Catia Malaquias joined other international experts and advocates for inclusive education at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on 21 March 2019 World Down Syndrome Day, where she spoke about students with disabilities in the Australian education system, and also moderated a panel discussion and interactive dialogue on “The Future of Inclusive Education”.
The World Down Syndrome event was focussed specifically on inclusive education and was co-sponsored by Down Syndrome International, Inclusion International and UNICEF. Self advocate Marta Sodano from Italy gave a powerful account of her experience of inclusive education and the importance of high expectations and supportive peers.
International experts and speakers on the day included Catalyst for Inclusive Education Chair Diane Richler, President of Inclusion International Sue Swenson, UNICEF Senior Adviser Rosangela Berman-Bieler and Harvard Professor Thomas Hehir, who authored the recent landmark review of international research on inclusive education, “A Summary of the Evidence on Inclusive Education” (2017).
In her speech, titled “Education of children with disabilities in Australia: The unrealised promise to ensure a universally accessible and inclusive education system”, Catia made the following points:
- Australia, is a federated nation of States each with its own government responsible for its own education system. However, the national government of Australia is responsible for “foreign affairs” which includes entering into international human rights treaties, and passing laws to implement its obligations under those treaties, such as obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD).
- Like many Western countries, Australia has an established “dual system” of education, characterised by a “mainstream” education system and a separate, disability-segregated system that consisted of, in the first instance, stand-alone “special” schools, and in the last 2 decades or so, has included segregated delivery of education in separate “units” and separate classrooms for students with disabilities within or next to mainstream schools.
- The separate system emerged for a range of reasons, but for children with Down syndrome and intellectual disabilities, it was in part a response to their complete exclusion from the general education system.
- In Australia, children with complex disabilities – particularly intellectual disabilities – were excluded from public education well into the 1970s – and many parents advocated strongly for their education, although this was delivered in segregated special schools following the model of institutions.
- It was not until the 1990s that the notion of “equal access” to education for students with disabilities developed traction, and in 1994 the World Conference on Special Needs Education produced the Salamanca Statement that recognised the importance of inclusive education in regular schools.
- Finally, in 2006 the CRPD was adopted with Article 24 providing recognition of inclusive education as a right of students with disabilities. This created the impetus for legal and policy reforms to support students with disabilities to access an inclusive education.
- Notably, the Australian government had enacted the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, which was amended in light of the CRPD. Section 22 of this Act expressly prohibits discrimination by schools on the basis of disability, and requires that “reasonable adjustments” be made where necessary to support access by students with disabilities.
- At the policy level, State and national governments appeared to commit to inclusive education and to recognise that it is evidence-based practice for students with disabilities. But on the whole their efforts can be characterised as:
- minimally adjusting existing systems that are fundamentally non-compliant with the CRPD, rather than reforming those systems from the ground up; and
- to some extent, simply rebranding segregated delivery of education as “inclusive” or changing the way students are segregated by making it appear that they are within the mainstream system (eg segregated delivery next to or within mainstream schools).
- Not surprisingly, these steps have been ineffective to meet the requirements of Article 24 of the CRPD, a conclusion corroborated by indicators of a rise in educational segregation of Australian students with disabilities, in substantial concurrence with the period since the CRPD was ratified.
- General Comment No.4 by the CRPD Committee explains the meaning and scope of Article 24 on the right to inclusive education and the necessary steps for States to transition from “dual” parallel systems to a single universally accessible and inclusive education system for all students.
- While there are “beacon schools” across the government and private systems in Australia demonstrating quality inclusive models and practices, they do not reflect a whole of system standard. At best, most students with intellectual disabilities in Australia either experience “exclusion” (through increased suspensions and expulsions), “segregation” for the whole or part of the school week (this is the case for over 50% of students with Down syndrome) or “integration”, which means the onus is mainly on them to “fit in” and their access to mainstream is effectively conditional on their ability to do so. Few experience authentic inclusion within the meaning of General Comment No.4.
- A lack of conceptual clarity about the meaning of “inclusive education” reflected at legal, policy and practice levels and the failure of successive federal and State governments in Australia to provide leadership on this issue and effective and comprehensive measures to ensure positive implementation beyond limited anti-discrimination prohibitions, helps to explain the current contextual deficiencies for students with Down syndrome and other disabilities in Australia.
Catia also attended the official United Nations presentation of this year’s World Down Syndrome Day video campaign “Reasons to Celebrate”, created by Italian Down syndrome association CoorDown, in partnership with Down Syndrome International and other Down syndrome associations including Down Syndrome Australia. Catia was again part of the international team working directly with the creative directors, as she has done for each annual international video campaign since 2015.
You can watch the video here:
On 19 December 2011, the United Nations General Assembly officially designated 21 March as World Down Syndrome Day (A/RES/66/149), inviting “all Member States, relevant organizations of the United Nations system and other international organizations, as well as civil society, including non-governmental organizations and the private sector, to observe World Down Syndrome Day in an appropriate manner, in order to raise public awareness of Down syndrome”.
Down syndrome is a naturally occurring chromosomal arrangement that has always been a part of the human condition, exists in all regions across the globe and commonly results in variable effects on learning styles, physical characteristics or health.