Submission to inform a new Victorian State Disability Plan
14 Apr 2021
About Noah’s Ark
Noah’s Ark is a non-government organisation that was founded in 1971. We provide services to children with disabilities and other additional needs (0-12 years) and their families and carers.
Noah’s Ark provides National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) services from 20 locations across metropolitan and regional Victoria, ACT and Albury NSW. Last year these programs reached over 2,500 families. We have been involved in NDIS from its commencement, in the Barwon and ACT trials.
Noah’s Ark is also involved in the Victorian Kindergarten Inclusion Support, Pre-School Field Officer, and Strengthening Parent Support Program. We provide training and resources nationally and internationally.
Noah’s Ark has played a major role in the introduction of best practice services and support for inclusion in children’s services for young children with a disability in Victoria and nationally. We have strong links to early childhood intervention researchers and fields internationally.
John Forster CEO
Noah’s Ark welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the development of the next Victorian State Disability Plan (VDSP). The focus of our submission is on children and young people aged between 0 – 13 years, or the period from birth to the end of primary school. As well as having a professional interest in this age group, we understand that it is foundational to the developmental and social opportunities of an individual. What an individual experiences during this time will shape their expectation about what is possible in the future.
Firstly, our submission focuses on the role of the VSDP in:
- Promoting the rights, opportunities, and choices of children.
- Responding to a transformative environment
- Committing to inclusive education.
Secondly, we provide feedback on the seven key topic areas of the VSDP.
Lastly, we provide recommendations.
The role of the Victorian State Disability Plan (VSDP)
1. Promoting the rights, opportunities, and choices of children
We support the outcomes focus of the current plan ‘Absolutely Everyone’, although there appears to be an adult-centric approach throughout the VSDP consultation papers and insufficient detail on the issues faced by children, young people and their families. Historically the VSDP has been driven by adults with disabilities rightly seeking immediate change. Unfortunately ignoring the years leading to adulthood perpetuates the current disadvantage experienced by children. Transforming the experience of children and young people and their families is essential to making long-term and enduring change.
In our view the VSTP needs to take account of these issues, including:
- Children’s rights
- The nature of childhood
- The role of families during childhood
- Child’s voice and agency
1.1 Children’s rights
Children with a disability share universal rights with all people as described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)1 and share the additional rights of all children as identified in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).2 They also have specific rights as expressed in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).3
The first human rights treaty to devote an article concerning children with disabilities was the CRC. The CRC and CRPD have been written to operate in tandem4 , with links between the two outlined in the CRPD preamble which recognises that:
…[C]hildren with disabilities should have full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with other children and recalling obligations to that end undertaken by States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.5
In 2019, the Australian Human Rights Commission published a scorecard which tells the story of how well children’s rights are protected and promoted and indicated that:
“while most Australian children live in safe and healthy environments and do well, there are some groups of children whose rights are not adequately protected, which impacts negatively on their wellbeing and ability to thrive. This includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with disability, those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) children”.6
The VSDP is the primary mechanism through which Victoria implements its obligations under the CRPD. The new VSDP needs to recognise Victoria’s obligations to the CRC and the interaction between the CRC and CRPD. As stated by McCallum (2020), in order to fully comply with Article 7 of the CRPD, a human rights approach needs to be adopted in developing plans, frameworks, and policies.7
1.2 The nature of childhood
Recognising and responding to the challenges faced by children with disabilities is essential. Good practice in the provision of services and supports for children with a disability or developmental delay has a dual focus: a) promoting the learning, development, wellbeing and independence of the child, and b) building the capacity and supporting the wellbeing of their family.8 For children with a disability or developmental delay, the aim of services and support is to promote the child’s development of functional skills that will enable them to participate meaningfully in family, education, and community life. Not providing such support effectively can incur costs in several ways:
- In some instances, providing support early in life can address an emerging developmental problem so effectively that the problem is resolved, and the child no longer needs more intensive levels of support. Without such support, problems will escalate and become increasingly difficult (and costly) to manage.
- In most instances, children’s developmental disabilities are not transient and are sufficiently severe to require ongoing support. Appropriate services and support early in life can ameliorate the impact of the developmental disabilities on children’s development and ability to participate meaningfully, thereby reducing the demands on the family and other services, and their associated costs.
- Children with developmental disabilities are at their most vulnerable when they are very young and their relationship with their caregivers is just developing and most at risk of being compromised. When relationships and attachment with the key adults in the child’s life are not secure, there are lifelong negative implications.
Overall, the failure to provide effective services and supports for children with disability and developmental delay will have long term negative consequences for their development and capacity to participate with their family, education settings and broader community. It will result in them needing more costly forms of care and support across the life span. While the state government may have a diminishing role in relation to disability specific services, their role in relation to ensuring early diagnosis and referral, inclusive child and family services, education, and family related policy settings, remains critical.
1.3 The role of families
Children are legally, functionally, and emotionally dependent on their families, and their wellbeing is profoundly entwined with family wellbeing. For families, good practices support quality of life and builds parent capabilities during the difficult period starting from the identification of the child’s developmental disability, seeking diagnosis, the realisation of the potential implications of the condition and their ongoing role in raising their child to thrive.
