Different Does Not Mean Bad
23 June 2017 at 9:47 am
Senator Pauline Hanson’s comments that children with disability should be removed from mainstream classrooms could have a damaging impact on how disability is viewed in Australia, writes EPIC Assist CEO Bill Gamack.
I’ll admit it was a moment of head-shaking disbelief when I heard Senator Pauline Hanson’s recent comments that children with disability should be removed from mainstream classrooms. The fact that we’re hearing this ill-informed, destructive rhetoric from an Australian politician in 2017 is nothing short of disgraceful.
Senator Hanson believes children with autism monopolise resources and prevent other students from reaching their potential. Not only is this claim blatantly untrue; it could also have a damaging impact on how disability is viewed in Australia.
The truth is, inclusive classrooms provide multiple benefits for all students. By working alongside students with disability, other students learn about the value of diversity. They learn that the world is made up of all sorts of people. They learn that just because someone may have different needs or behaviours, it doesn’t make them any less important; it just makes them different.
We’re all different. And different does not mean bad.
Keeping students with disability in mainstream classrooms, or at least giving them and their families that option, also sends an important message to people with disability. We are trying to raise expectations around disability, and show people with disability that they are just as capable of reaching their goals as anyone else. Disability does not need to prevent them from leading a fulfilling life.
Senator Hanson’s comments convey exactly the opposite message. She indicates people with disability are a burden and should be segregated. She speaks of students with disability as second-class citizens without any potential, who are simply holding other students back from achieving greatness.
Is that the sort of message we want to be sending the children of today; the future decision-makers of tomorrow?
The organisation that I lead, EPIC Assist, has helped countless people with disability into the workforce for almost 30 years. I have seen first-hand what people with disability can achieve when given the chance.
People with disability positively contribute to workplaces and society every day. They’re natural problem-solvers because they’ve been forced to become so, based on the hand they’ve been dealt in life.
People on the autism spectrum are very intelligent individuals, with a great level of focus, commitment and attention to detail. Once those attributes are harnessed, anything is possible. I know this through close contact with a family member of mine who is on the autism spectrum, but also through extensive contact with many other individuals throughout my personal and professional life.
I suggest Senator Hanson could benefit from spending time with the people against which she chooses to cast baseless judgements.
Senator Hanson is in the privileged position of having a public speaking platform, and she must know that comes with great responsibility.
Australia has come a long way in improving opportunities for people with disability, but when people threaten to send our country in a backwards trajectory, we must speak out.
There’s a lot to learn from people with disability. So let’s listen and learn.
About the author: Bill Gamack has been CEO of disability employment not-for-profit EPIC Assist for four years, and is passionate about helping people with disability secure meaningful, sustainable work. Bill also has family experience with disability, and understands the challenges faced by participants and families in seeking the services needed to achieve success.