Adjustments to curriculum for Australian school-aged children with disabilities: what's reasonable?

Year: 2017

Author: Poed, Shiralee

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Despite parents and educators citing tensions surrounding the provision of curriculum adjustments for students with disabilities during discrimination claims, few studies have examined how commissioners and judges have determined the reasonableness of these adjustments. This study explored Australian discrimination cases involving students with disabilities to identify why adjustments to curriculum were a source of tension, and then further examined the meaning of 'reasonable'? Using a qualitative line of inquiry, 134 Australian judicial decisions involving 84 students with disabilities were initially identified and examined using the explanation of reasonableness, outlined in section 3.4 of the Disability Standards for Education 2005 (DSE). Analysis of the 134 decisions revealed an upward trend in litigation, with claims mainly emerging in Government schools, particularly in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland. After eliminating cases where issues around curriculum were not discussed, 92 judicial decisions involving 54 Australian students with disabilities remained, and were the focus for detailed analysis.

The first sub-question explored what counted as a disability when determining adjustments to curriculum. Findings revealed tensions around the qualifications of practitioners diagnosing disabilities, and the validity of assessment measures used with some populations. Findings further revealed tensions relating to the record-keeping practices of both families and schools. Concerns were noted in relation to students who chose not to disclose their disability, students ineligible for additional resourcing, and students where the impact of the disability on learning fluctuated. A key implication from these findings was the need to address the discrepancy between the legislated definition of disability, and that used by schools to identify students eligible for additional resourcing to support their educational needs.

The second sub-question explored whose voice was heard when determining adjustments to curriculum. The findings showed it was reasonable that students with disabilities have a voice in decision-making whenever possible, although the voices of students with disabilities were rarely heard. Typically, the student's parent was consulted, with schools at times not acting on the desires of families, especially where the school determined it was not in the student's best interest. Issues were noted in cases where parents self-represented during litigation. A key finding from this analysis identified the need to improve ways in which students, and their families, can meaningfully engage in educational decision-making.

The third sub-question explored whose interests were considered and how these were alancedwhendeterminingwhetheradjustmentstocurriculumwerereasonable. Findings revealed limited attention in litigation on the benefits of providing adjustments, with families arguing some adjustments were in place for the benefit of the school, rather than the student. When balancing interests, behaviour that impacted on the learning of others or that posed a risk to health and safety of others received significant attention, as did hardships imposed by additional costs related to staffing, resources, administration, and modifications. A major finding showed further scrutiny is required in the way benefits are measured, and how economic rationalism can be balanced against theoretical and philosophical arguments for inclusion.

The final sub-question considered how academic integrity was maintained when providing curriculum adjustments. Findings revealed academic integrity received limited attention for school-aged students with disabilities. Recommendations were proposed for: (a) families, (b) professional practice, (c) policy, and (d) future research based on the findings from this study. As the first, comprehensive Australian study that has extensively examined disability discrimination issues with a specific focus on adjustments to curriculum, this research has made an important contribution to the field by clarifying how schools and parents understood the concept of reasonableness, and how it was treated in judicial decision-making. This better understanding of the phrase reasonable adjustments, as relevant to curriculum, has served two purposes. First, it has added to the knowledge about one of the variables (curriculum) that contributes to tensions between parents and educational authorities in relation to disability discrimination. Second, it offers educators and parents a better understanding of how to negotiate curriculum adjustments to minimise the likelihood of future litigation.