'My brother lives with a disability. His schooling experience taught me one thing.'

When my brother Tom received his diagnosis at just three years old, my parents were worried he would have to attend a special needs school. By the time he was school aged, they knew it was his only option. 

For context, Tom has Intellectual Delay, ADHD and Global Development Delay (GDD). He's also just graduated from Year 12. 

Growing up with Tom has brought so much joy to our lives. My siblings and I listen to him sing along to his favourite songs, watch him gain new skills, and see the joy on his face when we go out as a family. 

But it's also very challenging. 

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I wouldn't label Tom as non-verbal, as he can say some words. He regularly says things like "cup of tea" and "nuggets and chips." Yet his vocabulary is very minimal. So when he is upset and crying, he can't communicate why. As someone who has cared for him for so long, it's still difficult to grapple with.

Tom also has no understanding of safety. Until recently, my brother's love for running had resulted in some dangerous situations. He used to climb our back fence and run kilometres from home just to stimulate himself. Once he even got as far as the penguin enclosure at Featherdale Wildlife Park.


I also remember a time Tom was so eager to eat the chocolate cake mum was making, so he accidentally burnt both his hands and the inside of his mouth by grabbing the cake while it was still cooking in the oven.

These are just some of the reasons why Tom's education needed to be so specialised. 

Unlike Tom, future generations of students with disabilities may experience 'inclusive education' as the Disability Royal Commission recommendations. This plan was announced in late September and it's pushing for the closing of special education schools. 

The Royal Commission advised 222 recommendations aiming for a more inclusive Australia, with aims of no further special education enrolments from 2031 and closing of special education schools in 2051. These recommendations were established due to the current segregation of special education, however three commissioners disagreed with this conclusion. And some of us who have loved ones with this lived experience also disagree.

The argument against the closure of special education classes is that it provides students with an equitable education and allows teachers to adjust teaching topics and methods to suit the class. 


Special education schools also have facilities created for kids with disabilities that mainstream schools do not. That would mean dramatic changes need to be made to mainstream schools to create an equitable learning environment for kids with disabilities.

These conversations are important. Crucial even. Because what we need more is to hear from the people and their loved ones who these decisions will impact the most. 

All schools need a greater understanding of disabilities.

To ensure students with disabilities in mainstream schools receive a fair education, teachers need to have a greater understanding of their students' needs.

According to the NSW Education Standards Authority, between 2017 and 2020 less than one in five of NSW's 165,000 teachers have taken a course on students with disabilities. Currently, one in five public school students have a disability, but numbers are expected to accelerate 50 per cent by 2027

With this in mind, the more training and understanding the better. 

Changes in the classroom will need to be made. 

Lessons in mainstream and special education classes are very different. 

In high school, my brother couldn't read or write. He couldn't complete tasks neurotypical kids his age could. The focus of my brother's education was shifted from the standard curriculum to important life skills that would help him after graduation. 

Weekly his class would go to Woolworths where they would learn a range of essential life skills. He would learn road safety on the commute to walking to the shops, how to deal with money when buying groceries, and cooking skills back at school where they would make lunch with the ingredients they bought. He absolutely loved this activity. 


This individualised lesson planning was important for Tom to achieve learning goals that were obtainable with his learning disability, but would not be available in a mainstream school. Special education classes are also a two staff members to six students ratio, so it would be a dramatic change for these students to then be transferred into a class with a teacher to student ratio of one to 30.

Disability-friendly facilities.

Special schools are also designed to best cater for children with all disabilities, and have many facilities that mainstream schools don't. 

All students are entitled to a safe learning environment, however currently mainstream schools simply aren't designed to provide safety to all students. 

As I mentioned before, my brother loves running. So the three layers of two metre fences his school had were essential in ensuring there was no risk of him running out of school and getting himself into a dangerous situation. Mainstream schools, particularly high schools, don't have those same measures increasing safety risk for students with disabilities. 

Special education schools are also fully wheelchair accessible, whereas many other schools aren't. It's frustrating in 2023, I know.


Another attribute of special education is the ensuites in each classroom so students who require assistance with toileting can get the help they need. Special education schools also have assistive communication devices for non-verbal students, which are necessary in allowing students to communicate to classmates and teachers. Often it's these accessibility factors that are forgotten by the system. 

The complicated conversation we need to have.

So where do we go from here? This Royal Commission has been pivotal for putting these issues higher up on the agenda. But it's not a black-and-white issue. And not everyone thinks or feels the same. 

Ultimately, all these distinctive attributes of special education schools can be implemented into mainstream schools, so to facilitate students with disabilities they are essential requirements. 

But will it actually be done? And to what standard?

Of course, the elimination of segregated schooling is ideal in an environment which is safe and accommodating for students with disabilities. However current mainstream schools do not provide such conditions. 

I would have loved to see my brother Tom experience an all-inclusive learning environment. But only in a world that truly accommodates every student's needs.

Feature Image: Canva.

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