Background on inclusion

  • Understanding inclusion

    Schools are required to provide a full and inclusive education to every student regardless of their type or level of disability.  A full and inclusive education includes development of skills in academic, independence and social domains.

    Currently, many schools struggle to meet the needs of students with communication support needs, potentially resulting in students being excluded from school opportunities and/or missing out on educational and social opportunities.  All students with communication support needs – including many who have high intellectual and academic ability – have the potential to learn and achieve, yet this goes unrealised if they are not understood.

    Carly Fleischmann is a Canadian woman with severe autism.  She could not communicate at all until age 11 when she typed her first word.  With significant support she attended and completed schooling at a mainstream high school in Toronto, and has gone on to study a Bachelor of Arts (philosophy major) at the University of Toronto.  She now hosts her own talk show on her YouTube channel, called “Speechless with Carly Fleischmann“.

    Students with communication support needs

    A person with communication support needs is someone who is not able to use speech, or does not have sufficient verbal language skills, to meet all of their communication needs.  It includes people who use augmentative and/or alternative forms of communication (“AAC”) as a means to communicate, as well as people who have no functional means of communication.  In the context of AAC, augmentative means ‘in addition to speech’, and alternative means ‘instead of speech’.

    Students with communication support needs have little or no speech, or no functional speech (e.g. echolalia).  This can be as a result of significant language, sensory, physical and/or neurological disability, such as (but not limited to):

    • Autism spectrum disorder
    • Cerebral palsy
    • Deafness
    • Dyspraxia
    • Expressive/receptive language disorders
    • Genetic disorders
    • Global developmental delay
    • Sensory processing challenges
    • Traumatic/acquired brain injury

    Out of my mind” by Sharon M Draper (2010) is a young fiction novel, narrated by an 11 year old girl with cerebral palsy who cannot walk or talk.  It is an engaging, easy to read, humorous as well as insightful story about her struggles and her journey to find a means to communicate.  Perfect to prompt classroom discussions about inclusion and to help understand what a means to communicate is.

    An inclusive education should achieve the following for a student with communication support needs:
    • Communication: access to a means to communicate, in all aspects of school activity
    • Academic: engagement at the appropriate academic level for each area of study, and progress over time through to more complex levels (with reference to the relevant curriculum levels)
    • Social: development of social skills and opportunities to interact with peers, school staff and other members of the community
    • Physical: inclusion in all activities similarly to other students such as physical education classes, camps, excursions, lunchtime and recess
    • Independence: development of skills to assist with independence such as time management, self-organisation and problem-solving.

    Here is some helpful information about communication support needs and supporting those with it.

    Inclusion is widely understood as the antithesis of exclusion and segregation.  Inclusion is also distinguished from integration, as the following definitions from the United Nations explain:

    • “Integration is a process of placing persons with disabilities in existing mainstream educational institutions, as long as the former can adjust to the standardized requirements of such institutions.”
    • “Inclusion involves a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences.

    In 2016 the UN adopted a General Comment on Article 24 of the UNCRPD to elaborate and clarify the key features of, and changes needed to achieve, inclusive education for students with disability.

    The key features of an inclusive education identified by the UN in General Comment No.4 are:

    • Whole systems approach
      • education ministries must ensure that all resources are invested toward advancing inclusive education, and toward introducing and embedding the necessary changes in institutional culture, policies and practices;
    • Whole education environment
      • the committed leadership of educational institutions is essential to embed the culture, policies and practices to achieve inclusive education at all levels;
    • Whole person approach
      • recognition is given to the capacity of every person to learn, and high expectations are established for all learners
      • inclusive education offers flexible curricula, teaching and learning methods adapted to different strengths, requirements and learning styles
      • it commits to ending segregation within educational settings by ensuring inclusive classroom teaching in accessible learning environments with appropriate supports
      • the education system must provide a personalised educational response, rather than expecting the student to fit or “integrate” into the system;
    • Supported teachers
      • Teachers and other staff in learning environments are provided with education and training as to core values and competencies to accommodate inclusive learning environments;
    • Respect for and value of diversity
      • all students must feel valued, respected, included and listened to and effective measures to prevent abuse and bullying are in place;
    • Learning-friendly environment
      • a positive school community where everyone feels safe, supported, stimulated and able to express themselves;
    • Effective transitions
      • learners with disabilities receive the support to ensure the effective transition from learning at school to vocational and tertiary education, and finally to work;
    • Recognition of partnerships
      • involvement of parents/caregivers and the broader community must be viewed as assets with resources and strengths to contribute;
    • Monitoring
      • inclusive education must be monitored on a continuing and regular basis to ensure that segregation or integration is not happening in effect.