The stressors experienced by the parents or carers of young children with a disability or developmental delay are in addition to the significant demands of raising any child. These stressors may include: the need for more information about their child and what to do; interpersonal and family distress; the need for additional resources and threats to their confidence in parenting their child.9 The impact of these stressors varies according to the experiences of parents, the size of family networks and the resources available to them. Stressors can reduce the ability of families to provide the essential developmental experiences needed by children to grow and learn successfully.9
When effective support is not provided, there are likely to be worse outcomes for the family and the wider society. These can take several forms:
- The demands of parenting a child with developmental disabilities often prevents one of the parents (usually the mother) from working, thereby reducing both the family income and their contribution to social productivity as workers and taxpayers.10
- Having a child with developmental disabilities increases the level of stress on parents, leading to higher incidence of depression and other stress-related conditions, all of which have additional treatment costs to society.11
- Children with developmental disabilities are more likely to be neglected or abused,7 with adverse effects upon their development and well-being and higher societal costs in the form of child protection and other services.12
- In some instances, families find the experience of having a child with a disability so burdensome that they relinquish the child into state care, which has a very high cost both personally, socially, and economically.
Overall, the failure to provide appropriate and effective support to families will lead to poorer outcomes and additional costs will be borne by the family and the wider society. While the state government is no longer responsible for overseeing specialist disability services for children and their families, they have an ongoing role regarding the delivery and oversight of family and community services.
The new VSDP therefore still needs to include a commitment to ways of engaging with children and young people with disabilities, and their families, that promotes their capabilities, addresses their priorities, and works in their everyday environments.
1.4 Child voice and agency
Recognising and responding to the views of children with a disability is essential. The voices of children with a disability are often missing from policy, research, compliance frameworks, service provision and programming. It has been proposed that the social constructs of Adultism and Ableism may be to blame.13 Adultism suggests that the voices of children in general are not commonly sought as adults doubt their ability to provide accurate and useful information. Ableism compounds this missing voice when children have a disability. Adults are often asked to speak on behalf of children, rather than supporting them to make decisions and contribute.14 These assumptions need to be challenged if we are to uphold children’s rights and safety, and scaffold supports in order for them to play a genuine role in decision-making. Ultimately, we need to support children and young people to fully exercise their rights and ensure we continue to evolve our services to best meet their needs by seeking their input on decisions that are important to them. We need to not only provide children with the opportunity to communicate ideas and opinions, but also the power to influence change.
This is in line with the CRPD committees concluding observation on the combined second and third periodic reports of Australia in 2019, which noted a lack of disability - and ageappropriate assistance for children with disabilities to participate and express their views. The committee recommended that the Australian government:
“Amend all legislation to guarantee that children with disabilities are provided with age-appropriate support and accommodations to express their views in all matters that affect their rights or interests”.
Concluding comments from a recent paper by McCallum (2020) which provides as assessment of Australia’s level of compliance on the CRPD supports this recommendation and states that government should:
“…provide children with disabilities with age appropriate assistance to express their views, not solely in family disputes, but in all aspects of life, having regard to their evolving capacities”.
The voice of children with disabilities and their family’s needs to become a far more significant part of the VSDP. Children cannot advocate for themselves easily and they need to be represented through their families and through improved opportunities to voice their own aspirations. Furthermore, the vision of the VSDP is for an inclusive Victoria in which people with a disability live satisfying everyday lives. To arrive at adulthood able to play an active role in making decisions about things that are important to them, children need to be given more of a say about their participation and education, particularly as they get older. This pathway to empowerment needs to be articulated and built into all procedures.
2. Responding to a transformative environment
The 2021-2024 VSDP is an historic plan due to the context in which it is currently being developed and in which it will be implemented. In our view the VSTP needs to take account of this transformation of environment including that:
- Disability services previously provided by the Victorian government have completed the transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
- The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability is underway.
- The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have significant impact on Victorians.
According to the consultation paper, the purpose of the VSDP is to “drive whole-ofgovernment action to achieve the inclusion of people with a disability”. The plan aims to provide clarity around direction, actions, and measures of success. This must be done within our changing environmental context.
2.1 The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)
In championing an NDIS in 2011, the Productivity Commission called the services for people with disabilities underfunded, unfair, fragmented, and inefficient.15 The NDIS has brought together payments for disability supports within one organisational structure. The NDIS has introduced vertical integration into funding for people with disabilities. Rather than funding changing at each transition point, and families having to seek new funding under different guidelines, there is now continuity of support. This is a major achievement. In Victoria. 57,191 children and young people (0-18 years of age) are NDIS participants.
They now make up 49% of the total Victorian NDIS participants. The introduction of the NDIS has also provided greater resources to children. Prior to the introduction of the NDIS, children and families experienced significant limitations in Early Childhood Intervention Services (ECIS) in Victoria. Under the State system the available funds were substantially less than today. For example, average annualised committed support budgets for Victorian NDIS participants aged 0-6 years is currently $24,00016, compared to the block funding of approximately $8,000 per eligible child previously provided through ECIS by the state government.
