A Policy A Day: Inclusive Education

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We’re exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that – after all, we’re voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today’s post is written by Etta Bollinger

I have two clear memories of the lead up to starting school. The first is me asking my Mum what school is like, and my chief concern, will she be there? Even at five, I had some idea that school was going to present particular challenges to me.

I’m a twin, so I was lucky enough to be facing the momentous transition hand-in-hand with my best friend. This fortified me, I think. It felt normal, logical we’d done kindy together and now this. This was also logical to my parents that I should have the same educational experience as my sister.

The second memory is my wheelchair. It is bright mauve and comes fitted with a school bag which has fish on it and hangs neatly off the handlebars at the back. Perfectly, five year old-sized.

As a disabled student, starting school was more than just introducing me to classroom learning – it introduced me to a world of teacher-aides, Individual Education Plans, ORS funding and, more generally, attempting to strike a balance between the demands of my disability and my academic needs. This is a balance I’ve been negotiating ever since.

I began school in 1997, when Special Education 2000 was first being implemented; a policy which newly mandated my inclusion in the classroom alongside able-bodied peers. The policy aspired to be world-leading and aimed for “a world-class inclusive education system that [would] provide learning opportunities of equal quality to all students.”

I grew up knowing I was entitled to occupy this space despite the frustrations that came with that. I now hold a Bachelor’s Degree, which according to the 2013 Census places me in the mere 12% of disabled people who do. I have always seen education as a key to my success in life and to my broader citizenship.

This small statistic, however, speaks volumes about the barriers still present for disabled people in education. It also has wider ramifications for our lives and is particularly reflected in our low employment rates.

So, as a disabled voter looking at the Education Policies, I am looking for answers to this question: Am I included?

The Policy

The incumbent Government’s website focuses on resourcing, in terms of teacher aide hours and sign language resources for deaf and hearing impaired students. Promises like this can be read as positives in and of themselves as resourcing continues to be a major barrier. However, decisions of this ilk have the disability community feeling that Peter is being robbed to pay Paul.

For example, policy based on evidence, that early intervention is critical to the success of disabled students, has seen resources taken away from the 18-21 year old bracket, leaving them without the extra support for the significant transition into adulthood and life beyond high school they are facing.

The Government has also been critiqued by Opposition Parties – The Green Party, Labour and New Zealand First – for lack of resourcing and support given to people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism spectrum disorder. People with these disabilities report thriving in a context which caters to their needs. These parties collaborated on an Inquiry into the educational experience of people with these learning disabilities. The inquiry found that this experience hugely different from case to case.

It stated that: “Schools are inconsistent and variable in their approach to supporting students with learning support needs. The capability and capacity of teachers, teacher aides, and other specialist support providers varies widely between schools.” With regards to Inclusive Education, it recommended that inclusive practice be strengthened, and these recommendations stood out to me.

“We recommend that the Government task the Ministry of Education to extend its promotion of inclusive education information and resources to support teachers, including those who may be teaching students with needs arising from dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism spectrum disorder.

We recommend that the Government task the Ministry of Education to develop policy on learning support needs to explicitly explain what best practice for inclusion is, and how monitoring and professional development will support this policy in all schools.”

They speak to the need to level the playing field in education, and that this is possible. We – disabled people – are united in having needs outside of the standard, the average, the mainstream, and we are united in being faced with taking individual responsibility learning in a for a system without space for us. There is a sense that we are having to compete among ourselves for the limited resources available.

Working Together

Disabled students will always have a harder time under policies which individualise learning and success. This is because our success so often rests on having networks of support.

We thrive on being educated as whole people with strengths, weaknesses. We thrive on the ability to contribute to our schools and the wider community. We thrive when high aspirations are set for us and we are supported to see them through.

In writing the above I am aware of how much of it also applies to the able-bodied and typically functioning peers we learn alongside. The way that five year old me should aspire to an education of the same calibre as her sister’s and vice versa. The way in which I needed an education which saw me as having an impairment but not as being less able. What student doesn’t want their whole and complex self, supported and engaged in learning?

This is an aspiration we have had for my entire education. Yet inclusion is still piecemeal. A case where being present in the classroom doesn’t ensure your needs are met. A case where not everyone can be assured of a smooth transition into post-secondary school life. And a case where not everyone is supported to make a contribution to their community. But this doesn’t have to be the reality. For me, it feels like an issue worth voting on.

Etta Bollinger is a writer, student, and activist. Her teenage self assumed she would never write about disability but her current self enjoys it. She writes regularly for Salient and has also been published as a poet in Kiwi and Australian journals. Her plays have been staged in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK, and she has been an occasional spokesperson for Education For All.

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