Ensuring inclusive education for children and young people with disability


    Supporting inclusive education is a central part of CYDA's work. We undertake ongoing systemic advocacy to ensure Australia realises inclusive education for all children and young people with disability. Our work is informed by the experiences, challenges and needs of students with disability.

    Image description: Boy sitting in a classroom on the mat with his peers. Another boy holding up his hand.

    Education and students with disability – the current state of play

    In our 2020 report Not even remotely fair: Experiences of students with disability during COVID-19, we explore the experiences of students with disability in relation to the educational changes made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic. Research evidence from before the pandemic suggests that despite a number of policy commitments and initiatives at local and national levels, we have seen only limited progress in moving towards inclusive education and that children and young people with disability often fare poorly in the education system. This is despite the fact that all of the evidence suggests that inclusive education is not just better for children and young people with disability, but can have significant positive impacts for the whole classroom. 

    Although the shift to remote learning and the associated impacts of the pandemic have raised some new issues, several respondents indicated that the issues faced are more longstanding. Over the longer term the only way to prevent these issues arising in future waves of the pandemic or during other emergencies is to genuinely implement inclusive education practices. 


    Previous CYDA National Education Surveys 

    The key findings from our 2019 National Education Survey were consistent with the previous three surveys, showing that students with disability are routinely excluded in their education. Many students experience 'gatekeeping' and are segregated from ‘mainstream’ schools and classrooms, not attending school full-time, refused enrolment and excluded from school activities. Suspensions and expulsions are also familiar practices, showing the lack of understanding and support for students with disability. While most students receive some specific support at school because of their disability or learning difference, there are many families who are out-of-pocket for supports and equipment to enable their child to participate. Many students do not have a personalised individual education plan in place.

    Research evidence overwhelmingly supports inclusive education. As well as positive outcomes for social justice and a sense of community and belonging, there are benefits for learning outcomes and for the social, behavioural and physical development of children and young people who do and do not experience disability.

    The findings from our 2019 National Education Survey show it is time for transformational change in our education system to ensure the inclusion of students with disability. Sadly, the prevalence of educational segregation and exclusion, lack of support for students, non-inclusive school cultures and alarming rates of abuse and violence highlight that education systems are failing children and young people with disability. The Disability Royal Commission presents an opportunity for Australia to right its wrongs and start providing children with disability the inclusive education they are entitled to – it is their human right.

    Evidence for inclusive education

    The key findings of the Towards inclusive education: A necessary process of transformation report were:

    • There is no evidence base to support segregated education in any form, including in special schools, units or classrooms. Segregated education is a breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD).
    • There is no child or young person too complex or ‘disabled’ to be included in general ‘mainstream’ education settings.
    • The research shows the benefits of inclusion in ‘mainstream’ education for students with disability, including: 
      • better academic and vocational outcomes than their peers in non-inclusive settings
      • greater social interaction, resulting in more opportunities to establish and maintain friendships
      • increased independent communication and speech and language development, in turn supporting greater inclusion and active participation
      • a sense of belonging and a self-concept of not just being a receiver of help but also a giver of help
      • access to a broader range of play and learning activities, which can stimulate physical development and enhance children’s experiences
    • Inclusive education also benefits students without disability, teachers and educators, and the wider community.

    Inclusion and the law

    The right of children with disability to attend their local government schools is a right protected by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (and the Disability Standards for Education 2005 established under the Act). This reflects Australia’s international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (see Article 24) and the priorities of the National Disability Strategy 2010-2020, which states, “The shared vision is for an inclusive Australian society that enables people with disability to fulfil their potential as equal citizens”.

    Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, a school or other education authority is not permitted to discriminate on the grounds of disability:

    • in deciding an application for admission
    • in the terms or conditions on which it is prepared to admit a student (e.g. by requiring higher fees or accepting payment of the cost of an education assistant or aide)
    • by denying or limiting a student’s access to any benefit provided by the school (e.g. excursions, sports or extra curricular activities and areas of the school)
    • by expelling a student
    • by developing curriculum content that will exclude a student from participation
    • by subjecting a student to any other detriment.