However, the introduction of the vertical integration of funding for people with disabilities through the NDIS has also had a significant impact on children’s horizontal integration into early childhood policies, systems, and services. Children with disabilities are now in a policy context dominated by concerns about adults. Children with disabilities have become disconnected from early childhood policy, its desired outcomes, its language, and its professional networks. This disconnect continues for school-aged children where, for example, different approaches and processes for state and federal funding have a negative impact on community inclusion. The opportunity for specialist and mainstream services to work together towards the benefit of the child through shared objectives and desired outcomes has been compromised by the lack of definition of outcomes for children, particularly in the NDIS, and a lack of collaboration between different levels of government.
At a services level this means the support to Kindergarten teachers that was provided by State Early Childhood Intervention Services and the preparation of children for a successful start to school are no longer guaranteed, with material consequences for the child with a disability.
Within the State policy framework, programs for children with disabilities were previously part of a continuum of services for families and children. In Victoria, children with disabilities are no longer connected to the developing understanding of child development that engages other children and family services including child and maternal health, early childhood education, family services, child protection and community health. They are also disconnected from early childhood services and professional networks which have been strengthened over time.17 The connection to the early childhood sector is critical to children and their families as it supports referrals to early childhood intervention, referrals between services, access to family services and it supports participation in children’s’ services.
In transitioning to the NDIS, young children with disability or developmental delay have become better resourced, but arguably less understood and less supported. They are certainly not as well connected. The NDIS has disrupted the connection between specialist and mainstream services, particularly for children and young people. A new policy framework that reinvigorates cooperation and coordination between mainstream services, community programs and supports provided through the NDIS is essential. This includes the development of policies that articulate how state, territory and national government departments and community services can contribute to enhancing the opportunities and participation of children with a disability. Reforms must ensure the commitment to the participation and contribution of children with a disability in the same community activities, early childhood services and schools as their typically developing peers is not undermined by the introduction of the NDIS.
The risk that is introduced by the NDIS and disability supports sitting in a different level of government to other services for children and families is a policy disconnect between the purpose of specialist and mainstream services. Rather than disability supports being relevant to, and therefore supportive of, participation in mainstream services, they become an end in themselves. Professionals in specialist services do not have shared frameworks and language through which to communicate with professionals in mainstream services. Families are confused by different languages, advice, and priorities. The risk in this situation is evident in the following description of what the NDIS and school system will support outlined on the NDIS website.
The NDIS funds
- Self-care at school related to the student’s disability, like support with eating.
- Specialised training of teachers and other staff about the specific personal support needs of a student with disability.
- Specialist transport required because of the student’s disability (does not substitute parental responsibility).
- Transportable equipment such as a wheelchair or personal communication devices.
- Therapies a family and school have agreed may be delivered during school time but are not for educational purposes.
Education systems fund
- Teachers, learning assistants and other supports such as Auslan interpreters.
- General support, resources and training for teachers, tutors, and other staff.
- Therapy delivered in schools for education or training purposes, such as allied health practitioners helping teachers and trainers adjust curriculums.
- Aids and equipment to make curriculums accessible, such as modified computer hardware, software, and Braille textbooks.
- Adjustments to buildings such as ramps, lifts, and hearing loops.
- Transport for educational or training activities such as excursions, field trips and sporting carnivals.
- Day-to-day supervision of students at school, including behavioural support.18
The VSDP has an important role in guiding the state government to make sure all their policies, programs and services consider the needs of and have high expectations for children and young people with disability and developmental delay. It also has an important role in supporting the clarification of roles and responsibilities, and the development of integrated policies and outcomes across various levels of government, and specialist and mainstream services.
Effective delivery of supports for children with developmental concerns
In accordance with Bilateral Agreement between the Commonwealth of Australia and Victoria on the NDIS,19 the Victorian State government contributes to funding ECI services. As such, the State has an interest in services for children with a disability or developmental delay being effective. This is in part because the children who receive ECI services will go on to attend the State’s schools and participate in social, civic, and economic life in adulthood.
To date, the transfer of ECI services to the NDIS has not served the needs of many young children with disability and developmental delay and their families as well as expected. Some of the most concerning issues include:
- Children are not being provided with support as early as they were when the State administered ECI services. The average age of starting with the NDIS has increased in recent years. This is contrary to the underlying rationale for ECI.
- The NDIS is reporting that a higher volume of children than expected are in receipt of funded support through the scheme. As such, the NDIA is proposing to introduce independent assessments and tighten the eligibility requirements with strict definitions or thresholds for eligibility.
- Ongoing workforce pressures in the sector are causing extensive waitlists for children to access ECI services across the state.
- Children who have not yet been deemed eligible for the NDIS, or who are not eligible for the NDIS but have developmental concerns, are not being identified readily and are not receiving effective supports.
Recognising some of these issues, the NDIA has recently completed a review of the Early Childhood Early Intervention (ECEI) program.20 The review recognised the need to continue to work with federal, state and territory governments to identify gaps and strengthen the role of mainstream services, so all young children receive support from the appropriate system when they need it.
