Is education inclusive enough?

If children and adolescents struggle silently, schools may be discriminatory through a lack of awareness.

Fewer than half of Australian teachers feel prepared to deal with the needs of students with an intellectual or physical disability, writes Irina Hochwald-Jones, Project Officer at IEU VicTas.

Governments, schools, and educators have come a long way when it comes to addressing the unique needs of children and students with an intellectual or physical disability.

Since legislative reforms in 1992, schools, their student bodies and the content being taught has been diversified, to the benefit of all. However, there are still students who are being left behind.

The Disability Discrimination Act defines ‘disability’ under Section 4 primarily as a loss, malfunction, disfigurement, disease, or illness of a person’s bodily or mental functions.

This limited definition creates three main issues:

  • The Act makes discrimination on the grounds of disability unlawful, however, it lacks a positive duty on educational authorities to proactively work against discrimination.•Treating students with a disability the same way you treat a student without a disability is not enough; equality does not constitute equity.
  • When there is a lack of awareness of disability, students go undiagnosed. Many disabilities are ‘invisible’ or take special knowledge to identify, such as mental health disorders or symptoms. They are often missed but can leave just as great an impact.
  • Differences outside of disability give rise to discrimination and affect students. Socio-economic or cultural-linguistic factors help determine whether a person is even diagnosed, and gender identity, sexuality, religion, and race all impact learning outcomes.

Equality versus equity

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct in important ways. Equality in education is the provision of equal treatment, opportunities and access, regardless of one’s background. While a crucial step towards eliminating disparity, equality fails to account for unique needs. For instance, providing each child with a laptop to take home doesn’t help those whose home lacks internet access. Even if a school promotes equality, some children are still at risk due to their individual circumstances.

A more difficult but worthier goal is that of equity. Equity in education seeks to ensure that students with disabilities, and other marginalised groups receive educational tools, resources, and assistance that are tailored to their specific needs, rather than providing the same for all individuals.

For example, a framework of equity recognises that a child with a disability might require different physical assistance at school than a peer who does not. It ensures that everyone has access to the resources they need to thrive in their education. Equity is more purposeful, meaningful, and effective compared to equality.

Slipping through the cracks

The World Health Organization (WHO) says mental health disorders are one of the main causes of disability in Australian adolescents. Almost a quarter of Australia’s young people are affected, yet they are five times less likely than the rest of the population to seek help at times of psychological distress.

A Young Minds Matter survey found that ADHD is the most common disorder, at 7.4 percent of children; however, misconceptions about the disorder persist and girls are continuously under diagnosed due to variations in presentation and gender biases towards behaviour.

If children and adolescents struggle silently, schools may be discriminatory through a lack of awareness. A child may be punished for their behaviour or academic performance, and denied participation, opportunities or assistance, when their struggle is in fact a symptom of undiagnosed ADHD.

About 50 percent of mental illness emerges in adolescence and the rate of depression increases by more than 300 percent between the ages of 11 and 17. Prevention efforts implemented early in life can successfully avert the onset of mental health disorders and schools, with their access to young people and structured setting, are ideally placed to deliver such interventions.

A view too narrow

We are learning that traumatic events are often precursors to the development of some mental health conditions or learning disabilities. So, it is vital to shed light on the factors leading to an increased risk of trauma at school. For example, victims of peer cyberbullying have been found to experience low self-esteem, withdrawal from school activities, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

Children affected by the continuing impacts of structural inequality that result in poverty, sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination are at an increased risk of acquiring a disability, illness or disorder.

If we ignore those structural inequalities and treat students belonging to marginalised groups as no different to anybody else, we perpetuate inequity. Students belonging to marginalised groups deserve to be empowered through an education that celebrates their identity and differences.

The solutions

Fewer than half (38 percent) of Australian teachers feel professional development opportunities adequately prepare them for teaching students with special needs.

Schools and teachers need support to understand evidence-based inclusive practices, address common concerns and misconceptions about inclusion, and develop and apply corresponding policy and practical strategies. Teaching students with special needs requires skills that develop with time and ongoing support, yet less than half of early career teachers work with an assigned mentor.

Ultimately, our legislators must develop, introduce, and maintain laws and policies that address the discrimination at the root of the problem.

It is on our governments to fund education and universities, so educators are trained to deal with differences in a sensitive and proactive way. It is on our governments to provide schools with the resources, specialists, and funds to manage a diverse student cohort. It is on employers to manage teacher workload, provide adequate staffing and robust procedures to ensure responsibility for special needs students doesn’t disproportionately rest with individual staff.

Unions have the collective power to push governments and policymakers into doing more. We know that students with complex needs can drastically increase the workload of our members, especially where those students are not receiving the support they need.

Addressing the issue properly would be a win for both students and educators.


C. Forlin and D. J. Chambers, ‘Teacher preparation for inclusive education: Increasing knowledge but raising concerns’, Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education (2011) 39(1):17-32.

Chillemi, K. et al. ‘A pilot study of an online psychoeducational program on cyberbullying that aims to increase confidence and help-seeking behaviors among adolescents’, Cyberpsychol., Behav. Soc. Netw. (2020) 23: 253-256

D. B. Holsinger and W. J. Jacob (eds.), ‘Inequality in Education: Comparative and International Perspectives’ (2008) 1-34. Hong Kong: Springer. Retrieved from

Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth)

Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic)

Grove, C. et al, ‘The need for mental health education in Australian schools’, Monash University: Lens (9 February 2021).

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Lawrence, D., Johnson, S., Hafekost J., Boterhoven De Haan, K., Sawyer, M., Ainley, J., & Zubrick, S.R. (2015) ‘The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents’. Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Department of Health, Canberra.

Mowlem, F.D., Rosenqvist, M.A., Martin, J. et al, ‘Sex differences in predicting ADHD clinical diagnosis and pharmacological treatment’, Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry (2019) 28, 481–489.