Shutting Them Out: One Parent’s Story of Disability, Discrimination and Our Schools

By Joel Deane

People with disabilities - and the everyday challenges they face - have been in the spotlight over the past week, as the national Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has dominated headlines and political coverage. For Joel Deane, the political is deeply personal: his daughter Sophie has Down Syndrome. Last week, he attended a public high school open day, looking for a high school for his daughter - and was sadly reminded that discrimination is alive and well in today’s Australia.

Social progress, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

For instance, we like to think that Australia is less racist than it was. Considering the heritage of terra nullius and the White Australia policy, there is some validity to that belief; after all, the Federation of Australia may have been founded on notions of egalitarianism and racism, but racism has since been superseded by multiculturalism. Still, none of that would have mattered to the four Indigenous Australians left standing by the side of the road by four taxis last week in Melbourne because of the colour of their skin.

The same applies to disabilities. We like to think that times have changed, that the institutions have been closed and people with a disabilities are no longer locked away from the world, but the truth is some are still living in institutions and hundreds of thousands are shut out of mainstream Australian life – treated as second-class citizens because they have a disability.

I don’t have a disability, my daughter Sophie does.

Sophie is 12. She was born with Down Syndrome; it hasn’t stopped her. She reads and writes, mucks around on the monkey bars, can be well behaved and badly behaved, runs like a billy goat, and is a budding photographer (her portrait of Julia Gillard was retweeted more than 400 times over the weekend).

Joel Deane's daughter Sophie, at left, with prime minister Julia Gillard last week.

Joel Deane's daughter Sophie, at left, with prime minister Julia Gillard last week.

Sophie will be ready for high school in 2015 and, according to all the professional advice we’ve received, should go to a mainstream school.

With that in mind, my wife Kirsten and I went to an open night at a high school in the north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne last Tuesday night. It was not an enjoyable excursion.

This is the email I sent to the principal, whom I will call Ms M, last Wednesday.

I’ve been advised not to name-and-shame the school for legal reasons. The reason why I’m abiding with that legal advice is that the soft-shoe discrimination my family experienced at that unmentionable high school is not unique, but endemic. It could be your local high school. I refer to that unmentionable school as Discrimination High.

Ms M:

Consider this email a complaint, a wake-up call, a shot across the bows; whatever you like. My wife, Kirsten, and I have three children. Our oldest two, Noah and Sophie, will be making the transition to secondary school in 2015. Sophie has Down syndrome.

Kirsten and I have been visiting secondary schools, looking for the right fit for both Noah and Sophie. To say your school was the wrong fit would be putting it politely.

Why is Discrimination High the wrong fit for our children? Let me count the ways. The first reason it’s the wrong fit is that only three out of 1300 students have a disability – that’s less than 0.3 per cent.

I found that figure surprising given the nearest primary feeder school … has a large number of students with disabilities. ‘Why aren’t there more students with disabilities?’ I wondered. Then I mentioned to two staff members that Sophie has Down Syndrome and had my question emphatically answered.

The automatic response from both staff members (and, in case you’re wondering, this is the second reason why Discrimination High is a big nyet) was, ‘Does she have funding?’ For parents, this is usually a red flag, telling us that the school sees students with a disability not as a part of the community they serve, but a drain on resources unless there’s a bucket of money hanging around the child’s neck.

For the record, Ms M, yes, Sophie does have funding, not that it’s any of your school’s business until she enrols (don’t panic, she hasn’t and won’t).

Kirsten and I then had a more in depth conversation with a staff member we were referred to who, according to our guide, was the authority on how Discrimination High handled students with a disability. This brings me to my third reason why Discrimination High is on my when-hell-freezes-over list of schools to send my children. This staff member spoke artfully, very artfully; finding new ways to tell us why our daughter was better off elsewhere.

She opened up by saying that Discrimination High was geared towards tertiary education (apparently tertiary education is verboten to people with a disability). She then said that Discrimination High was a mainstream school – emphasising mainstream, which made me wonder whether she thought Kirsten and I had contracted a learning delay (don’t worry, Down Syndrome isn’t contagious). On a serious note, by this stage your staff member had been made aware of the fact that our daughter already attended a mainstream school. The staff member then said, ‘You might be better going to a school with more community links’ … meaning outside mainstream education, employment and life. Community links! That, Ms M, was a stroke of genius – I’ve never heard ‘community links’ used euphemistically before. I was stunned to silence. I felt as though I should make a run for the car while I could, but was persuaded by Kirsten to stay and hear your address. So I did.

You know what, Ms M, your address didn’t make me feel better.

You spoke a great deal about the new buildings that the school has; and how you had the power to expel students; and how a school over in China had heard about how great Discrimination High was and wanted to partner with you; and how the Education Department kept coming out to visit and film because your school was so ace (OK, you didn’t say ace, you said something about excellence); and you spoke about multiculturalism.

Curiously, you didn’t talk much about the teachers that make the school work. The school buildings seemed to be more important than the school culture. And, in case you were wondering, I love the new basketball stadium, too, (it reminded me of High School Musical) but, seriously, talking about the millions invested doesn’t make Discrimination High sound like a private school; it makes it sound like a cashed-up-bogan school.

By the way, I liked the bit about multiculturalism; I really did, Ms M. But it also saddened me. Let me tell you why. What saddened me (OK, annoyed, too) was that your school was failing to roll out the same welcome mat to students with a disability. That’s why Discrimination High may be multicultural, but it is not diverse because its student body does not reflect the mainstream (there’s that word again) community of which people with a disability are very much a part.

Let me tell you another thing, Ms M, Discrimination High is failing to meet if not the letter of, then the spirit of, the Disability Discrimination Act. Ever heard of that law? I suggest you Google it.

Have a nice day.

Joel Deane

Later that day I received an emailed reply from Ms M. She said she was disappointed I had ‘formed such a negative opinion of the school’ and invited me to visit Discrimination High’s website ‘for a more detailed outline of our college.’ No apology. No counter argument. No suggestion that there was anything worth talking about.

Legally, people can’t be discriminated against in Australia, but one thing I’ve learned as the parent of a child with a disability is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

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