However, these challenges highlight the fact that there is no effective system-wide process for implementing supports and services for young children where there are concerns about their development. There needs to be a second tier of services to fill this growing gap between mainstream early childhood services and the NDIS. This second-tier of services should be provided within state funded mainstream services, not as part of the NDIS disability service. Children with developmental concerns, their families, and the wider community, bear significant costs from poor systems interfaces and integration.
2.2 Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability
The new VSDP is being developed while the Disability Royal Commission is investigating widespread reports of violence against, and the neglect, abuse, and exploitation of people with disability. The Disability Royal Commission is investigating how Australian society might better prevent and protect people with disability from the experience of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, how to better respond to these occurrences and how to promote a more inclusive society that supports people with disability to be independent and free from different forms of abuse.
Children with a disability or developmental delay are significantly more likely to experience abuse or neglect than those without a disability or delay21. It is our understanding that Victoria does not collect data on the disability status of children involved in Child Protection or out-of-home-care, or if they do, it does not appear to be publicly available. Collecting such data may be the first step towards addressing the heightened risk of maltreatment for this population. Reducing the risk of child maltreatment reduces the ongoing personal, social, and economic costs that result.12
Including children with disabilities in early childhood education programs and schools has been an important consideration in the Royal Commission’s investigation and barriers to accessing a safe, quality and inclusive school education has been the focus of one of the public hearings. Early inclusion eases ongoing social inclusion in part by helping children with a disability to build language and social skills and improve behaviour,22 and also by helping children without a disability develop their awareness and acceptance of diversity.23 Some research suggests that when children are included this may support parents' emotional wellbeing and confidence, enabling them to return to work and subsequently improving their financial wellbeing.24
Social inclusion enhances fairness and promotes the respect of people with disabilities as contributing members of the community.25 Inclusive education helps people with disabilities attain other human rights, advance socially and economically, and minimises their risk of exploitation.26
In his closing remarks to the Royal Commission’s Public Hearing No 7 on the barriers to accessing a safe, quality, and inclusive school education and life course impacts, the chair summarised barriers, including:
- The attitudes of some educational authorities toward what are perceived to be the challenges presented in teaching children with disability leading to punitive responses to what is seen as “difficult” and “deliberate” behaviour.
- The disconnect between the existing legal requirements for the provision of reasonable adjustments or supports and the provision of adjustments at school level.
- The rigidities in addressing the challenges presented in implementing a policy of inclusive education, leading to failures to provide individual adjustments and supports.
- The complex systems of funding to provide support for children with disability and devolution of decision-making authority to local levels.
- The limited data available to inform policy making.
- The lack of training for teachers to enable them to perform their responsibilities and apply a philosophy of inclusive education in mainstream schools.27
The next step for the Royal Commission is to develop proposals that have the potential to achieve transformational change in curbing the violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation of people with disability. The issues identified by the Royal Commission will further shape our understanding of the needs of people with disabilities and must be considered in the development of the VSDP.
Further issues related to children’s inclusion and participation in education are discussed in more detail within a Victorian context in section three of this paper.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have significant impact on Victorians and has highlighted the increasing role digital communication will play in our community into the future and this needs to be addressed in the VSDP to ensure that technology is used to support the connections and opportunities of children with disabilities and developmental delay.
The experience of COVID 19 has also highlighted the importance of community and family, and the vulnerability of people who are not socially included. There is emerging evidence that COVID-19 will serve to widen pre-existing social, economic, and material inequality.28 29 While children were only a small percentage of people infected with COVID-19 in Australia,30 they were impacted indirectly through global government measures to manage the virus.31
Such impacts on children with a disability include but are not limited to:
- Delays in diagnosis and intervention32
- Loss of specialist community-based supports33
- Increased risk of maltreatment32 34
- Reduction in social contact35 36
- Negative impact on parent mental health28 37
- Negative impact on child mental health32 35 38
- Reduction in physical activity30 34
- Reduced nutrition35
- Risk of regression35 36 37
- Risk of poverty increased30
Recommendations emerging from the COVID-19 literature regarding changes to address these impacts for children and families at a systemic level included:
- Coordinate mental health and child protection services to ensure that children and parents with specific concerns have access to the services they need.28
- Let children with behavioural problems go to school if possible.32
- Decouple formal diagnosis from service delivery and base it on needs, development level, function and symptoms.35
- Continue the development of faster video-based diagnoses for conditions such as ASD to reduce the backlog and delays.35
- Employ a child rights-based response. Children voices need to be encouraged and privileged.39
Finally, one of the recommendations made to mitigate the full range of negative impacts of COVID-19 at a systemic level for children with a disability involves realising the principles of an inclusive education.40
3. Committing to inclusive education.
For children, participation is key to their learning, development, and wellbeing. Their participation begins in interactions with parents and expands to include participation in family life, early childhood education programs, schools, and community activities. There has been a growing focus on children’s access to, and participation in, universal services since the 1980s when children were routinely segregated and institutionalised. Since that time, we have moved beyond thinking about access, to better understanding the principles of inclusion and participation described in the CRC, CRPD and General Comment No 4. on the ‘Right to inclusive education’.41 These approaches have now been clearly articulated and supported through state, territory and national policies and frameworks that provide a strong foundation for children’s inclusion and participation. However, access and participation are not always available to all children. Exclusion and segregation continue to be a significant problem.
