simply aren’t able to function in a system that would fail to meet their needs, and they would have nowhere else to go where they could receive an education. Teachers in the special education system modify the national syllabus, so that it is accessible to their pupils. Concretely, this means that where appropriate, teachers adapt the syllabus, providing students with individualised education plans, and one-on-one support, if needed. For example, teachers within the special education system may adapt and design learning programs. These programs may include more sensory-based, concrete learning activities. Such activities cater to the needs of children with moderate to severe autism, or other conditions which affect an individual’s ability to process and understand abstract concepts that are covered in the syllabus.
Designing such specialised teaching material requires dedicated and creative teachers who know how to teach the concepts outlined in the syllabus, and find the best way of communicating these concepts in a way that their pupils will understand and benefit from. Speaking to teachers, it’s clear that whilst adapting and modifying classroom activities is challenging in its own right, it becomes even more difficult if these special education teachers have a class in which some students are more intellectually capable than others, and require teaching materials of a higher intellectual standard then their classmates. In these situations, special education teachers must strike a balance and try to provide their more capable students with work that is suited to their cognitive level, whilst ensuring that those who are less capable are not left behind. Special education schools can allow intellectually or socially challenged students to acquire life skills and knowledge they can access, and become more independent and socially capable. It’s clear then that special education facilities have a place in society, as long as they continue to serve the type of students they are designed for.
Pauline Hanson’s assertion that autistic and disabled students should be excluded from mainstream education system doesn’t make the crucial distinction between high-functioning and low-functioning students with autism and other disabilities. In short, her views on disability are not nuanced, and don’t account for differences in severity and circumstance. Such a view is dangerous for people with disabilities, because it tries to pigeonhole them in a one-size-fits-all box, and doesn’t admit that high-functioning individuals could actually cope well in mainstream classes, and even be an asset to them. These high-functioning individuals would be disadvantaged in the special education system, and it would hold them back from becoming as independent as possible, thus defeating the purpose of the special education system in these specific cases.
Hanson’s generalisations reinforce the stereotype that all people with disabilities are unable to cope, and should be excluded, or, as Pauline Hanson advocates, “gotten rid of.” Moreover, this expression as used by Hanson when she refers to excluding autistic students is disrespectful and offensive to disabled people in general. We are not a problem to be solved or gotten rid of. We deserve equal access to education, and whilst it’s true that mainstream education is not a good fit for all disabled students, it’s also true that special education is not a good fit for highly functioning disabled students who can cope within a mainstream learning environment. This is why sweeping generalisations such as “all autistic or disabled students should be removed from mainstream schools” are problematic and potentially harmful to the disabled community as a whole. Rather, it is important to see the big picture when commenting on disability issues, and to assess an individual student’s ability to fit into mainstream schools on a case-by-case basis. Important decisions based on generalised or preconceived notions of a person’s condition don’t help anyone; on the contrary, they can lead to indiscriminate, harmful, and unjustifiable exclusion, and the proliferation of fear and ignorance about people’s lived experience of disability.
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.