    (source: UN General Comment No.4 on Article 24 of the UNCRPD)

    Core features of inclusion

    The following table provides a helpful summary of what inclusion looks like on a day-to-day basis for a student in a mainstream school. It includes some generalised examples of inclusion and non-inclusion, and may not necessarily be applicable in its entirety to all students. For example, some of the ‘no’ scenarios may be appropriate for some students.

    Is it Inclusion?

    Child spends the majority of the day in the general education classroom.Child spends the majority of the day in a special education classroom and goes to a general education classroom for one or two periods.
    Child’s desk is included with the other groups of desks in the classroom.Child’s desk is away from the other desks in the classroom.
    Child has access to and is included in classroom lessons and activities that are adapted or modified to meet his/her needs.Child works on his/her own curriculum.
    Child attends outside activities with the class including assemblies, field trips, enrichment classes and recess. Child is given alternative activities and options with other special education students.
    Child is an independent, valued and respected classroom member.Child is looked upon as helpless, needy and dependent.
    The child’s paraprofessional [aide] facilitates access to the curriculum and classroom activities.The child’s paraprofessional [aide] determines access to the curriculum and classroom activities.
    The paraprofessional [aide] encourages child to complete work as independently as possible, while providing support when needed.The paraprofessional [aide] does not provide many opportunities for the child to complete work independently and “hovers”.
    Child receives specialist support (therapy, speech and language) with minimal disruption to the class routine and program. Child is pulled from the classroom lessons and activities for specialist support without consideration for what the child will miss.
    The teacher can identify your child’s strengths and areas for improvement.The teacher refers to the specialists and paraprofessional [aide] to identify child’s development.
    Child can name classmates and has many common classroom experiences. Child does not know classmates and does not have many common classroom experiences.

    Source: The Inclusive Class

    Barriers to inclusion

    Significant and ongoing barriers to inclusion for students with disabilities have been well documented across Australia in recent years.  The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) reported in 2012 that “disability discrimination was still occurring in [Victorian] schools and students with disabilities face significant barriers to achieving equal outcomes”.  The types of barriers noted in the report include: “funding limitations, lack of specialist supports, inadequate knowledge and training about disability among teachers, lack of time for teachers to provide an individualised approach for students with disabilities, and discriminatory attitudes” (p2).

    Similarly to the experience in Victoria, inclusion across all other Australian states and territories has some way to go. Whilst most policies and procedures from all education departments and schools promote inclusion, there is still much room for improvement in putting resources towards the day-to-day implementation of strategies, practices, resources, training and knowledge. Students with little or no speech tend to have more barriers to inclusion, due to a lack of understanding and resources.

    Other inquiries and reports that have similarly documented widespread barriers to inclusion for students with disabilities in Australia include:


    The Victorian Government has taken steps to address barriers and improve inclusivity in the education sector, such as:

    • Offering free online training for school staff and parents on implementing the Disability Standards for Education 2005.
    • Offering free online training for teachers relating to: autism spectrum disorder; inclusion of students with speech, language and communication needs; dyslexia and significant difficulties in reading; and understanding hearing loss.
    • Developing new guidelines to better support teachers to implement the curriculum for all students, including students with disabilities.
    • Responding to the comprehensive review of the Program for Students with Disabilities, including by immediately accepting 21 of the 25 recommendations. These include:
      • a new approach to the identification and personal support planning for students with disabilities
      • a new approach to resourcing schools to support students with disabilities (see here)
      • reforms to strengthen accountability for funding and student outcomes.

