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Inclusive Education for Students with Disabilities in Australia

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In this analytical essay I will discuss the development of inclusive education over time with reference to key historical, political and legislative events (domestic and international). I will outline educators’ specific obligations in relation to the support of students with a disability under international instruments and Australian legislation.

The Development of Inclusive Education

There have been a number of key historical, political and legislative events (both domestic and international) which, over time, have contributed to the development of inclusive education in Australia. The education of students with disability has evolved and advanced from exclusion through segregation and integration to inclusion. The development of effective schooling for all Australian students reflects national and international movements to achieve social justice and equitability for all levels of society.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, Australian children with specific disabilities were educated in segregated special schools (Forlin, 2006). Special schools were initially established for children with hearing and vision impairments and later accepted children with other disabilities including physical and intellectual impairments (Ashman, 2019). In the 1970s, there was a shift from educational segregation towards school integration following civil rights movements and protests against special schools. More students with disabilities were enrolled in mainstream schools (Forlin, 2006; Slee, 1993). However, the implementation of integration was mostly concerned with the placement of students with disability in mainstream schools and did not address the physical, attitudinal and pedagogical barriers which remained and prevented students with disability from successfully engaging in learning (Foreman & Arthur-Kelly, 2014; Jung, 2019).

The Karmel Report of 1973 represented a significant policy change and emphasized equity and children’s rights. The Karmel Report systemized the Commonwealth’s involvement in primary and secondary schools (Lingard, 2000). This report raised important issues and recommended seven programs of Commonwealth expenditure (Lingard, 2000). These recommendations included special education, disadvantaged schools and providing funds to build teacher pedagogical skill to support students with disability (Andrews, 1973). These targeted programs were linked to social and educational justice.

In 1989 the Convention of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations. The Convention of the Rights of the Child consists of 54 Articles and emphasizes that all children have a right to education, and all children have a right to be consulted and be afforded liberty of opinion and expression. Children have a right to communicate their opinion in matters that impact them and their perspectives should be viewed as integral to building inclusive educational settings (Graham, 2020).

In 1990, the World Conference on ‘Education for All’ advocated that the only way to achieve the goal of ‘Education for All’ and meet the learning needs of all children, was through inclusive education (Anderson & Boyle, 2015). The publication of the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education in 1994 has had a significant impact on the development of inclusive education. The Salamanca Statement urged governments to sanction inclusive education. This international policy document provides an explicit framework for what inclusive education is and provides educational, social and economic justification for inclusive education. The Statement has led to important systemic changes.

Since the publication of the Salamanca Statement, Australia’s education system has taken an active approach to creating more inclusive schools. Inclusive school communities aim to fulfil the ideals of the Salamanca Statement and enact the more recent goals of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008) by providing access to high-quality schooling for all students, including those with disability.

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It cannot be denied that Australia’s education system has made gains towards realizing the ambitions of the Salamanca Statement. However, Forlin (2006) warns against complacency and Cologon (2016) argues that misunderstandings of inclusion often lead to micro and macro exclusions of students with disability in Australian schools. For example, it is not inclusion if a child is enrolled in a mainstream school but is segregated into a separate space or room for part of the day or for the whole day. Therefore, there continues to be instances of discrimination as a result of exclusionary practices. Schools must actively work to remove the barriers to participation for students with disability to experience belonging and success in learning.

Inclusive education is fundamentally different from exclusion, segregation and integration. Guthrie and Waldeck (2008) describe inclusive education as a “rights-based humanitarian approach to education”. Inclusive education is founded in principles of social justice and equity. It goes beyond notions of integration and mere ‘inclusion’ of students and works to ensure full participation of students with disability. Inclusive education reduces educational inequity by embracing and educating all students together including students with disabilities. Inclusive education embraces students with disabilities and engages them in successful learning in the general education classroom with the provision of appropriate supports and services as needed. Inclusive education recognizes and respects the rights and self-worth of people with disability.

Implications for Educators

Educators have specific obligations in relation to the support of students with a disability under international instruments and Australian legislation. The first legally binding international policy to establish the right to inclusive education for people with disability is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006 and ratified by Australia in July 2008. Significantly, the CRPD is informed by the social model of disability, rather than a medical one, and promotes equality. The CRPD mandates educational and social inclusion for students with disability.

Inclusive education in Australia has been influenced by the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) (DDA) and the Disability Standards for Education (2005) (DSE). The DDA and DSE outline legal and moral obligations for teachers of students with disability. The DDA aims to eliminate discrimination towards people with disability. The DDA makes it unlawful for educational authorities to discriminate against someone on the basis of their disability. Students with disability must be treated on the same basis as students without disability and must not be denied access to educational benefits unless it would impose an unjustifiable hardship on the educational authority (Commonwealth of Australia, 1992). The DDA was revised in 2009 to take into account the newly ratified CRPD.

The Disability Standards for Education were developed to provide further clarification of the legal obligations of schools and teachers in relation to education under the DDA. The Standards apply to enrolment, participation, curriculum development, accreditation and delivery, student support services, and elimination of harassment and victimization for students with disability. The Standards require schools to provide reasonable adjustments and accommodations for students with disability. Schools and educators are obligated to make reasonable adjustments to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment to ensure students with disability have full access to, and participation in all aspects of school life. This includes modifying behavior codes and expectations to take into account behaviors that are part of a disability. Some students will require supplementary, substantial or extensive adjustments. When making adjustments, educators are obligated to consult the student or advocate for the student, consider the impact of the adjustment on the student and others, and maintain academic integrity. Recourse may be made to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to investigate and resolve complaints about alleged contraventions to disability standards.

One highly effective approach to instructional design that can benefit all students is Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The Universal Design for Learning philosophy and framework is a process of designing and planning for learning which addresses the needs of diverse learners by anticipating learner variability and structuring instructional experiences which build supports and scaffolds into the curriculum and pedagogy from the outset. This approach supports educators to deliver a high-quality education for all students, including students with disabilities. In doing so, educators fulfil their obligations under international human rights law and national anti-discrimination legislation to ensure schools are inclusive. UDL supports the aims of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and the Disability Standards for Education (2005) (Alchin, 2014).


In conclusion, inclusive education in Australia has evolved over time in an effort to improve educational access and participation for students with disability. Inclusive education has a range of implications including educational policies and inclusionary teaching and learning practices. Educational policies including the Karmel Report (1973), the Convention of the Rights of the Child (1989), and the Salamanca Statement (1994) have shaped the movement towards inclusive education in Australia. These policies have a bearing on educational practice and teachers have legal and moral obligations to employ inclusionary practices and thinking. This includes making reasonable adjustments for students with disability and utilizing pedagogical practices including Universal Design for Learning to plan for learning experiences that benefit all students.

Finally, inclusion relies on teachers’ attitudes towards students with disability and towards inclusive education. Educators play an essential role in making certain all students are catered for with appropriate academic goals and learning experiences. Teachers should strive to develop their knowledge and expertise to effectively teach a diverse population of students. Teachers must understand and apply the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and Disability Standards for Education (2005) to achieve non-discrimination and respect the rights and self-worth of students with disability. This will effectively enhance the development of inclusive schools in Australia.


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