Senator Pauline Hanson made a number of statements in Federal Parliament this week suggesting that children with autism should be segregated from mainstream schools. She went further by suggesting that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in mainstream classes could be negatively impacting on the education of other children. These comments have shocked and angered many people across Australia, and also led to some discussion around whether inclusion is in the best interests of all children. However, there is the potential to move beyond the anger and have productive conversations that will challenge discriminatory views around disability. Over this weekend, when talking with family members and friends, it is possible that someone might ask you what you think about what Pauline Hanson said. Some people may even suggest that there could be an ounce of truth in Pauline Hanson’s words.
We asked a range of people what they would say to someone who had a differing perspective on inclusion. Values and bias influence how people see things, and sometimes when people don’t have sufficient knowledge and awareness, outdated views and perceptions can surface. So we have posed the question to a range of community members: How might you make a difference to support others to understand that inclusion is not only a human right, but has benefits for all?
An early childhood intervention perspective:
We started by talking with Sylvana Mahmic, CEO of Plumtree Pathways and Executive Board Member of ECIA NSW/ACT who told us that she feels that Pauline Hanson has actually presented an opportunity for a national conversation to occur.
It has been amazing to see such a spontaneous outpouring of support for inclusion in response to the comments made in Parliament this week as to me it represents a shifting of community attitudes. It is astounding that a politician can speak without doing their research. So in response to questions from the community, I would highlight the evidence that there are positive benefits for inclusion, for both children with disability and their typically developing peers. I see that segregation is not the prevailing attitude as it is a view held by less and less people. The answer to challenges in classrooms lies in additional training and professional development. I would actually like to thank Ms Hanson for making this a national conversation.
Mothers of children with autism tell us what they would say:
I think Hanson’s comments on vaccines causing autism shows her inadequate level of understanding of the topic. Totally misguided and uneducated. Scientific evidence shows that kids with ASD have better outcomes when mainstreamed. Also, to me it’s like going back to the 60s in America’s South or in Australia before 1967 where Aboriginal people weren’t even recognised as citizens and weren’t allowed access to the same schools, hospitals etc. It’s bigotry and segregation. The best way to an inclusive society whether by race, sexuality, religion or ability is to promote acceptance of all people because that’s what we are – we’re all people.
Bronwyn Hatton, mother of 9 year old son with autism spectrum disorder and Bathurst Early Childhood Intervention Service playgroup coordinator
Children with autism need experience of inclusion in regular everyday activities from as early as possible. This is part of early intervention and if they don’t have these opportunities early on, they won’t just suddenly be able to be independent as adults, but will be more reliant on society and government for longer, which will cost much more in the long term.
I also find that giving people examples they can relate to, helps them to empathise. I might ask them how they would feel, if they were suddenly unable to walk and their employer told them they could no longer come to work because there was no wheelchair ramp into the building.
A speech pathologist’s words:
Liz Fitzgerald, Speech Pathologist told us what she would say:
I think the most disappointing aspect of the comment was that it shows such limited knowledge about the autism spectrum. While there needs to be a range of schooling options for all children (selective schools, performing arts schools, sports schools, technology schools and schools for specific purposes that all suit different children’s needs), to single out children on the spectrum who are in mainstream classrooms is misguided. It’s important to note that the child in the classroom who “wants to get ahead in leaps and bounds” is often also the child on the spectrum – the two are by no means mutually exclusive. Children who have more limited communication and social skills may need additional support – in the same way that gifted children, children whose speak languages other than English and children with reading difficulties all need extra support to thrive. Many schools and teachers have the skills to do this well; others are working towards this. All children deserve the support they need.
What would a mainstream school teacher say?
Tamara Regan Thompson, Teacher, NSW Department of Education told us:
I have been surprised by some comments I have heard from people around me.
If a person was to support the views of exclusion that Pauline Hanson expresses, I would explain the Disability Standards for Education and how the Disability Discrimination Act states that a student with additional needs should have the same access to an education and participate on the same basis as all other students. I’d explain that by excluding a student based on their disability, the law is being broken. Every student has the right to an education and that reasonable adjustments have to be made so that the curriculum can be accessed by all students with additional needs.
A community perspective
Laura Wilson, parent and board member of a community organisation told us she would say:
Why shouldn’t all humans have the same rights to interact with society and to access education and health? To exclude people with disabilities is like a type of social apartheid. Why should people with disabilities be isolated from everybody else? Having a disability doesn’t make you less of a person or less valuable. As human beings we learn from each other, that’s what society and community are all about. Learning that everybody is different and actually embracing the diverse ways in which human beings act and interact is really valuable. This is what school and education is all about, teaching our kids (whether they have a diagnosis or a label or not) about real-life and how to live their best life.
What would you say?