    See: Victorian Government Department of Education and Training, 2016, Inclusive education for all students with disabilities and additional needs: The Government’s Response to the Review of the Program for Students with Disabilities.   

    See also: Victorian Government Department of Education School Policy Advisory Guide “Education For All” Policy.

    New South Wales

    In 2012 NSW implemented the framework Every Student, Every School which has a focus on professional learning, knowledge and skill development for teaching staff. This includes a Learning and Support scholarship available to public school teachers to study special or inclusive education at a postgraduate level and accredited online learning courses.

    The Personalised Learning and Support Signposting Tool (PLASST) was also developed to assist teachers to identify student needs and strengths, and develop a profile to assist in making adjustments. The Disability Inclusion Action Plan 2016 – 2020 has further details of initiatives, including improvements to service delivery based on the recommendations of the NSW Audit Office Performance Audit, Supporting Students with Disability in NSW Public Schools.


    The Queensland Department of Education employs Inclusion coaches, who are available to work with schools to assist in providing students with the necessary resources and strategies so they can fully access and participate in their education. An Autism Hub and Reading Centre is also available to provide information, resources and support to schools with students with autism.

    Further information on inclusion coaches and action plans are listed below:

    Disability Review Response Plan

    Every Student Succeeding – State Schools Strategy 2018-2022

    Inclusion Coaches

    South Australia

    South Australia has developed Principles of Inclusion for Children and Students with Disability in Education and Care, which includes suggestions of how to put the principles into practice. The Department for Education also provides National Equity Program Grants each year to NGOs providing services in education and related therapies. Other ongoing initiatives include SERU and the Autism School Inclusion Program, see here for further details.


    Tasmania has begun implementing recommendations from the Ministerial Taskforce’s Improved Support for Students with Disability 2015 Report. Online resources and support materials for teachers have been developed as well as partnering with the Professional Learning Institute and UTAS in creating a new Graduate Certificate in Inclusive Education. It has also funded for additional professional support staff (psychologists, speech pathologists, social workers) statewide.

    For further information on initiatives, see the links below:

    Nurturing Unique Abilities: Supporting Students with Disability, 2017 Update

    Disability Action Plan 2018 – 2021

    Support Student Needs teaching and learning resources

    Learners First Strategic Plan  

    Western Australia

    Western Australia developed the Schools of Special Educational Needs (SSEN) in 2012, a new model focused on building capacity and support for teachers and students across four focus areas: Disability; Sensory; Medical and Mental Health; and Behaviour and Engagement. Additional funding has been put into 22 education support schools and centres and extra funding provided to schools to support students with learning difficulties, such as speech disorders. There has been a focus on professional learning for teaching staff, with various online courses on topics such as autism, AAC and Communication & Oral Language, the Disability Standards for Education, and Personalised Learning & Support and Supporting Behaviour. Other new initiatives in WA government schools include:

    • From 2018, a new program for students with autism who have very complex needs has been introduced into a number of WA government schools.  A total of 16 schools will be selected to run the $32 million specialist autism programs by 2020.
    • A new team of expert psychologists will be created to undertake complex assessments of students with disability, in order to speed up the process of putting in place appropriate funding and services.

    See the following links for further information on initiatives:

    WA Department of Education, Disability Access and Inclusion Plan 2018-2023

    Current Priorities and initiatives

    Australian Capital Territory

    In the ACT, the Schools for All Program Plan of 2016 stated that the 50 recommendations of the Schools for All Children and Young People – Report of the Expert Panel on Students with Complex Needs, would be implemented. Information on other initiatives can be found here.

    Northern Territory

    The Northern Territory Education Department’s strategic plan details the focus areas for 2018-2022, which include taking an inclusive approach whilst a Philosophy for Inclusion was also developed by the Department and last updated in 2016.

