Looking at New Zealand’s Unfair and Inaccessible Special Education system

Is it really too much to ask that disabled children and teenagers have fair access to education in New Zealand?

No it’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be. But the battles that thousands of families are fighting right now suggests that parents are struggling with the education system and that disabled children are secluded from mainstream education more in 2017 than ever.

Seclusion from classrooms, issues with school principles’, bullying in the playground, or a shockingly low education on disability for mainstream school teachers.

The issues facing these parents are not limited to this – there is also the gross lack of funding for thousands of children with intellectual and physical disabilities. Those who are lucky to secure funding often find it to be inadequate. The ORS Funding system needs to be drastically changed, and fast.

It’s hard to diagnose the reason for all these problems in a single article, but as a disabled person myself, I’ve realised recently that really shocks me.

That realisation is that you could successfully the system hasn’t improved from my days in education. It’s actually gotten worse, far worse.

You don’t need to look any further than IHC’s court case surrounding the seclusion of people with learning disabilities to see that the system has had significant problems that stretch well beyond a decade.

My Personal Observations About The Education Systems’ Effect On Disabled People

I began my journey at school back in the late 90’s, ultimately finishing in the late 2000’s.

I was never secluded from any of my classes, though I did face significant barriers (and more than a few foul attitudes) from teachers in the PE department who simply couldn’t grasp that I had a significant muscle-weakening disease that meant no matter how much physical activity I did, the strength was never going to grow back by some miracle!

Back in those days, I also noticed that some of my disabled peers who had intellectual disabilities were included in the classroom as much as possible. One boy had Autism, another had what was clearly a significant speech and behavior disorder, and one girl was visually impaired.

But for as much as memory serves me, all of us in ‘the disabled clan’ were in the classroom, and included in general activity most of the time.

That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

I know of kids that only have physical disabilities that spend most of their school days occupying what they call “the special unit” and are actually segregated from their non-disabled peers as much as possible. Socially, kids and teenagers with disabilities are isolated and find it extremely difficult to communicate with their non-disabled peers as well.

A big reason for this is because of how the education system labels students who have disabilities. You might as well put a sticker on their foreheads that reads “I AM DISABLED AND MUST NOT BE APPROACHED”. The disabled students aren’t left to be normal students with the appropriate supports in place, they are signalled out and identified as being different and needing “special” requirements.

Young people already label themselves and put their image into certain categories enough as it is, we don’t need the system adding more of the same. But yet, it seems that it continues to do so.

It’s shocking to me that unless someone studying to become a teacher chooses to select a unit standard (as part of their study) that teaches about disability, they can go right through and complete a degree without showing any knowledge about how to teach a child with special education needs.

How this is possible is beyond me.

Many of those ‘qualified’ teachers are the ones now complaining about having to take additional time to help out students in their classrooms with learning difficulties.

So rather than change the system so it is inclusive, it seems that the easier answer is to ship disabled learners into a special curriculum of their own.

I know there are a lot of other factors at play here, not the least of which is the uniqueness of each individual situation. But surely, this is why having additional resources and more teacher aids in the classrooms is so important.

Isn’t that what the special education system has a duty to do?

Learners with disabilities, whether physical or intellectual, need to have all the resources and support available to achieve a fair education that provides opportunities to progress in life.

It’s not a matter of anything other than basic human rights – and that is the greatest crime that the current system has notched onto its belt. What’s more, this reality is another sign that New Zealand continues to fail its agreement to uphold the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.