The VSDP consultation paper shows a commitment to developing and supporting the capacity of people with a disability to participate in community life through topic six – Strengthening disability inclusion under the Disability Act 2006. However, there is no specific mention of children, nor the significant issue of committing to an inclusive education for Victoria’s children.
Despite holding 'the right' to an inclusive education, and the clear benefits to children, families and society of early inclusion, there is evidence that children with a disability are still underrepresented in early childhood programs and preschool nationally.42 The children that most commonly miss out on early childhood education programs are those with a disability or developmental delay and those from low socioeconomic circumstances at risk of abuse, neglect and developmental disadvantage.43 There are also ongoing concerns with the complete or partial exclusion of students with disability from schools in Australia.44 The weight of evidence in favour of inclusion and against segregation is overwhelming to the degree that it is puzzling as to why change has been so slow and why in some regards, we appear to be going backwards.
Australia has an ambiguous policy context for the supports of the inclusion of children with a disability in education and learning. The Australian Government is a signatory to the Salamanca statement (1994) and has recognised the need to support the inclusion of children with disabilities since the early 1990s. In addition, Australia is a signatory to several international treaties which have implications for the participation of children with a disability in education or learning.
The most significant are the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). These treaties enshrine both the right to education and the right to equality and non-discrimination based on disability. However, governments entering these treaties are making a voluntary commitment to follow their provisions which is not enforceable in a domestic court. One of the recommendations of the recent review of Australia under the CRPD is that it progresses the harmonising of its domestic laws with the terms of the treaty.45
Recently, the report 'Empowering children with disabilities for the enjoyment of their human rights, including through inclusive education' was submitted to the High Commissioner which identified the need for:
"An education system that includes all students, and welcomes and supports them to learn, whoever they are and whatever their abilities or requirements. This means making sure that teaching and the curriculum, school buildings, classrooms, play areas, transport and toilets are appropriate for all children at all levels. Inclusive education means all children learn together in the same schools. No-one should be excluded. Every child has a right to inclusive education, including children with disabilities".46
The main legislation protecting the rights of people with a disability in Australia is the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA)47 which made it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of disability. State Governments also have legislation supporting the inclusion of children with a disability, for example the Victorian Disability Act (2006) and Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010.48 The Disability Discrimination Act requires services, including childcare, early education services, to make reasonable adjustments to include children with a disability. However, the interpretation of what constitutes a reasonable adjustment has been problematic. This led to the Disability Standards for Education (DSE) 2005 (Commonwealth of Australia, 2006) which examined what constitutes reasonable adjustments in education in greater detail. It noted the need to balance the interests of all parties. While consideration is to be given to the student's disability, their views, and the benefits that might follow from their achievement of learning outcomes, for example, consideration is also to be given to the effect of any adjustment on anyone else, including the education provider, staff and other students and the costs and benefits of making the adjustment. This covers all levels of education. Legal complaints under these provisions have related to the extent or nature of adjustments, rather than the lack of any adjustment, suggesting they continue to be problematic. The Disability Standards for Education have recently been reviewed and include four key recommendation areas including:
- Empowering and supporting students with disability and their families
- Strengthening the knowledge and capability of educators and providers
- Embedding accountability for the Standards throughout the education system
- Building awareness and capability in the ECEC sector.49
Finally, National and State policy documents promote the inclusion of children with a disability. The National Disability Strategy for Australia 2010-2020 supports a strategy to: "Strengthen the capability of all education providers to deliver inclusive high-quality educational programs for people with all abilities from early childhood through adulthood. An inclusive and accessible educational culture based on the principle of universality will assist students of all abilities".50 (p55). The current VSDP discusses the importance of the Victorian Government's Inclusive Education agenda and reforms in the provision of services and support to schools and students with a disability. It notes that: "Providing high quality early childhood learning and development services that support access, equity and inclusion of children with additional needs is also a key element of this commitment". 51(p52). However, these aspirations coexist with significant continuing investment in segregated educational settings for children and young people, particularly of school age. For example, $388.8 million is being invested to improve facilities at 39 specialist schools in Victoria.52
Ongoing segregation continues through disability specific services and special schools as well as through discrimination and barriers to participation in the broader community. A recent paper indicates that in Australia, special school placements have substantially increased following the introduction of the DDA and the DSE and students are segregated at significantly higher rates than the wider group of students with a disability and the rate at which their segregation is rising is much more rapid.53 In Victoria, special schools have continued to expand with an increase in the proportion of students attending specialist schools over the past decade.54 Young children with disabilities can also attend early education programs in some Victorian special development schools from the age of 2.8 years, particularly in southern metropolitan areas of Melbourne.
