In year three, Caitlyn Royce fronted up to the assembly of her primary school in Perth's north-eastern suburbs and told her fellow students she was deaf.
- Caitlyn Royce is deaf and goes to a local public primary school
- Her parents believed she would thrive in mainstream schooling
- Advocates say the success of children with a disability depends on resourcing
"I talked about what it was like being deaf and I showed them how to sign my name and spell it in sign language," she said.
Caitlyn has been attending Pearsall Primary School for the past five years and very much had a say when choosing where she wanted to be educated.
Her mum Mel Royce said sending Caitlyn to a mainstream school had been a joint decision, and she and her husband were confident she would cope well in that environment.
Close to 90 per cent of students with a disability aged between five to 18 attend a mainstream school, according to figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
But the success of the students depends heavily on the level of resourcing of schools, according to Children and Young People with Disability Australia chief executive Skye Kakoschke-Moore.
Ms Kakoschke-Moore said a recent report looked at the barriers young people face in accessing safe, quality, and inclusive education in mainstream schools.
A key concern identified was that schools failed to follow policies and laws when denying or discouraging the enrolment of students with disability, and failed to identify and implement appropriate, reasonable adjustments for students with disability.
Ms Kakoschke-Moore said "parent choice" was an often-used misnomer.
"If your local school is not prepared or equipped to provide and support your child to learn with their same-age peers successfully and safely, then going to a special school is not a choice," she said.
"It's a compromise or coercion."
"We hear and recognise the fears of families currently in or just out of the system. People are fearful of what 'mainstreaming' would mean.
"Just closing special schools without transforming local primary and secondary schools to be more inclusive would also do students a massive disservice."
Teachers need support and time
She said community attitudes, structural barriers and culturally entrenched views needed to be "called out, addressed, and regularly reviewed".
"Teachers need smaller classes, more time to plan, in-house access to supports and expertise and more support from the system," Ms Kakoschke-Moore said.
She said a Disability Royal Commission report from 2021 showed that despite several policy commitments and initiatives at local and national levels, there had only been limited progress in moving towards inclusive education, and children and young people with disability often fared poorly.
Rebecca Adam, the CEO of Access Plus WA Deaf, echoed that sentiment. She said the chances of a deaf person getting the help they needed at a mainstream school were slim.
"The impact of this on quality access to education is enormous," she said.
"There needs to be substantial investment in training interpreters and trainers."
Ms Adam said Auslan skills needed to be on every teacher's resume.
"There needs to be Auslan on both sides of the counter at all schools and educational institutions if we are to move forward," she said.
"A willingness to engage Auslan-skilled staff will simply exacerbate an existing shortage of such people."
Ms Adams said inclusion and empowerment needed to take centre stage when it came to education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
"Teachers and schools may or may not feel confident in dealing with the deaf," Ms Adams said.
"They have never been expected to develop appropriate skills or given realistic opportunities to develop those skills."
Caitlyn kicking goals
Despite the considerable barriers, Caitlyn's story is proof that with continuous communication between her and her teachers, the obstacles of a person with a disability attending a mainstream school can be overcome.
She said people needed to learn about her disability, like learning they have to face her when they directly speak to her.
"I find it works best when I'm wearing my microphone hearing aid so that I can hear my teachers clearly," she said.
"When the teachers have their back turned, I have to remind them not to as it makes it harder for me to hear them — they are all understanding and try their very best to help me."
Ms Royce said it wasn't until Caitlyn attended pre-primary school that they realised she was deaf.
"We were never offered an alternative school for Caitlyn to attend, so we arranged for the school for the deaf to come out to see Caitlyn on a weekly basis," she said.
Ms Royce said the teachers at her daughter's school had been outstanding and worked well with Caitlyn and her hearing devices.
"Overall, I am very happy," she said.
"The school was aware that Caitlyn was eligible for additional help as I requested this during the enrolment interview that we had with the school.
"They transferred over all of her information from her previous primary school to her current school, including all of the assistance that she would need."
A model that works
Deputy Principal of Pearsall Primary School Amanda Payne said that every child would undergo an enrolment interview when starting at the school, where parents could discuss their child's strengths and challenges, along with any other information that enabled the school to best meet the student's individual needs.
"For Caitlyn, we also had on board the VTOD (visiting teacher of the deaf) as part of the student services team," she said.
"VTOD's are provided by the Education Department to not only support students who are deaf or hearing impaired but also support schools to provide the optimal teaching and learning environments for deaf students."
Ms Payne said that Caitlyn's VTOD provided initial information to support the teacher including optimum environmental conditions for Caitlyn, including where to sit, how to utilise the FM system and how to change the batteries on her hearing aids.
"Professional development was also offered to the whole staff or Caitlyn's class teachers as required at the time. The VTOD was also available to answer any questions by the class teacher at any time through the year," she said.
She said that the key to supporting Caitlyn was in the relationships that were built between her family, the school, class teachers, VTOD and any outside therapists.
"Regular communication meant that as Caitlyn matured and her needs changed, we were all able to be updated on new strategies to support her."
Minister backs public schools
Despite the advocates' concerns, WA education minister Sue Ellery said the public school system was well placed to cater for the individual needs of disabled students.
She said currently about 14,000 students with a disability were taught in WA's public schools and as of March 2022, the government had allocated more than $400 million to better support them.
The education department asked schools to liaise with parents to meet the need of individual students and provide for learning adjustments.
Ms Royce said Caitlyn was a great advocate for people with hearing disabilities as she was very open to talk about hers.
"Her previous hearing teacher asked if she would speak to another student to help them as they were struggling and had the same one-sided hearing," she said.
"Caitlyn also recently spoke openly on a radio station about her deafness and feels confident about sharing her experiences."