    Although the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 makes an exception where the adjustment will cause “unjustifiable hardship”, it is up to the school or other relevant educational authority to prove this. As a matter of law, it can be difficult for schools to prove “unjustifiable hardship” even when accommodating a student with disability involves substantial costs.

    The Disability Standards for Education clarify the obligations of education and training providers and the rights of people with disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. You can read more information here and view fact sheets about the Standards, including about making complaints.

    When complaints of discrimination in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 are not able to be resolved at a more local level, the Australian Human Rights Commission is responsible for investigating and resolving them.

    Equal opportunity/anti-discrimination legislation in each state also applies in the area of education, and complaints may be made to the relevant boards or commissions.

    Policy, standards and regulations

    The Australian Curriculum sets the goal for what all students should learn as they progress through their school life – wherever they live in Australia and whichever school they attend.

    Adjustments for students with disability are measures or actions taken to help a student participate in education and training on the same basis as their peers without disability.

    The Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability (NCCD) is an annual collection of information about Australian school students with disability. The NCCD enables schools, education authorities and governments to better understand the needs of students with disability and how they can be best supported at school.


    • What is inclusive education?

      Inclusive education is about everyone learning, growing and flourishing – together – in all our diversity. Inclusive education recognises the right of every child and young person – without exception – to be included in general education settings. It involves adapting the environment and teaching approaches to ensure genuine and valued full participation of all children and young people. It embraces human diversity and welcomes all as equal members of an educational community.

      See our Fact Sheet What is Inclusive Education?

    • What is the current state of play for students with disability?

      Every year CYDA completes a National Education Survey to advocate to government about inclusive education.

      The results from the 2019 CYDA National Education Survey are available in our report Time for change: The state of play for inclusion of students with disability.

      CYDA conducted the survey between August and September 2019. It provided important information on the school experiences of children and young people with disability, with 505 people taking part, including young people, families and caregivers.


    • Can CYDA help us with individual advocacy at our school?

      Individual advocacy involves helping to resolve individual issues that children and young people with disability and their families are facing in their education. Many people contact CYDA seeking individual advocacy.

      CYDA is not funded to provide individual advocacy, however, there are many organisations that can help with individual circumstances. See our Get help section to find an organisation that can assist.

      It is vital that young people and families continue to contact CYDA and tell us about their experiences. This insight and knowledge informs us about change that is occurring and identifies areas where systemic changes are required. You can contact us if you need a referral, assistance or just want to tell us what is happening for children and young people with disability in their education.

    • What are the benefits of inclusive education?

      Research evidence overwhelmingly supports inclusive education. As well as positive outcomes for social justice and a sense of community and belonging, there are benefits for learning outcomes and for the social, behavioural and physical development of children and young people who do and do not experience disability.

      Our Fact Sheet What are the benefits of inclusive education? outlines the benefits for all students, students with disability, teachers and educators, and families and the broader community.


    • What is ableism in education?

      Barriers to inclusive education prevent children and young people with disability from learning and participating fully, with far-reaching and lifelong implications. Major barriers include negative attitudes and stigma around ‘difference’ and ‘disability’, inadequate education and professional development for teachers and specialist support staff, and systemic barriers, such as inadequate funding and support from education authorities. Underpinning these barriers is ongoing ableism.

      See our Fact Sheet Addressing ableism in education for more information.

    • Why is a transformation needed to create inclusive education in Australia?

      In our Fact Sheet Transformation to inclusive education: the next steps, we outline the steps needed to realise inclusive education in Australia.

      Leadership is required to bring about the substantial change needed to ensure every child and young person can fully and genuinely participate and have the contribution they make recognised.

      We make several recommendations for educational leaders and governments to facilitate inclusive education in Australia and ensure we meet our international human rights obligations, including:

      • a National Action Plan for Inclusive Education to ensure a successful transition from parallel systems of education to one inclusive system
      • ensuring that no new segregated settings (schools, preschools, centres, units or classrooms) are created
      • ensuring the full recognition of human rights
      • fostering a culture of inclusion
      • compulsory, comprehensive and ongoing teacher education for inclusion
      • building the foundations for successful collaboration for inclusion
      • flexible and responsive curriculum and assessment approaches
      • listening to students
      • prioritising disability equity education.




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