Students with disabilities often struggle in Australian schools. There have been many inquiries and reports over the years that tell us this. Of course, students with disability struggle for a range of reasons but a major one is the lack of funding for support materials that can be used by teachers with the responsibility of educating them. So when funds do become available it is very important for them to be spent carefully and wisely.
Our post is about a new resource, the Leading Learning 4 all website, which was commissioned by the Australian government in response to the latest review of the Disability Standards for Education in 2015. The resource aims to promote inclusive school practices but we believe it makes some fundamental mistakes.
We decided to air our concerns here because it might help raise awareness of the issues involved and hopefully improve future support and resources for teachers involved in educating children with disability.
What is “Leading Learning 4 all”?
Leading Learning 4 all is a website developed by the Australian Special Education Principals Association and built by Schoolzine Pty Ltd. The idea for the website is it that it will be a place where teachers and schools can go for ideas and to learn strategies that will help them with the education of children with disability. The website aims to develop a repository of inclusive teaching practices across Australia, which will be added to over time.
It claims to be organised around the Disability Standards for Education for Australian schools and is aimed at school leaders. It cost taxpayers $622,000.
We believe this was money poorly spent and a great opportunity wasted.
The bulk of the resources available on this site are in the form of videos and schools are invited to upload their own.
The website states that these videos “are not intended to be crafted, professionally directed pieces”. The idea is if teachers and schools upload their own videos of what they are doing with their students with disabilities, this will help develop a repository of practice that will be useful to others looking for help.
Although this signals respect for the teaching profession, it also assumes that school practitioners have the means and technical know-how to generate videos that are appropriate for broader use.
One fundamental problem with this site is poor modelling
Teachers and school leaders will look towards the existing videos on the site as a guide. We should expect they would be good models of the things teachers and schools might aim for.
For starters, the videos are both low-tech and low quality, so on a production level alone they do not provide a good model for amateur video producers to work towards.
But we have identified far more serious problems with the videos on this site.
For now, we will highlight just three: poor accessibility, flawed representation of students with disability, and incorrect interpretation of the Disability Standards for Education.
The provision of accessibility, such as text captioning—to enable access to information and equitable participation—is basic to any resource intended for students with a disability.
At the time of our investigation of the website, there was a video with the captions presented in the Dutch language and two videos with no captioning at all. The remaining videos only had auto-generated captioning by YouTube.
This practice does not comply with international accessibility expectations and organisations have been asked to lift their game. For example, the US Ministry of Justice last year ruled that the automatically generated captions on Berkeley University’s YouTube channel “were inaccurate and incomplete, making the content inaccessible to individuals with hearing disabilities”.
This is not the only accessibility problem with the videos and we have listed others below:
- no pre-recorded sign language, or available scripts of the videos
- continual background music in the videos that could distort what viewers hear
- many resources are in PDF format, which means they need to be downloaded and filled-in, presumably using a pen or pencil. No other formats are provided
- no glossary or plain English information
- no contacts for translation or interpreting services. While the website can be translated using Google Translate, this service lacks accuracy in translating policy and legislation. In a multilingual society like Australia providing support to families from non-English speaking background to access information in their language is an essential advocacy practice
- The information provided for sensory disability (as a handout) makes no reference to digital accessibility. In our fast-changing technological world, teachers need to be aware of how technology can be both a facilitator and a barrier to students with disability
Flawed representations of students with disability
Students are present in just 7 of the 17 videos available on the website in the Interpreting the Disability Standards for Education section. In these 7 videos, 11 of the 12 students featured have an obvious disability.
One indicative video in the section Reasonable Adjustments with the title ‘Adjustments in the Curriculum’, has the credit “Sue and Students, Teacher [school name]”. The teacher, Sue, is sitting between two girls and starts talking to the camera:
“The two girls are from grade 3/4. One is a hearing-impaired girl and the other girl is not hearing impaired. They both work on Maths on money recognition and simple addition and equivalency. And they are working with me together in the deaf facility because they are at a similar level and it gives them some focus with me in a smaller group situation. So girls, let’s have a look…”
Sue keeps talking to the girls for another two seconds and the video ends. The ‘girls’, who have no names and no voice and who have been introduced by their impairment (or lack thereof), are treated more like props than thinking, feeling humans.
This is a huge concern because a central feature of inclusive education is the use of person-first language. While there are exceptions with some communities or individuals electing to be known as ‘Deaf’ or ‘Autistic’, this is a personal choice and should not be assumed.
School children should therefore never be referred to as a ‘hearing impaired girl’ or a ‘Down syndrome boy’ because of the risk that they will be defined by their disability. Disability is only ever an aspect of humanity and not the sum of who a person is. The respectful use of language should be a basic consideration in any resource relating to inclusive education.
It is also not at all clear what adjustment is being made in this video example, what relevance this adjustment has to hearing impairment, or why the lesson needs to occur in the deaf facility, especially when the second girl is not hearing impaired.
Rather than an exemplar of inclusive practice, this video example appears to be about reverse integration—a concept that is deeply entrenched in special education traditions.
Interpretation of the Disability Standards for Education
Both the 2012 and the 2015 reviews of the Disability Standards for Education have commented on the lack of confidence that schools and teachers feel in interpreting the key terms of the Standards. Despite the emphasis on training, schools still struggle with the concepts of ‘on the same basis as’, ‘consultation’ and ‘reasonable adjustments’, which are all examples of the key terms of the Standards.
The examples provided in the Leading Learning 4 all website do not assist in clarifying these terms. They instead provide a poor model to guide practice. This is exemplified in a video on ‘consulting with students’ where collaboration between teachers and a physiotherapist to develop a fitness program to enable a student’s participation in sport is discussed, without once mentioning whether or how the student was consulted in the process.
Why the problems with this site need to be fixed
Everyone involved in the education of students with disability should understand the fundamental concepts and practices underpinning inclusive education; concepts as simple as ‘consultation’ and practices as important as using person-first language.
We strongly support the development of quality resources for teachers and schools to enhance their inclusive practices. Unfortunately, the Australian government’s Leading Learning 4 all website falls short of this aim and may lead well-meaning educators to unknowingly engage in practices that are both discriminatory toward, and stigmatising of, students with disability.
Rather than addressing poor practice, this website risks perpetuating it. And, if the Australian Government’s own inclusion website does not model inclusive practice, who will?
An example of videos that DO model expectations and good practice
We thought you might like to see what we do consider to be a great example of modelling and expectations.
The Reasonable Adjustments Project developed in England produced a manual and DVDs in 2005. The DVDs are now available on YouTube. They are of high quality and consistently use sign language interpretation and embedded subtitles.
The Leading Learning 4 all website represents a costly, missed opportunity for the Australian Government to do the same for the Australian school context.
Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She has been involved in teacher education in special and inclusive education both in Greece and Australia. She has experience working with general and special education teachers in the area of theories of inclusive education, and the nexus of policy and school practice. Ilektra’s research interests include inclusion, disability, comparative education and classroom diversity. Her publications include the book Inclusive Education: International Policy & Practice.
Linda Graham is an Associate Professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education. She leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT) and a number of research projects in the area of inclusive education. She can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham
Ben Whitburn is a Lecturer of Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University. Ben draws on critical disability studies, policy sociology, and insider perspectives to research and teach principles of inclusive schooling in theory, policy and teacher practice. He tweets @BenWhitburn