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'One of the most difficult times we've ever experienced': Students with disability struggle during pandemic

27 July 2020 at 4:25 pm
Luke Michael
New research highlights the toll remote learning has taken on many children with disability 

Luke Michael | 27 July 2020 at 4:25 pm


'One of the most difficult times we've ever experienced': Students with disability struggle during pandemic
27 July 2020 at 4:25 pm

New research highlights the toll remote learning has taken on many children with disability 

COVID-19 has caused headaches for students across Australia, but for children with disability the disruption to education has been so much tougher.

For Ronelle – who has two children with disability who attend mainstream schools in rural Victoria – the move to remote learning has highlighted the inequality in Australia’s school system.

When her eight-year-old vision-impaired son Sam needed some of his school material enlarged, the family did not have access to a photocopier that could print his work in A3.

Meanwhile her 10-year-old daughter Abbie, who has autism, struggled to cope with the change in routine.   

Ronelle told Pro Bono News that the remote learning situation last term was “pretty dreadful” for her family.

She said while the school did a great job of rapidly transforming to a remote curriculum, there was not enough time for them to create an alternative curriculum for children with additional needs.

This meant as parents they needed to work out themselves how to provide all the extra support their children usually received at school.        

“We weren’t very good at it because we didn’t really know what we were doing. And it really affected our children a lot,” Ronelle said.

“There was some work Sam couldn’t do because we couldn’t put it into an enlarged format that was useful for him, while for Abbie, she didn’t cope very well with the changing routines. 

“It was one of the most difficult times we’ve ever experienced as a family.”

Ronelle said while Sam largely responded okay to the changes, Abbie “suffered academically, socially and emotionally”.

Australian students with disability left behind by education system

Abbie and Sam’s story is far from unique, with new research showing many students with disability have not received adequate educational support during the pandemic.

A report launched by Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA) on Friday contains national survey results from more than 700 parents and carers of students with disability.

More than half of the respondents said students with disability did not receive curriculum and learning materials in accessible formats, while 44 per cent of students lost access to learning support staff such as aides, or had their support hours dramatically reduced. 

Almost three quarters (72 per cent) of students felt more socially isolated from their classmates – for reasons such as being excluded from working with others, or not being invited to virtual classroom sessions.

CYDA CEO Mary Sayers said it was clear children with disability were struggling during the pandemic.

“There is no doubt that COVID-19 has made school difficult for all students, but there is entrenched inequality in Australia’s school system which has made this situation so much tougher for students with disability and their families,” Sayers said. 

“That’s why it’s so important we continue our fight for a fair and inclusive education system where the learning needs of students with disability are not an afterthought, but a considered part of everyday teaching and learning at every single school in Australia. 

Sayers told Pro Bono News that schools needed to make sure students with disability felt connected socially and educationally with their peers.

“Making sure they’re included on Zoom meetings or in other classroom activities is vital. [We found] when that was provided that it really made a difference,” she said.

Many families also reported being confused about how to use National Disability Insurance Scheme funding to support remote learning. 

Only 5 per cent of respondents said they had an NDIS plan review approved to get additional educational supports for their student, with most families unaware this was an option. 

Students with disability start returning to the classroom 

With coronavirus restrictions starting to lift in large parts of the country, many students are returning to face-to-face learning.  

In a move criticised by People With Disability Australia (PWDA), lockdown restrictions in Victoria mean many students will be working from home, but children whose parents cannot work from home, vulnerable children and children with a disability have been offered onsite supervision at schools.

Sayers said that CYDA’s position was that “no one should have to choose between health and education”, which meant all students with disability should be given the right supports to learn at home.  

Ronelle lives in a rural Victorian area not currently in lockdown, but said if restrictions returned her family would take the opportunity to send both kids to on-site learning.

“They are back at school at the moment with face-to face learning and they’re much happier and I’m sure they’re getting a much better education and doing all the things they would normally do at school,” she said.

“I think if we had that option [for on-site learning] the first time round, we would have – after a week – realised it was a better fit for our kids.”  

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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