You probably missed that Australia held its first hearing of the Disability Royal Commission on Inclusive Education in Queensland. The focus of the hearing was the education of students with disabilities, and specifically, inclusive education. Queensland is the only State in Australia with an “Inclusive Education Policy” drafted to accord with the international human rights framework.

We wanted to know more about the hearing and what it means for people with disabilities worldwide. So we couldn’t think of a better person to ask than Catia Malaquias, Founder and Director of Starting With Julius, as well as Co-founder of All Means All – The Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education.

Here are Catia Malaquias’ answers to our questions about the hearing.

For those of us learning about the hearing in the United States, what is the Disability Royal Commission? How did it come about?

In Australia, a royal commission is regarded as the highest form of inquiry on matters of public importance, with broad powers to hear witnesses under oath and compel evidence. They are established by governments but conducted by people appointed as Royal Commissioners to be independent of government and are used to investigate misconduct in particular sectors.

In recent years, Royal Commissions have been established by the Australian government to inquire into financial services, institutional responses to child sexual abuse by clergy, and youth detention. Most recently, violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation of people with disabilities. This is known as the “Disability Royal Commission,” which began on 4 April 2019 and is expected to run over 3 years at the cost of $527.9 million.

The Disability Royal Commission has broad terms of reference. It will apply to “all settings and contexts,” including institutional and residential settings such as disability institutions, workplaces, mental health facilities, prisons, schools, out-of-home care, aged care facilities, family homes, and community settings.

Australians with disabilities and their families campaigned for a Royal Commission for many years. Particularly since a Senate report into violence and abuse of people with disabilities recommended in November 2015 the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate these matters more fully.

While the Australian government resisted calls for a Disability Royal Commission for a long time, Australia’s youngest Senator, 22-year-old wheelchair user Jordon Steele-John, was instrumental in securing its agreement.

Are schools in Australia already practicing inclusive education?

While examples of good inclusive practice exist in the Australia, including at 3 high schools that testified at the first hearing of the Disability Royal Commission, for the most part, education systems in Australia continue to segregate many students with disabilities in special schools, special units, and special classrooms or fail to support them adequately in regular education settings.

In the United States, there is the law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Is there an equivalent in Australia?

Australia has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, which recognized the human right to inclusive education. However, the Australian government has not enacted comprehensive legislation to guarantee students with disabilities the right to inclusive education, and the primary protection that exists is under anti-discrimination law, the Disability Discrimination Act. It is fair to say that the Disability Discrimination Act does not provide families with comprehensive rights to challenge the decisions of education authorities, in the way provided for in IDEA.

Why was the commission only in Queensland? Are there separate laws that govern the different states/territories in Australia?

The Disability Royal Commission is national and will apply to all States and territories. The first hearing was held in Queensland and focused on inclusive education under that State’s education system. But further hearings will be held in other parts of Australia, some looking at issues in education and others looking at other matters within the terms of reference.

What should the United States (or the world) take away from the Disability Royal Commission on Inclusive Education?

An important point is that the Disability Royal Commission has been established as a rights-focused inquiry. Its terms of reference begin by acknowledging that people with disabilities “have the right to the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” And that “Australia has international obligations to take appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures to promote the human rights of people with disability, including to protect people with disability from all forms of exploitation, violence, and abuse under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” What this means when looking at the area of education, the Disability Royal Commission must consider the individual experiences of people with disabilities and their families in the education system and all forms of violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation in educational settings, from a human rights perspective.

What do you think was the most compelling story or topic that came from the hearing?

For me, while the testimony from parents about their children’s experiences in the education system were confronting, as an advocate for the education rights of people with disabilities, they were not surprising. What I think was also very compelling was the testimony from the 3 schools about how they have implemented inclusive models at their schools for the benefit of all students, including students with complex disabilities. One particular quote stands out, from Loren Swancutt, Head of Inclusive Schooling at Thuringowa State School, when asked what she would like the Disability Royal Commission to achieve:

“So from the Royal Commission broadly, for students I would like to see their rights forefronted and acknowledged in a national commitment to measures to ensure upholding those rights is not left to choice or chance, but that instead inclusive education is a genuine default level of educational experience in all of Australia’s schools and one that is protected in legislation. 

For our schools, I would like acknowledgment that visions and objectives only have modest capacity to drive change and, therefore, we need structures that provide very clear and contextual professional knowledge, skill and practice directly across school thresholds and into classrooms with accompanying evidence informed action plans and key performance indicators. We need to demonstrate exactly what this work looks like and how it can be achieved.

Finally, I ultimately want to light a fire in all who are associated with education to dare to imagine more. We can’t possibly be happy with what we are currently doing because history has reminded us time and again that the segregation and othering of diverse groups of our own human kind results in the most horrific outcomes which linger for many decades and transcend generations. We have known better for an awfully long time. We must act with urgency and do better.”

Will you tell us a little bit about Starting with Julius and your work with inclusive education advocacy?

Starting With Julius is a non-profit organization I founded in 2013, which brings together two approaches to the promotion of cultural change and the inclusion of people with disabilities. One approach is through inclusive media and advertising, and in this context Starting With Julius works with Australian brands, including retail giants Kmart and Target, and the public broadcaster ABC Children’s Television on a range of projects to embed disability representation in their work and help develop sustained approaches and policies to support diversity and inclusion. The other approach is through the promotion of inclusive education, from a human rights and evidence-based perspective.  Starting With Julius publishes the SWJ IncludED blog that is widely read, including by parents, educators, and university students. I later co-founded All Means All – The Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education in 2017 and have co-authored online resources and academic journal articles in relation to the education of children with disabilities. A highlight for me was being involved in the process for the development of the UN guidance document on the right to inclusive education under international human rights law, General Comment No.4.