    Presumption of intellectual or cognitive impairment
    Key resources for inclusion strategies

    There are many resources available – including online, via workshops, seminars and other training opportunities – relating to educational inclusion for students with disabilities generally.  Some key resources include:

    Apart from the CPEC and PECS Australia resources, however, there are no other resources directed to teachers that focus specifically on the educational inclusion of students with communication support needs.  This resource aims to fill that gap.

  • Requirements for inclusion
    Obligations for inclusion

    The barriers faced by students with communication support needs continue to exist despite the existence of laws enshrining their rights.  The two key foundational rights are:

    1. The right to a full and inclusive education

    • Prior to the existence of the UNCRPD, Australia had already enacted the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) (“the DDA”) which also recognises the right of students with disability to a full and inclusive education – see section 22. Amongst other obligations, the DDA required the creation of Disability Standards for Education to clarify the obligations of educational facilities in Australia.  These obligations include allowing children with disability to attend their local government schools and making reasonable adjustments to enable students with a disability to participate in education.  The Disability Standards for Education came into effect in 2005.  See next sub-section for more information.
    • Victoria has similar legislation to the DDA: the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic). Similarly to the DDA, the EOA makes it unlawful for education providers to discriminate against a person, either directly or indirectly, because of a protected personal characteristic, which includes having a disability (see s38).  Direct discrimination involves treating someone less favourably because of their disability (eg refusing enrolment because of their disability).  Indirect discrimination involes placing a requirement or condition that may disadvantage a child with a disability (eg a school not having any wheelchair access to the science room)The EOA also requires educational providers to make “reasonable adjustments” for students with disabilities where this is necessary to enable the student to participate in or benefit for the educational program (s40). Complaints of breaches of the EOA are handled by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.
    • New South Wales’ Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 defines what constitutes discrimination against people with disabilities within the education system, in Part 4a, Division 3. Students must not be refused access to full enrolment or the full benefits of the educational authority, unless the services and facilities required by the student places an “unjustifiable hardship” on the authority. The Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW can provide further information, advice and provides an avenue for complaints based upon the Act. Furthermore, NSW has a Disability Inclusion Act 2014 and the Department of Education’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan 2016-2020 is based upon the principles of this Act.
    • Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 includes prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of “impairment”, and deals with discrimination in the education area in Division 3, Subdivision 2.  Exemptions apply where services or facilities required by a student place an “unjustifiable hardship” on the authority. The Anti Discrimination Commission Queensland can provide further information, advice and an avenue for complaints based upon the Act.
    • South Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act 1984 covers discrimination against people with disabilities and specifically discrimination in education in Section 5, Division 4. Likewise to the other State Acts, it states that full enrolment and benefits cannot be refused on the basis of disability unless, as covered in General Exemptions from Part 5, the services or facilities required by the student place “unjustifiable hardship” upon the institution. The SA Equal Opportunity Commission can provide further information, advice, and handles complaints based on the Act.
    • Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 prohibits both direct and indirect discrimination against people with disabilities (see ss14-16).  Equal Opportunity Tasmania can provide further information, advice and an avenue to pursue complaints.
    • Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act 1984 prohibits discrimination on the basis of impairment in Part IVA, with education covered in Division 3, 661 of Part IVA. This defines the requirement of educational facilities to provide full enrolment and access to all benefits to students, unless the services or facilities which are required by the student impose an “unjustifiable hardship” upon the institution. The Western Australia Equal Opportunity Commission can provide further information, advice and an avenue for complaints based upon the Act.
    • Northern Territory’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1996 prohibits discrimination on the basis of “impairment” specifically in the education context (s29), in particular, requiring educational authorities to provide full enrolment and benefits to all students.  The Act also specifically obligates schools to accommodate a special need (s24), however note that exemptions apply when the services or facilities required by the students are considered “unreasonable” (see s58). The Northern Territory Anti Discrimination Commission can provide further information, advice and an avenue for complaints based upon the Act.
    • ACT’s Discrimination Act 1991 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in education (s18). As in other States and Territories, full enrolment and access to all benefits is required, unless the services or facilities required by the student place an “unjustifiable hardship” upon the educational institution.  The ACT Human Rights Commission can provide further information, advice and avenues for complaints. These avenues include the Discrimination Commissioner, Human Rights Commissioner, Disability & Community Services Commissioner and the Public Advocate amongst others.
    • See here for an easy reference comparison guide of discrimination laws across Australia.

