On the 2nd December 2016, the International Day for People with a Disability (IDPwD) was held at Shepparton’s Queens Gardens. IDPwD is a United Nations (UN) sanctioned day held each year that celebrates progress in breaking down barriers, opening doors, and realizing an inclusive society for all. A majority of our students enjoyed the festivities across the day, while our principal Janet Gill Kirkman was invited as a guest speaker at the event. Here is a transcript of her speech she delivered:
Hello, my name is Janet Gill Kirkman and I’m the Principal of Verney Road School.
Congratulations to the City of Shepparton for their recognition and organisation of International Disability Day. This is a great spectacle and a credit to Mark Tomkins, the access and inclusion officer and his team at Council.
Approximately one in five Australians has a disability. But this of course increases rapidly with age. The National Consistent data collection tells us that 12 % of the student population in Australia has some form of disability and reasonable adjustments must be made to ensure quality schooling. The 4 main types of disability are physical, sensory – such as auditory & sight, psychological and intellectual. The severity of a person’s disability may be from profound, to severe to moderate or mild. What we know is that Disability cuts across age, sex, race and socio economic background.
At VRS we have 200 students aged from 3 to 18 years all with a disability. The gateway to get into our school is the child or young person must have an Intellectual disability, but many of our students experience co-morbidity. This means on top of their Intellectual disability, they may have Autism, sensory issues, challenging behaviours or another diagnosis such as CP, Down Syndrome, epilepsy or anxiety concerns.
Verney Road is a Specialist School this means we enrol students with the range from mild to profound Intellectual disability. We have high expectations that every student can learn. Our key curriculum areas are Literacy, Mathematics, Science, Interpersonal Skills, Independent Living Skills, Physical Education, Music and The Arts. Our Senior students take a stream of either Independent Living Skills or VCAL. VET hospitality and horticulture are also on offer for 16 – 18 years.
VRS continually grows. It was a new school purpose built in 1999 for 75 students. We now have 71 staff and 200 students! This is my fourth year as Principal and every year we grow with an additional class, we are running out of space!
However our young people with disability in Shepparton and surrounds don’t just attend VRS.
In our local government school system alone there are many students on the DET Program for Students with Disability. At Wanganui Park SC, 27 students are supported with Aide support or resources in their Inclusion Unit. There are 22 at Guthrie, 9 of which are hearing impaired, where Auslan is integrated through the Curriculum – signed language for the deaf. Shepparton HS similarly supports hearing impaired students in their mainstream curriculum with Auslan interpreters and teachers.
Wilmot Rd PS, Mooroopna Park PS and Gowrie St PS support 18, 17 and 16 students respectively, while St Georges and Mooroopna PS and Bourchier support 13 ,12 and 11 students. However there are 100’s of other students who don’t meet the criteria, where reasonable adjustments must be made in the school system to ensure these students can learn.
In the Greater Shepparton area parents have a choice of whether their child will attend a mainstream school environment or a Specialist environment such as Verney Rd. Many students spend their formative years in mainstream Primary Schools and may enrol in Verney Rd in their secondary years. Other students dual enrol spending part time at a Primary school and part time at Verney Rd School. In Victoria, 45% of students with disability attend Special Schools.
We know the overall health of people with disabilities is much worse than that of the general population. By definition people with disabilities must have a health condition or impairment so a degree of difference in health status is inevitable. Healthy Living weekly programs at Verney Rd School are vital. These include Physical Education, weekly nutritious cooking programs for all students, Bike Riding, Yoga, Perceptual Motor Skills, Swimming, Spa and Hydro, Netball and Basketball competitions….We actually have a basketball team in Melbourne today for the Vic Health Cup.
In 2010 the Health of Australians with Disability report found people with a profound or severe disability are more likely to be overweight or obese, in fact with rates as high as 69%. We know at our school our young people have a very keen interest in technology and it’s highly sedentary. Technology does not contribute to good cardio health! Our programs like Cheer Leading, Taekwondo, Bike Riding camps, Walking Group, Athletics , Swimming do and are vital for our students from Early Years through to Senior Years.
I can number on my left hand the students who play mainstream sport from our school. We have a basketballer, a netballer and a hockey player. The benefits of mainstream sport for our students is immeasurable because of the social inclusion and participation with ‘typical kids.’ – The role modelling they receive. Everybody benefits from the experience! I urge people out there, who are involved in mainstream sport, please invite a young person or their family who may not be included to join you! There are many roles within a sporting club that contribute to its success and this type of inclusion benefits the individual, their families and the community.
