Just prior to Christmas the National Disability Services CEO Conference was held in Canberra. The Shadow Minister for Disabilities, Carers and the Voluntary Sector, Senator Mitchell Fifield gave “The view from the Opposition” on the ailing Disability Sector. He highlighted specific elements on the Oppositions disabilities agenda – one of these elements was the education of Children with Disabilities. Consumer choice for education (like all things in the Disability Sector) is extremely limited in the SA Disability community. Families suffer with the lack of choice in educational models for our children. In his Media Release Senator Fifield stressed that there is a high need to deliver on consumer choice.
My son, Mitchell Neagle, is fortunate enough to be educated in a Catholic School - the St Patrick's Special School. This school currently operates with 48 children to 50 staff - basically a 1 to 1 ratio. The staff consists of a speech pathologist, an OT, a specialist music teacher, an art teacher as well as teachers and SSOs with specialist skills to teach children with disabilities. Every day Mitch can't wait to go to school - he puts his back pack on immediately before breakfast. He is stimulated to learn and his vocabulary is now extraordinary. He runs like a gazelle through the school gates.
His previous school was in the public education sector which was grossly under funded with a teacher to student ratio of 1 to 8 and with no therapy in the class. His SSO was a computer which he fought over with other kids with special needs. St Pat’s costs me a small fee of approx $4K per year - and most of the remaining $66K per child is funded by the Catholic System. A previous sceptic, I now applaud the generosity of the Catholic faith. At the coalface they tend to the sick at the Mary Potter Hospice Centre, to the homeless at the Hutt Street Centre and the disadvantaged children in Special Needs Schools.
My son belongs here in St Pat's where staff, children, families, friends and locals are all integrated into the school environment and out into the wider community. He loves his friends there. He likes being with his own kind in the same way that different cultures remain together and integrate themselves respectfully into different societies and communities. If Mitch was currently in a mainstream school, he would not receive the same benefits from his education. He would be isolated even more at this stage of his life. As a consumer with limited choices of options, I know now that he has a strong chance of gaining independence and possibly become an economic resource for our state of SA.
To the best of my knowledge St Ann's, the sister school to St Pat's, is the only other school with the same model in SA. St Patrick's is a provider of an Education System that is funded in the main by charitable donations. These children are lucky and it is about time that governments take ownership of the ongoing need in the sector to provide further choices. This, and other models, would be a worthwhile investment for other children languishing in the system, destined to be dependent on an ailing disability sector and an economic burden on our society when they reach adulthood. With a prison system crowded by a great number of people with intellectual disabilities and a prison system that spends much more money per inmate than an educational system does to educate a child with a disability, it must make total sense to change the Federal Government's attitude to the schooling of our children who are disadvantaged!
I have always felt that it is better to ask some of the questions than know all the answers. On reflection, I'm so glad that I rang and pestered the Principal of this marvellous school every fortnight over a 2 year period so that my son could access these services. Sometimes I ask myself, why did I have to do that? What if Mitch didn't have a pestering and persistent father? Why is it that other consumers are not able to access this service? And I don't know all the answers. But what I do know is that according to the UN Convention of Rights of People with Disabilities every child with a disability has an undeniable right to receive choices to an appropriate education! Charitable organisations can only extend so far. Governments can go much further!
Dignity for Disability