In the Media

Response to Senator Hanson’s calls to segregate with children with autism in schools

David Penberthy: Kelly Vincent I felt really lucky when I went to Marion High School in the 1980s, we had a terrific program with the Ashford Special School for young people with different disabilities, predominantly autism. Now those kids sat in the class with the rest of our kids, we became mates with them, we used to socialise together at lunchtime. I thought it was fantastic but is Pauline Hanson expressing a sentiment that exists in the community that kids with autism are regarded as a bit of an imposition or a bit of an irritation?

Kelly Vincent: I think it is a sentiment that exists in some sections of the community and that’s exactly why the Dignity Party exists, to help dispel the misinformation that can lead to those sentiments and not only is it especially disheartening and in fact offensive to hear it coming from a Parliamentarian, not only because people often listen to the comments of Parliamentarians and put weight on those comments but it actually goes against our legal obligation. Now under both the Disability Discrimination Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, South Australia has a legal obligation to provide an inclusive education to students with disabilities so I think it’s not only offensive but it’s actually ignorant to hear from a Parliamentarian comments that goes against our existing legal obligations.

David Penberthy: We got a message from a teacher saying that while they’re no fan of Pauline Hanson they think that there is an issue with the type of support that teachers receive in circumstances where you might have a student who has a particularly profound disability. Do you think that in her own clunky way that Pauline Hanson might have actually been shining a bit of a light on the fact that there should be more support, more training, more back-up given in school environments where you might have a young person who has got particularly acute needs.

Kelly Vincent: I’ve just finished Chairing a committee into this exact issue, the way that we support students with disabilities in the South Australian education system and one of the things that became very clear is that teachers are crying out for more support, more training in how to support students with disabilities so interestingly teachers aren’t saying to ship them off to special schools or different environments, they’re actually saying ‘Give us the training and the support that we need to adequately respond to the students’ needs’ and in the same way that we don’t fix racism by shipping all the non-white students off to a different school, we can’t fix this issue by just simply segregating students with disabilities so I think it really does hinge on the resources and the training that teachers are given to adequately respond to students so it’s not just students with disabilities either but students who may be experiencing trauma or mental illness, lots of differences in our classroom and the very point of the education system should be to expose and get our students ready for the real world and out there in the real world there are people with disabilities, there are people who are different and so I think the classroom needs to be a place where those differences have an opportunity to be shared but with the right training and support as discussed in this report that I’ve just handed down to Parliament, we can make sure that we do that, and I think there were already some great examples of that happening.

For example there’s a program called the Interoception program which is aimed at students on the autism spectrum, teaching them bodily awareness, teaching them how to manage emotion, how to manage distress and so on that people on the autism can often experience when they become overwhelmed but one of the areas where this program is having great success is when it’s actually taught to the entire school or the entire classroom which I think makes a lot of sense because all young people particularly teenagers can have a lot of trouble managing emotions, feelings of distress, so I think rather than looking at this as a separate thing where we need special training to deal with these people as Pauline calls them, these people, we actually need to make sure that teachers are adequately trained and supported to respond to the needs of all students and in so doing making their own jobs easier by making the teaching environment a much easier one.

David Penberthy: Thanks. As someone who’s a proud product of the public school system and is still innately biased towards it you don’t want to get too class war about these things but I reckon there is a lot to be said for putting young people in the environment where the school community does reflect the real community and I know that these days schools are competitive and everybody wants their kid to have the best chance in life but give me an environment like the one that I had at Marion rather than a class full of gilded affluent golden-haired kids who are all being programmed to think that their entire sole purpose in life is to end up working in their father’s law firm because there’s a few school environments like that around town and the idea that you treat other human beings as an irritant or a distraction is just off.

Will Goodings: You’ll disagree with me here but I sense from Pauline Hanson’s comments is she’s fallen victim again of the fact that at best she’s a poor communicator and at worst she’s entirely insensitive because I think she could have made the same message by simply coming out and saying ‘We need to invest more in supporting those kids that have disability and autism because the ramifications of that investment, the benefit of it, goes beyond those people that are sufferers and their families’

David Penberthy: Are you being too generous with that form of words, Will, because I totally agree with everything you said and indeed Kelly Vincent just agreed with it as well, like it’s actually about support systems and training and all of that but was Hanson even going close to making that point because it didn’t particularly sound like it to me – it sounded like the same silly stuff she said about vaccinations.