    1. The right to communicate using any means suitable for and chosen by the person communicating

    • Article 21 of the UNCRPD enshrines the right to communicate using any method or means chosen by that person.
    • The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) also protects this right as it prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and therefore on the basis of a person’s communication method where that method is used due to the person’s disability (see sections 3, 6 and 8).
    • Victorian legislation also specifically protects this right – see section 15 of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities 2006 (Vic).
    • The ACT’s Human Rights Act 2004 also guarantees the right to freedom of expression, including the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas….whether orally, in writing or in print, by way of art, or in another way chosen by him or her” (s16).
    • The Tasmanian Government does not currently specifically protect this right but is currently (as at 2018) consulting on what a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities for Tasmania might contain
    • For further discussion on the right to communicate, see the Communication Bill of Rights. This is not a legal document, but provides ethical leadership as to how the task of ensuring communication for everybody should be approached.

    Disability Standards for Education

    The Disability Standards for Education (“the Standards”), created under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), set out the rights of students with a disability in the area of education.  They also set out the obligations that all schools in Australia must meet in order to support students with a disability.  The Standards cover enrolment, participation, curriculum development, student support services, harassment and victimisation.  The Standards outline the requirement for schools to make reasonable adjustments to enable students with a disability to participate in education on the same basis as students without a disability, unless it would impose an unjustifiable hardship to do so.

    The Standards are created by the federal government and apply in all Australian States and Territories.  Click here for free online training on the Disability Standards for Education. The South Australia Department of Education has also developed a tool to help education staff implement the Disability Standards for Education 2005. See also this simple overview of the Standards.

    State/territory requirements
    Government policies and guidelines

    Under the national Standards (see above), schools are legally obligated to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for students with disabilities. Each state/territory has its own policies and guidelines as well as funding models which support schools to make these adjustments – see blue box below for overview of each state/territory.

    Best practice requirements include:

    • Students’ progress must be regularly measured and reported
    • Students’ progress must be measured against the relevant curriculum levels
    • Student Support Group meetings are held at least once per term
    • Meaningful Individual Learning Plans are in place
    • ILPs are regularly monitored and reviewed
    • Reasonable adjustments are made to enable students to participate and access an inclusive curriculum (reasonable adjustments are discussed further in the ILP and curriculum adjustments topic)
    • Students’ families/carers are involved in determining reasonable adjustments and preparing ILPs
    • Assessments appropriate for the student are undertaken


    The Victorian Government has provided more detailed guidance through the policies and guidelines relating to the Program for Students with Disabilities, and Student Support Groups.  Further information and detail is provided in the School Policy Advisory Guide, “Education For All” Policy.  There are also guidelines for professionals undertaking cognitive assessments of students (an overview is provided in the Student Profile topic, under the academic and cognitive assessments section).

    New South Wales

    The NSW Policy Statement of Commitment – People with Disabilities, implemented through the Disability Action Plan 2016-2020, provides guidelines on inclusion and key outcomes to achieve, as does the Assisting Students with Learning Difficulties Policy, implemented through the Learning and Support Program. Further guidelines and details on adjustments and the responsibilities of the learning and support teams can be found here.


    Queensland’s Inclusive Education Policy, provides further information and links to other policies and guidelines on curriculum adjustments, as does the QLD Department of Education – Education for Children with a Disability – a Guide for Parents. Of particular relevance is the Curriculum provision to students with a disability document, which can be found on the P-12 curriculum, assessment and reporting framework page of the Department’s website.

    Northern Territory

    In the Northern Territory, the Students with Disability Policy, along with the accompanying guidelines, provide further information on adjustments and consultation with parents. The Philosophy for Inclusion outlines the Department’s goals for inclusion, whilst other information can be found here.