Recent papers provide further insight into our current situation and important information to support inclusion reforms, including:
- Some government schools in Victoria continue to turn away students with disabilities.55
- Some students with disabilities in Victoria are only attending school part-time due to inadequacies of supports provided despite the law requiring students enrolled full-time to attend full-time.56
- More than half of educators surveyed reported that they did not have resources, training or support they needed to educate children with a disability well.57
- There is no requirement that schools in Victoria develop a school policy on disability at all. Of 73 schools reviewed, only eight had any policy related to disability and only three of these could be described as meaningful.58
- While inclusive education is law in the U.S. and the U.K. it is policy in Australia, supported to some extent by the DDA. The Victorian state government “is obligated under the Charter of Human Rights not just to develop rights-consistent policies but to ensure that these are brought to life in every Victorian classroom.59
- Most students with a disability in Australia are in a regular classroom but this has been in decline since 1988.60
- There are no formal qualifications required to be employed as a teacher’s aide in Victoria nor any requirements for ongoing professional development.61
- There is emerging evidence of a negative relationship between the amount of integration support provided and the academic outcomes of students regardless of the student’s level of disability.62
The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2019) recently observed the increasing rate of segregation, seclusion and isolation in Australia and the lack of age-appropriate settings for students with disabilities at all levels. It recommended the redirection of resources to enable an inclusive education system to be implemented nationally.
In its Concluding Observations on Australia’s Initial Report to the CRPD Committee the CRPD Committee was concerned that:
“… [S]tudents with disabilities continue to be placed in special schools and that many of those who are in regular schools are largely confined to special classes or units. … [And] that secondary school completion rates for students with disabilities are about half those for people without disability”.
The CRPD Committee recommended that Australia:
“Increases its efforts to provide reasonable accommodation … Conducts research into the effectiveness of current education inclusion policies … [and] sets targets to increase participation and completion rates by students with disabilities in all levels of education and training”.41
The CRPD Committee also recommended that an action plan for inclusive education be developed.
In summary, a commitment to inclusive education has not been implemented in practice. Rather than the systematic implementation of the CRPD and its intent in relation to education, governments and government departments have devolved responsibility for inclusive education to local educators, teachers, services, and schools. This approach is clearly inadequate and requires specific inclusion reforms.
3.1 Inclusion in the early years
As responsibility for education sits with State and Territory governments, the Victorian state government remains accountable for keeping children’s inclusion and participation at the forefront of policy and practice. We commend the Victorian government for the significant financial investment in inclusive education in schools in the last budget. The $1.6 billion funding boost is an important indicator of the current government’s commitment to ensuring “every student at every ability can thrive at school and in life”.63
However, inclusive education needs to begin in the early years in order to lay the foundations and set the trajectory for lifelong learning and participation. The VSDP is well positioned to refocus efforts towards an inclusive education for ‘Absolutely Everyone’ and consider adding this as a further topic area.
It would be hoped that the administrative systems that families first encounter when they seek to place their young child with a disability in a setting with other children would be supportive and relatively straight forward. The reality is that within a period of three years parents must negotiate three entirely different systems: childcare, four year old Kindergarten and school. Each of these systems approaches inclusion differently, in terms of responsibilities, approaches and eligibility criteria. The lack of cohesion between the state and federal government inclusion supports in early childhood programs sets up inclusion as a difficult and confusing process. The discrepancies are highlighted in the three primary inclusion programs:
Inclusion Support Program (ISP)
The commonwealth funds the Inclusion Support Program (ISP) through the Department of Education, Skills and Employment as part of the Child Care Safety Net. The aim of the ISP is to “give the most vulnerable children a strong start, while supporting parents or carers to increase their activity including work, study and training”.64 (p6). Delivery of the ISP is managed by designated Inclusion Agencies in each state and territory. Definition of ‘additional needs’ in this program includes children with a disability, children who have experienced trauma, and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Kindergarten Inclusion Support (KIS)
The Victorian state government funds the Kindergarten Inclusion Support (KIS) program, designed to allow children with disabilities, high support needs and/or complex medical needs to be engaged and participate in all aspects of kindergarten life on the same basis as their peers. The support can include staff training, minor building modifications, access to specialist expertise and additional staffing.65
In most instances, kindergartens employ staff, in the form of an ‘additional assistant’. Whilst it is not the intent of the program to have the additional assistant work specifically and directly with the child with a disability or developmental delay, it is how the program is often implemented in practice. This occurs, in part, because the funding is tied to an application process for individual children who meet eligibility criteria. The impact is that additional assistants often work similarly to teaching assistants in classrooms. Research has raised questions about the effectiveness of this model of support for school children with disability. To the best of our knowledge, research has not been conducted in early childhood services on the effectiveness of this model either nationally or internationally. Given the “serious unintended consequences”66 of teaching assistants in classrooms, there is a strong argument for the Victorian government to better understand the outcomes of this model of service delivery. As the VSDP consultation paper highlights, an allocation of $8.2 million extra funding to meet demand for the KIS program has been committed. Whilst this boost to inclusion funding is welcome, further understanding of the outcomes of this investment is required.
Preschool Field Officer program
The Victorian state government funds the Preschool Field Officer (PSFO) program which is designed to “provide early childhood educators in funded kindergarten programs with practical advice, support and professional services to enhance service capacity to provide for the access, inclusion and meaningful participation of children with additional needs”.67 The program complements other universal and specialist services that are available to support children’s learning, development and wellbeing in kindergarten programs. The PSFO program is targeted towards children with additional needs, which is described as children presenting with a developmental concern in one or more areas of their development.