Do you know a report by Cummens and Hughes in 2007 found the group to have the lowest well being of any in Australia was the carers of young people with disability? The parenting role can be very tough and highly demanding. Extremely disrupted sleep patterns, refusal to eat, behavioural meltdowns in public, repeated medical emergencies and ongoing concern for what the future will hold greatly affects the parenting role. Parents report the ongoing worry about how their child will be cared for in their adult lives is a continued stress.
Psychological stress unfortunately goes hand in hand for people with disability. Department of Health figures tell us 30% of people with Intellectual Disability will be diagnosed with depression compared to 19% of the ‘typical population.’ There is evidence of this early in our schooling system. Many of our young people need a ‘wrap around approach’ and very strong connections to their school environment including their teacher or Education Support person, Social worker or a trusted mentor. Connections to services such as Headspace, CYMHS and paediatricians are vital for the student and the school. Close family communication is also essential. School can support home and vice versa when the child or young person or family is in need and sometimes in crisis.
No student leaves Verney Road School without a future pathway. Work planning and experience is important for every Senior student. In fact from age 16-18 years every student participates and some students organise it themselves. We have had excellent partnerships with Furphy’s, Shepparton Building Supplies, Tatura and Rumbalara Aged care, Tatura Butchers, Target, National Tiles, Shepparton Villages and Guf the Internet Café. Learning how to work promotes persistence, punctuality and stickability and requires literacy, communication and problem solving skills. These are key areas of the curriculum at VRS. Some of these links during work experience and volunteer programs provide a community connections that lasts beyond their years at VRS. We are really excited about a couple of School Based Apprenticeships achieved this year. Involvement in the workforce is so important for social inclusion.
At Verney Rd we continue to work really hard on inclusiveness in ensuring every learner can participate in the learning process. Children with disability may be non-verbal or very slow at processing verbal instructions. We as a whole school have been learning how to include every child in the communication process through Alternative and Augmentative Communication. Our young people with severe speech and language problems use AAC to supplement existing speech or support less functional speech. Aided language includes visual displays, PODD books, Key Word Signing. Also our verbal students learn to use AAC tools so they can interact with all peers in their school environment.
Learning for our students must occur beyond the classroom walls. Camps and Excursions are an integral part of our students learning towards independence and experiencing much out in the Community. Camps to Anglesea, Malmsbury, Melbourne, Sydney and even Beijing China are regular events on our Camp Calendar. These experiences provide much needed learning of independent living skills like managing self, clothing, money, directions, persistence and living away from carers for a short time. They provide rare respite for parents, who report how hard it is to get a break. Parents are 24/7 carers for children and young people with disability. To ready our students for post school we ensure that work related skills, shopping and budgeting, travel training and healthy cooking skills are mastered.
The statistics about sexual assault and disability are most concerning. Researchers Heenan and Murray in 2006 in a Victorian study found one quarter of people reporting sexual assault were identified as having a disability. There is another level of vulnerability for our young people. We explicitly teach our students in a program called SoSafe!, what it means for public and private behaviour, who is appropriate to show affection to and how to keep ourselves safe. This and explicit teaching on the safe use of social media and the internet is vital learning for the safety of our students.
One of our most important reminders is that we know people with disability want to live in a society where they are treated equally with respect and dignity – they and their families don’t want to be segregated as ‘people with disabilities.’ Community involvement in all aspects of life is very, very significant. Every one of us can contribute in a small way. It’s the simple things ~ how do we engage with a family of a child with disability? ~ How can we help when a little one is having a hissy fit in the supermarket?~ Can we be sure not to make comments on a young person’s behaviour – for instance a student with Autism whose very rigid, or may be suffering sensory overload? Can we invite a child with disability to join in to play or maybe attend a birthday party? Can we persist when trying to understand a young person with impaired speech? How in some small way can we support a mother of a child with disability to ease her stress?
Although Australia has a long way to go: as disabled Australians are five times more likely to experience multiple disadvantage, we have also come a long way! Do you know in 1963 the life expectancy of people with Down Syndrome was 18 years??? By 2002 it was 60 years and by 2016 even more! Of course it should be. All people need an equal chance in life and every one of us must do our bit to guarantee that a person’s disability is not a barrier to success in our community but in fact that their abilities are an opportunity for all of us.
Janet Gill Kirkman