Though delighted at this new flexibility and agency over learning provided to students, I was left with a bittersweet question: Why did it take a global pandemic to implement such a shift?
As a youth worker at the Youth Disability Advocacy Service, many conversations I had in 2020 were about how let down students felt by the government and education systems. There were few spaces carved out for us to express our grievances, and as a result, our voices were often ignored.
A 2020 report by Children and Young People with Disability Australia, Not even remotely fair: Experiences of students with disability during COVID-19, found that 74 per cent of disabled students were not provided social support from their educators in 2020. The report also found that 54 per cent of students with disabilities were not provided with regular and specific contact with education providers to ensure their learning was accessible. This really hurts.
Though less well documented, our relationships with government and education institutions also suffered during the pandemic. Seeing these bodies turn on a dime to implement strategies, education modifications and support systems we’d been told were untenable or unreasonable was shattering. A trust that government and education institutions act in our best interests has been broken. This is a raw wound, and it will take time to heal.
The most recent Victorian state budget committed $1.6 billion to ensuring inclusive education for people with a disability. It is excellent, but we cannot rely on money alone to support disabled students without a concrete commitment from decision makers, institutions and educators to actively implement plans to engage their students. We need to know that gestures aren’t token. This is where the hard work begins.
We learn from 2020′s mistakes by giving people with disabilities power, by setting up emergency plans that actively include our community. We learn from a year of pain and neglect by ensuring education programs are designed by disabled people, who are paid for their time.
We move forward from this by implementing mandatory lived experience consultants in every government department. We promise not to forget. Acknowledging what didn’t work, indeed, what failed us in 2020, is about acknowledging and validating our pain.
The return to ‘normal’ is not an option for people with disabilities. ‘Normal’ is a world where disabled people don’t have equal access to education. ‘Normal’ is exhausting and inaccessible.
This ‘normal’ is disenfranchising for students with disabilities not just in Victoria but nationwide, and we will never change stereotypes, drive political change or realise our own power if we return to ‘normal’. It hurts me to think that people are willing ‘normal’ back, when that ‘normal’ was so devastating for me.
As teachers and families prepare for the first day back at school this week, I feel optimistic that 2020 can make us collectively better.
Maybe this is the beginning of a whole new world of education, where the participation and inclusion of students with disabilities isn’t seen as an effort but a necessity, where requests for support, for understanding, for stability are heeded effortlessly.
As Victorian students return to the classroom, let’s all take this unique opportunity to listen, learn and act better in 2021.
Issy Orosz (they/them) is a freelance writer and facilitator and adviser at Victoria’s Youth Disability Advocacy Service.