There are three key issues that arise from the program:
- Firstly, draft guidelines on the PSFO program have recently been developed and feedback is being sought through a consultative process. The guidelines reflect the changing role of the PSFO over the past decade and a paradigm shift in practice in line with current literature on the best ways to enhance educators’ capacity and confidence to provide an inclusive program. This shift in approach requires investment in professional development for PSFOs to ensure they have the skills, knowledge, and confidence to work with educators within this coaching framework.
- Secondly, it appears that there is ongoing inequity in the PSFO program. We understand that population growth in Victoria has not resulted in funding for additional PSFOs. This has resulted in inequity across the state, with growth areas experiencing shortage of inclusion supports through the program. This needs to be addressed to ensure all early childhood educators have access to the PSFO program to support the inclusion of pre-school children with a disability and developmental delay.
- Lastly, all Victorian kindergarten programs are entitled to receive support from the PSFO program when there are concerns about a child’s development. However, if the child receives early intervention services through the NDIS, the educator is expected to receive support from the child’s EI provider, not the PSFO.68 This has created significant tension and our experience at Noah’s Ark is that educators are less supported since the transition to the NDIS because: a) services working with the child with a disability may not communicate with the children’s services b) therapists may have little or no understanding of the early childhood environment, or c) they are not able to translate their understanding of the child’s development into ideas that can be incorporated into an early childhood program. This situation needs to be monitored as a matter of urgency.
Anecdotally we are also hearing about children starting school without the necessary information being provided to the school, in part because families assume if they have an NDIS Plan they do not need to provide additional information, leading to children not meeting deadlines for school’s funding and support being delayed until later in the year.
Response to the seven key topics of the new VSDP
The following section will briefly address the seven key topics from the consultation paper:
1. Improving how we describe disability and disability inclusion in the next plan
We support the need to strengthen how disability and disability inclusion is described. We would support the definition of disability being clearly related to a person’s functioning and the impact this has on their inclusion and community participation. Further to this, for the VSDP to be inclusive of ‘Absolutely Everyone’ the term ‘developmental delay’ should be included and described. Developmental Delay is the commonly used term when a young child’s development is not at the level expected for their age and has a significant effect on their ability to perform daily routines and activities. When children experience delayed attainment of developmental milestones, the provision of effective supports to families can ameliorate the effects of these delays Parents of children with developmental delay, which are sometimes transient, may not identify with the term disability.69
2. Finding better ways to include people with a disability in making the next plan
We support the need to find better ways to include people with a disability in making the next VSDP. Furthermore, we strongly encourage a specific focus on hearing the voices of children and their families. The VSDP consultation paper currently lists 16 groups of people whose voices must be heard but does not include children. This is a concern, not only for young people with a disability who may increasingly have a voice in matters that are important to them, but also for younger children who can contribute in ways appropriate to their evolving capacities.
There are good examples from the early childhood field in Australia of ways in which children can be supported to express their views on matters that affect their rights or interests appropriate to their developmental ability. The Victorian State Government, amongst many others, also provides guidance and resources to empower children through voice, agency, and leadership.70 Contact with organisations such as the Association for Children with a Disability could facilitate access to children’s voices. Supporting children with a disability to develop their skills and confidence in communicating their views is a step towards children playing a genuine role in decision-making, ultimately fully exercising their rights.
3. Strengthening the state disability plan outcomes framework
We support the addition of a new outcome area (Intimate Lives) and to strengthening the existing outcome area (Recognition). Further to this, we believe the outcomes framework needs to be strengthened in relation to children with a developmental delay or disability.
This should include developmental and educational outcomes aligned with existing frameworks such as the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF).71 The introduction of the VEYLDF in 2016 created a set of outcomes for all children and developed a shared language and purpose across all professionals working with young children. This encouraged collaboration and a holistic view about how to support a child’s development.
The learning outcomes for young children described in the VEYLDF are:
- Children have a strong sense of identity
- Children are connected with and contribute to their world
- Children have a strong sense of wellbeing
- Children are confident and involved learners
- Children are effective communicators
The VEYLDF embedded an understanding of child development that included family, community, culture and place, and the importance of relationships, particularly within families, to a child’s early development. It recognised that over time children develop their own interests and develop their own identities and understandings of the world. The VSDP outcomes framework could also be strengthened by addressing outcomes related to children’s inclusion and participation in education and community programs.
4. Introducing overarching approaches to strengthen government commitments under the new plan
We agree with the suggestion in the consultation paper that community attitudes and universal design should be guiding approaches in the next VSDP. Furthermore, we believe the best way to influence community attitudes is through high quality inclusive education. Universal Design needs to be a key feature not just of the kindergartens and schools built in the future but of the pedagogy practiced within them now.
