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Stories about bullying and exclusion of school students with disability heard by royal commission

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When Luke Nelson finished school at 18 years of age, he couldn't read nor write.

The now-33-year-old — who lives with cerebral palsy — feels "failed and let down" by his education.

"When I was 21, I realised that, "Hang on, this is a bit wrong' … like the writing I did was illegible," Mr Nelson said.

He spent the majority of his senior years at a special school, having attended both mainstream and special schools for his primary education.

After he left school, Mr Nelson undertook reading courses and he now works as a public speaker.

"I am very lucky with what I do and I certainly do not put that down to what I was taught at school," he said.

A man in a wheelchair holding some books
Luke Nelson left school at 18 years of age, but had not been taught to read nor write.(ABC News: Crystalyn Brown)

'Disabled students were an afterthought'

Stories such as Mr Nelson's — about the education of students with disability — were examined at the first public hearings of the disability royal commission in Canberra this week.

More than a dozen witnesses gave evidence, including current and former students, parents, advocates and education authorities.

Mr Nelson did not give evidence but said that he hoped the inquiry would lead to changes in the education system.

"It needs major fixing … people with disabilities need to be respected and given a dignified education."

A young woman with a white jacket at the royal commission
Gi Brown said disabled students were an "afterthought" at their mainstream school(Supplied: Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability)

The royal commission will not be making any findings of negligence nor breaches of law from its hearings, which are being held between now and December 16.

Senior counsel assisting the commission Kate Eastman said the hearing was not intended to be a "referendum" on the "merits of regular versus segregated educational settings" nor any "judgement" on the choices made by parents.

Former student Gi Brown, from Victoria, told the royal commission they were an "easy target" for bullying at their mainstream school.

They said they watched other disabled students go through similar experiences and their cases were "brushed off".

Gi — who identifies as living with ADHD and autism — said they felt "powerless".

When transitioning out of the education system, Gi said they were unprepared and there was "zero support from the school".

"The best way that I can describe leaving school was being pushed off the edge of a cliff," Gi said. 

'Teachers did the best they could'

Edward Croft, a teacher from regional Western Australia, gave evidence about the education experiences of his "profoundly disabled" son Ryan, who is now 20 years old.

Diagnosed when he was four years old with intellectual disability and autism, Ryan is non-verbal.

In emotional testimony, Mr Croft said teachers, who were often his colleagues and friends, "did the best they could".

"I need to say the school did try, they really did.  

"Ryan is completely different to most kids … there was lots of screaming and that's hard to take for most people."

Year 1 for Ryan was an "unmitigated disaster", Mr Croft said.

A man with short hair and a suit sitting at the royal commission
Edward Croft gave emotional evidence at the inquiry about the experiences of his son, Ryan.(Supplied: Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability)

"Ryan spent most of his time being taken out of the classroom because he was too loud … too much of a disruption for the other kids' learning," he said.

The 'time-out room'

Mr Croft told the hearing that when Ryan was seven years old, a bus driver threatened to "pour vinegar" down his throat because he had been screaming.

When Ryan was in year 4, Mr Croft and his wife were shown a "modified closet" in the school that was made into a "time-out room" for Ryan, with a bean bag inside and a window in the door. 

It could be locked from the outside. 

"We didn't have the courage to speak out about it … we agreed to it, even though we didn't want to," Mr Croft said. 

A dozen young school children standing outside with hats on
The royal commission heard from more than a dozen witnesses this week on the education of students with disability.(AAP: Dan Peled)

Mr Croft said his youngest son came home upset when he saw Ryan being carried screaming to what he assumed was the "holding cell called the time-out room".     

"Ryan didn't have the capacity to understand the punishment," Mr Croft said.

Stuart Percival from the WA Department of Education told the hearing there were currently three of what the state calls "protective isolation rooms" approved for use in schools, in relation to seven students with disability.

Mr Percival said that all of the rooms were de-commissioned in 2016 and new guidelines were introduced requiring schools to re-apply for permission to use them.

He said use of the rooms was "very unusual" and schools had to report each incident through an online notification system.

The Crofts moved Ryan to a special needs school in year 5, which was an 80km drive, each way, and "never regretted the decision".  

Ryan finished school in 2020.

Mr Croft told the hearing that, for people with disability such as his son, life after school was "profoundly difficult to navigate" and support was "sadly lacking".

The royal commission was told Ryan was currently in hospital — where he'd been for 13 weeks — "sedated with high-doses of anti-psychotic medication". 

Mr Croft told the ABC accommodation options for his son were being investigated, with the hope that Ryan could soon move out of hospital.

'It will just be school'

Bas — a current mainstream school student from Canberra who lives with cerebral palsy — told the royal commission his disability "doesn't define" him.

Using a screen-reading device to give his evidence, the 12-year-old said that, with "a little help" and the right support, he could do what he needed to do.

A woman with brown hair looking at her son, both of whom are smiling
Julie (left) and her son, Bas, both gave evidence during the hearing.(Supplied: Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability)

Bas's mother, Julie, told the hearing that children with disabilities were "constantly disadvantaged" and "not given opportunities" to develop.

"Trying to adjust the edges of mainstream education, so these kids can fit in, is not adequate and will never work for the person with disability," she said.

Julie said Bas's inclusion in mainstream school took "really simple" adjustments and she hoped all children with disability would be "part of an inclusive education system". 

"We won't have to say 'mainstream' anymore. It will just be school." 

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability will continue its public hearings around the country until the year's end.


Source: ABC

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