School ill-treatment of students with disability


Another series of stories has surfaced about the ill-treatment of students with disability in schools.


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The ABC’s 7.30 Report ran a story last month on yet another child with disability being mistreated at school.

The student was caged. Another student was bullied so badly at school he became suicidal.

In the first case, Emily Dive has lodged a complaint against the Victorian Education Department with the Australian Human Rights Commission on behalf of her eight-year-old son, Lachlan Murrell, who is autistic and has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Ms Dive, a working carer, claims that Lachlan was held for hours on end in a two-metre square plywood cell with a peephole in the door and no windows. He had been shunted from school to school and a year ago, was expelled for allegedly assaulting a teacher. Lachlan hasn’t set foot in a classroom since.

“He has no self-esteem,” Ms Dive told the 7.30 Report. “He has no self-worth. He has no identity as a student. Socially, he’s missed out on a lot of opportunities and obviously academically as well.”

Complaints taken to Human Right Commission

The Victorian Education Minister, James Merlino, has ordered an independent investigation into the claims.

According to the 7.30 Report, the case is one of six disability discrimination complaints currently before the Human Rights Commission involving allegations of physical restraint, seclusion and exclusion from schools. There are another five cases before the Federal Court. Some involve working carers.

One of the HRC cases involves a young boy with autism who was subjected to bullying so severe he became suicidal. The boy’s parents are claiming that the school did not take adequate measures to ensure that the bullying stopped.

As is so often the case, when the child with disability rebels against their circumstance, it’s them who carry all the blame and shame. The boy in this case was suspended from the school several times and, finally, expelled because of ‘behaviours which were symptoms and manifestations of his disabilities’.

It is never admitted that ‘behaviours’ might be symptoms and manifestations of a failing system.

According to Julie Phillips of Disability Discrimination Legal Service Inc in Melbourne, state governments across Australia are doing nothing to rectify situations like the ones in the above two examples.

“I would hope that the conversations we’re having now strike a chord with departments of education because they tend to ignore all the evidence that the system is broken … Instead of thinking about ‘what shall we do with these kids, where shall we put them? [they should] concentrate more on resourcing the schools.”

Children with disability paying for inadequate system

As it is, it’s children with disability, their families – many of whom are working carers – who are paying the price for inadequacies in the education system.

A starting point for an effort to fix the ‘broken’ system would be recognition of the fact that a student who is ‘different’ may very well need someone to mediate between him/her and the system, to intercept and divert behaviours which are ‘symptoms and manifestations of his disabilities’.

The system needs to employ and train specialist educators and teacher-aides to guide children coming from segregated environments on their entry into the strange, and very often unwelcoming, new world of mainstream education.

Attitudes need to be corrected. Aides and teachers too need to understand that the presence of a student who is different can benefit the whole class, particularly in the matter of tolerance and charity. And that surely must be a plus in a world where there is so much hostility to ‘otherness’.

The authorities commanding the system need to realise that positive outcomes are possible. Certainly, they cannot be achieved by putting kids in cages or cells.

Australian Human Rights Commission:

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Level 3, 175 Pitt Street, SYDNEY NSW 2000

GPO Box 5218, SYDNEY NSW 2001

Telephone: (02) 9284 9600
National Information Service: 1300 656 419
General enquiries and publications: 1300 369 711
TTY: 1800 620 241

The NSW Disability Discrimination Legal Centre provides free information, advice and representation in relation to disability discrimination law for people with a disability, their associates, disability organisations and community legal centres. The centre employs a full-time solicitor assisted by volunteer law students.

Phone: (02) 9310 7722

1800 800 708

Text Telephone Number: (02) 9313 4320

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Postal Address: PO Box 989, STRAWBERRY HILLS, 2012

Award winner ‘too disabled’ for mainstream education

Award winner ‘too disabled’ for mainstream education

Joel Satherley was considered ‘too disabled’ for mainstream education. But as a young adult, and against all odds, he won a major Australian Government award.

His mother, Work ‘n’ Care editor Zoe Satherley, shares her personal journey and reflects on widespread media discussion in recent weeks around the segregation of students with disability from regular classes, and the continuing maltreatment of students with disability in educational settings.


Nine years ago, I lost a beloved son who had significant disability encompassing autism and cerebral palsy.