5. Strengthening the NDIS and mainstream interface
We agree that strengthening the interface between the NDIS and mainstream services should be a priority focus. Furthermore, we believe that the interface between NDIS and education services warrants urgent and focussed attention as described earlier in this submission. Furthermore, we recommend that the State consider how to provide an effective second-tier level of support for young children with disability and developmental delays who have not yet been deemed eligible for the NDIS, or who are not eligible for the NDIS but have developmental concerns that require targeted supports through mainstream state-funded services. Finally, attention needs to be given to the inclusion and accessibility of community-based supporting and recreation facilities for children and young people.
6. Strengthening disability inclusion under the Disability Act 2006
We agree that strengthening inclusion under the Disability Act 2006 is timely and essential. We recommend that there is specific attention given to stronger and accountable arrangements for children, and the significant issue of committing to an inclusive education for Victoria’s children with disability and developmental delay. The review should explicitly address inequity or barriers to education that are faced by children with disabilities, an explicit “no-rejection clause”, and guarantees for admission into mainstream schools with adequate assistance.
We agree with the need to directly address both the opportunities and threats of COVID-19 through the addition of topic are number seven. We affirm the key issues identified in the consultation paper and have added further information on the issues related to children with a disability and developmental delay, and their families, above.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Our broad observations are that the components needed for the next VSDP to represent the interests of children and young people are:
- The development of a coherent policy framework to guide the integration of mainstream and disability-specific supports following the disruption caused by the introduction of the NDIS, particularly in relation to education and social inclusion.
- Identifying and delivering outcomes for children with disability and developmental across mainstream and specialist services.
- Increasing the visibility of disability issues for children within the broader child and family policy area, specifically the changes in governmental responsibilities.
- State government and sector leadership toward greater inclusion of children with disability.
Overall, Noah’s Ark recommends that the 2021-2024 Victorian State Disability Plan:
- Formally acknowledges the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- Specifically acknowledges the nature of childhood and the role of families.
- Engages with children and young people with a disability so they have improved opportunities to voice their own aspirations and have a say in decisions that are important to them.
- Takes in account the findings of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, particularly in relation to children, the importance of social inclusion and the barriers to accessing a safe, quality, and inclusive school education and life course impacts that this has.
- Takes in account the findings of the research into the impact of COVID 19 on children with disabilities and the need to consider specific responses for future pandemics, for example access to schools during extended lockdowns.
- Supports the clarification of roles and responsibilities, and the development of integrated policies and outcomes, across various levels of government, and specialist and mainstream services.
- Supports the development of a second tier of services to support children with developmental needs who are not supported through the NDIS.
- Guides governments and the broader community in actions and reforms to ensure policies, programs and services remove barriers to an inclusive education for children with a disability.
- Includes a commitment to cease funding that promotes further growth of specialist schools.
- Refocuses efforts towards an inclusive education for ‘Absolutely Everyone’ through making this a specific topic in the plan.
- Addresses the lack of cohesion between the state and federal government inclusion supports in early childhood programs and the barrier this creates by being a difficult and confusing process.
- Identifies the need for vigorous action to fosters a cooperative and aligned approach between federal and state funded services, including a clearer, stronger, and more accountable agreement of responsibilities and integrated policies, plans, programs, and service systems.
In response to the seven VSDP topic areas, we make the following recommendations:
- Improving how we describe disability and disability inclusion in the next plan
- Provide a distinction between developmental delay and disability definitions This has implications for service provision and re-alignment with NDIS and state-based supports.
- Ensure the definition of disability relates to function and describes the impact of inclusion and community participation.
- Finding better ways to include people with a disability in making the next plan
- Include the voice of children and young people with disabilities in plan development.
- Strengthening the state disability plan outcomes framework
- Include developmental and educational outcomes aligned with existing frameworks such as the VEYLDF.
- Include outcomes related to children’s inclusion and participation.
- Include outcomes related to the reduction of maltreatment and neglect of children with disability or developmental delay.
- Introducing overarching approaches to strengthen government commitments under the new plan
- Include the approaches of universal design and community attitudes in relation to children with disability or developmental delay and their families.
- Strengthening the NDIS and mainstream interface
- Include specific reference to strengthening the interface between the NDIS, commonwealth (e.g. ISP) and state-funded (e.g. PSFO & KIS) inclusion supports.
- Include strengthening state-based child and family services (e.g. maternal and child health, community health) to ensure all children with developmental concerns, delay or disability receive appropriate services.
- Include the development of early identification protocols to ensure timely access to appropriate services.
- Include specific reference to the inclusion and accessibility of community-based sporting and recreation facilities for children and young people.
- Strengthening disability inclusion under the Disability Act 2006
- Ensure the review of the Disability Act considers the promotion of an inclusive education and Victoria’s responsibilities to appropriately fund mainstream, ‘middle-tier’ and disability services for children.
- Strengthen state response in relation to child rights, child voice, and high-quality inclusive education.
- Strengthen Child Protection and Mental Health Services and the interface between them.
- Develop specific responses for children with disabilities in a pandemic, including access to schools during lockdowns.
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Submission on Interventions for children on the autism spectrum
Our recommendations address funding models, supporting the needs of the child and the family, renewing focus on integrated policies and outcomes, specialist and mainstream services along with developing a skilled workforce.View resource