    South Australia

    The South Australian Children and Young People with Disability Policy, provides further details on adjustments,standards for participation and curriculum development and delivery. The Principles of Inclusion provide further guidelines along with focus areas.


    Tasmania’s Department of Education includes a Students with Disability page which provides general information about the types of supports available as well as links to the strategic plan and funding support.  A Students with Disability FAQs document is also available with further information on various supports.

    Australian Capital Territory

    The ACT’s Students with a Disability Meeting their Educational Needs policy, along with the accompanying procedures, provides further information and guidelines on adjustments, access and participation and curriculum as well as parental involvement in decision making. The Student Centred Appraisal of Need booklet also provides further guidance on the planning for adjustments, learning plans and parental participation, for students with additional funding.

    Teacher training requirements

    Teacher training requirements vary across states and territories, as do professional development opportunities and resources.  However, in every state and territory, all teachers are required to meet the same DSE descriptor 1.6:  “Design and implement teaching activities that support the participation and learning of learners with disability and address relevant policy and legislative requirements”.

    School leaders/principals are responsible for ensuring teachers are up to date on disability and inclusion training.

    For training options, see:

    Under the Victorian government’s Special Needs Plan, as of 2016 all Victorian teachers are required, as part of their registration requirements, to undertake professional development in the area of “special needs” in order to build their capacity to teach students with a disability.  This applies to teachers in government, Catholic and independent schools, and also applies to professionals in education leadership roles.  There is no set number of hours of special needs professional development required, but teachers must be satisfied the training they have undertaken enables them to meet DSE descriptor 1.6.

  • Rights of students with disabilities
    • All students have a means to communicate at school (this is because the Disability Standards for Education require schools to enable students with a disability to participate in education – you cannot participate if you cannot communicate)
    • All students have a full and inclusive education
    • All students can attend school full time regardless of the type or severity of their disability
    • The progress of all students is measured
    • Assessments appropriate for the student are undertaken (eg tests requiring verbal responses are not given to students who are non-speaking)
    • Meaningful Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) are in place for all students with disabilities
    • Student Support Group meetings are held at least once per term
    • ILPs are regularly monitored and reviewed
    • Reasonable adjustments are made to enable students to participate and access an inclusive curriculum
    • Students and students’ families/carers are involved in determining reasonable adjustments and preparing ILPs
    • Families are entitled to include advocates (unpaid) and/or professionals (using evidence-based practices) of their choice in Student Support Groups
    • Adequate resources are provided to ensure the reasonable adjustments can be provided (this is because the Disability Standards for Education require schools to make reasonable adjustments to ensure students with a disability can participate in education)

    There are many steps parents and families, and students themselves, can take to help a teacher provide the best support.  These steps include:

    1. Provide the school with:
    • all relevant medical and allied health reports (eg paediatrician, speech pathologist, psychologist)
    • current contact details of relevant professionals (eg paediatrician, speech pathologist, psychologist)
    • input about your child’s communication needs, sensory needs, strengths, challenges, interests, aspirations and any other relevant information
    1. You might like to complete a document such as Sue Larkey’s “10 things about me” example here
    1. Communicate with the school:
    • a collaborative approach between parents and schools works best
    • be proactive and provide as much information as possible
    • make sure you know who to contact eg teacher, principal, assistant principal, learning support coordinator
    • make sure you know how to contact them eg phone call, regular meetings, communication book, emails
    1. Know where to go if you have concerns:
    • Discuss with relevant school staff member (eg principal, teacher, learning support coordinator)
    • School complaint process
    • State/territory education department, disability unit/section – ask for your regional office/coordinator: ACT , NSW, NT, QLD, SA, TAS, VIC, WA
    • Contact the relevant education sector governing body (e.g. Catholic, Independent) or complaint handling body (e.g. Independent Office for School Dispute Resolution)
    • Support and advocacy organisations
    • Legal avenues

    Advocacy organisations

    Legal organisations

  • Funding for students with disabilities
    State funding models for students with disability