Today, listening to the ongoing debate about whether students with disability should be included in mainstream classes, and recent stories about the horrific treatment of students with disability in Australian schools, I can only reflect sadly that Australia still has a very long way to evolve before we see respect, inclusion and acceptance as the norm for our sons and daughters.

When will they be allowed to live valued lives, embedded in the fabric of their community, with the support they so rightly deserve? How long must we keep fighting for their basic human rights?

Despite the significant gains made in disability rights and legislation, the struggle against ignorance continues.

We have all listened to TV, radio and press debate in recent times suggesting that students with disability, like my son, need to be removed from our classrooms because they hold the other students back. There are ‘special’ schools for them and that’s where they belong.    

Now, on the ninth anniversary of his death, I am reminded of the long battle our family had to get our son, Joel (who had extremely high support needs), into a regular classroom setting where he could have an education commensurate with his abilities.

He was one of those ‘difficult’ kids. A kid who rebelled against the situation he found himself in. So, he spent quite a bit of time in ‘isolation’ receiving ‘therapy’ a.k.a. punishment. Unbeknownst to us at the time, he would be strapped, sobbing, into a rigid standing frame for hours on end, only to wet himself and be transferred to a small caged area, where he was left to howl alone.

Then… they were all put in isolation: the kids came back after a holiday break to find that their ‘special unit’ had been segregated from the rest of the school by a black-painted iron-bar fence two metres high. We pulled him out of school. We were threatened by the authorities.

I remember sitting on the phone for hours and days on end, relentlessly calling schools within a radius of 800 kms from our Central Coast home. Shockingly, no mainstream school would accept Joel as a student. He was, the then Department of Education said, ‘too disabled’ to be included in a regular mainstream class.

We lodged a complaint with the Disability Discrimination Commission and kept looking for a school.

The only place where Joel was potentially welcome was Nimbin Central School, on the NSW North Coast. We had no idea back then where Nimbin was – only that we were going there, no matter what.

But even that seeming miracle challenged our family’s self-worth. I was invited to a special staff meeting to plead my case for Joel’s enrolment. The teachers then retired to take a vote. The Principal, Alex Benham, used his casting vote to support the enrolment. I remember he had a pink rose quartz crystal on his office desk. It became my favourite gemstone.

In time, with amazing support from Gillian Smith, a visionary Department of Education disability support consultant, Joel thrived at school, astonishing staff and students alike.

In Year 7, his first year at the school, music teacher Myra Virtue asked the class to name some famous composers. Two students managed to name one composer each. Anyone else? Any composer will do! There was silence.

Joel put up his shaky hand. He was still the new boy, the ‘disabled kid’ who talked funny and couldn’t walk. There was snickering. Twenty minutes later the bell had rung and Joel was still going strong, having named more than 50 composers! The teacher was filling the board with names … the class stayed in. Unheard of. They cheered him on. He was a legend after that.

In his final year, Year 12, Joel triumphantly shared the award as the school’s most outstanding student. He had a huge number of deeply connected and caring friends, who gave him a standing ovation… and partied on into the night with him. Years later, these were the same wonderful friends who visited frequently as he struggled with terminal cancer.

What is important to put on record, is that Joel received full-time teacher aide support for his six years of high school. It paid massive dividends. Individualised support is crucial to successful inclusion – for the student, for the teacher, and for the class.

Later, again with a great deal of individualised support, Joel went on to study art and drama at TAFE, and writing at Southern Cross University.

He became an in-demand speaker, sharing his compelling personal journey and advocating for a fair go for people with disability. The Institute for Family Advocacy and Leadership Development made a film about him.

In 2007, against all odds, he was the inaugural Australian Government National Disability Awards personal achievement prize winner.

Now, if backward-thinking people had their way, students like Joel would spend their education years in little concentration camps behind bars, in ‘special’ units that are under-staffed and under-resourced, out of sight and out of mind.

They would be denied the chance to realise their full potential, to develop lasting, freely-given friendships, and to make meaningful contributions to society.

New generations of so-called ‘normal’ kids would grow up in absolute ignorance – intolerant of difference, fearful, and unsure of how to relate to a person with disability. They might reach adulthood as uninformed, bigoted, individuals – like some of our politicians. As organisational leaders and decision-makers, they would continue to carry their prejudice and fear with them.

People with disability deserve so much more from us than this. We need to speak up wherever and whenever we see discrimination against them and stand with them, shoulder-to-shoulder, as allies and advocates. 

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