School is an important time in all of our lives. It’s when we explore what we like to do, learn social skills and begin to develop our identity. But school isn’t all self-discovery and excitement; students face pressure academically and socially. These things are challenging for everyone, but if a school doesn’t support its students to be fully included, it’s even harder. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many students who live with disability. When students who live with disability are separated from the rest of the students, not only do they miss out on developing social skills, but they miss out on developing their identity and self-belief that they do belong and can achieve whatever they want. But the loss is not theirs alone. The rest of the students miss out on learning within a diverse peer group and society misses out by not fostering and supporting young people who live with disability to become who they are capable of being.
A group of seven adults, who are still young enough to clearly recall their own school experiences, have been changing the culture of inclusion in South Australian schools. They are mentors for a new initiative by JFA Purple Orange called the Inclusive School Communities Project. The mentors believe it is not disability that holds students back; it is practices and policies that are often well-intentioned but inadvertently lead to exclusion and low expectations. The mentors draw on their experience of being students who live with disability to guide schools toward a culture of inclusion and support.
The project leader, Letitia Rose, told us inclusive education means, “students living with disability are fully included in the general classroom and receive the supports and modifications they need to be able to participate fully and to their best ability.”
We spoke to mentors Angus, Madde, Leeanne and Nick about their involvement in this project. All of them agreed that they want to see better choice and control for students living with disability. Madde said, “It’s about actually giving them a voice and actually consulting with the students about which pathway they want to take throughout their high school journey.” Angus added, “When they’ve got the right supports, the right attitudes and enough resources, a young person is going to kick goals.”
For the first phase of the project, the mentors are supporting five schools, More schools are expected to join later. The mentors are also supporting JFA Purple Orange, the steering group and the schools in creating a toolkit of resources to be used by any school who is trying to become more inclusive. Nick explained, “We like to look at it from more of a holistic approach and really sort of delve into what inclusion means.”
They are also working closely with the schools involved to help them with their specific needs. For example one of the schools is refurbishing and expanding their campus. They’ve asked a mentor who lives with physical disability, to come to their meetings with the architect, planners and builders so that this mentor could inform accessible designs. Madde, who lives with vision impairment is working with schools to improve signage and resources for students living with vision impairment. Leeanne, who is autistic, is working with schools on social inclusion and support students with autism. There are mentors living with physical, sensory and intellectual disability. It is important to have this diversity of experience represented on the mentor team, so that each can assist in their own area of expertise.
The mentors are young people who’ve experienced first-hand what it is like to be a student who lives with disability. That is what sets this project apart from the rest. “It’s information straight from the source of people who have either gone through it or are still going through it,” Nick told us. Letitia explained further, “Given that young people are the beneficiaries of the project, we think it’s important that their voice and perspective and ideas are shaping it and that’s the way that Purple Orange works with everything because we know for things to be more successful, they need to include the people who are going to be affected or benefit.”
All the mentors have had different experiences with education, but are united with a common passion - helping others to be more included.
“I’m passionate about this project because I was one of those people who had quite a positive experience. I got in-class support, some modifications made and various other things. And I went through the same school all the way so my disability was normalised amongst my peers. That drives me to get a better understanding of what’s happening and what other people’s experiences are so I can advocate for the same opportunities as anybody else” – Angus
“I have an interest in the education system. You always hear bad stories of different things that people have had to tackle, whether it be on a school or a societal level in the work place. I’m keen on helping others and trying to help make things better for everyone, step by step.” – Madde
“I don’t know how we can expect society to change in terms of being more inclusive for people with disability if it’s not being modelled as students are going through the school system. If they see it happening there, when accessibility or inclusion is meant to happen in the workplace, it won’t feel so foreign and people may know what to do. Overall, if we’re going to create massive change it needs to be in those formative years rather than just trying to do it when the person is an adult and already set in their ways.” – Leeanne
“In our every-day lives there are things we see and things we come up against that we know needs to change for lots of reasons. It’s about being given a platform to be able to share that and if we can make it better for other people, why would we not do that?” – Nick
There is still a long way to go until Inclusive Education is the standard. Leeanne, a qualified teacher, told us it can take, “20 years from when information is known to when it is implemented at schools,” but the Inclusive School Communities project is a promising move in the right direction and the participating schools are keen to progress. “The schools are actively engaged,” Angus affirmed. “They’re very enthusiastic about working alongside people who live with disability who have been through the schooling system.” They are listening, learning and making changes and are well positioned to pave the way for other schools to follow.