The students perspective of education in Victoria

This was the third session at the ‘Back to school’ Advocacy sector Conversations forum held at the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre on 15 February 2018.

Other sessions at this forum included:


Leah van Poppel, Executive Officer at Youth Disability Advocacy Service (YDAS), shared the findings from a consultation YDAS conducted with students with disabilities aged 12 -24 where they were asked about their views and experience of inclusion in education and employment. Surprisingly, attitudes came out as the number one barrier identified.



References mentioned in this session include:




Welcome back everyone.  I would now like to introduce Leah Van Poppel from Youth Disability Advocacy Service YDAS, to talk about the perspective of these issues from the most important people of all the students.  Please welcome Leah.

Hi, everyone thank you for having us here today.  Lisa (the guidedog) really loved the applause but hopefully she’s not going to be too much part of this presentation.

I’d like to begin today by acknowledging that we are on Aboriginal land, we’re on the lands of Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.  This always was and always will be Aboriginal land and I want to pay my respects to the elders past present and from a YDAS point of view also future because it’s really important to acknowledge future generations of leaders as well.

I’m going to start off by telling you a little bit about the Youth Affairs Council where YDAS sits and what YDAS does.  We’re a little unusual perhaps in terms of advocacy agencies in that we sit within a mainstream setting.  We are part of the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria, which is a peak body for youth workers and young people across Victoria.

It’s been in existence for about 60 years now.  It’s funded by the Office for Youth and it raises awareness of issues that are relevant to young people with disabilities and other young people across the state.

YAC Victoria as we like to call it because saying the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria gets old fast is made up of a number of different components.  There is a number of core agencies.  There’s YAC Vic Core, which does kind of the work of representing young people more broadly.  There’s YAC Vic Rural, which has two offices in the Southern Mallee and on the Great Surf Coast in rural Vic.  Then there’s YDAS, which we’ll talk about in a moment in a little more detail.

We also partner with a couple of other organisations who choose to live with us.  That’s part of the diversity of the space that we work in.  I’d like to acknowledge that we also work with Vic SRC who are the Victoria Student Representative Council peak body and who work on improving the student voice across Victoria.  And the Koori Youth Council who do pretty much what it says on the box and they work with young people who are Koori across the state.

YDAS itself is here to support young people with disability who are aged 12 to 25 across Victoria.  We also, we talk about supporting young people who have a disability, a chronic illness or a mental health condition because we know that there are kind of barriers across those three areas.  Sometimes there is some grey area about where people might fit.

The work that we do is split into a few different areas, it’s all funded by the Victorian Government, and our core funding comes from the Office for Disability and that covers individual advocacy and doing some systemic advocacy as well.  Like Julie who spoke before, we get to see what’s happening on the ground and we also talk to young people about what they think should happen and how Governments can change.

At the moment, we also have some funding to do work on NDIS readiness with young people with disabilities.  That includes just providing some general NDIS information, you can check out our Facebook and our Twitter to find some of the resources we’ve been developing and also doing some pre planning support with young people, which we call Map Your Future.

When it comes to our individual advocacy, we see as I said young people with a wide range of disabilities and kind of across the age range that we cover.  The top issues that come to us regardless of kind of age, location, all of those sorts of things are NDIS and disability services.  I’ve kind of bundled together two categories there because it’s about DHHS but also increasingly about NDIS, about education and about housing.

Just a note for anyone who is interested in our individual advocacy we will take referrals from anyone but the unique thing about our service is we listen to young people themselves and we always want to know what the young people, the young person involved is interested in getting advocacy and to hear about what they want to say.  It’s also I guess in starting to talk about education really important to put it into context that when I say these are our top three issues these are not the only issues that we encounter but it’s also true that someone might come to us with one or more of these issues at any one time.

When we’re talking about young people who might have issues with education, we might also be talking about young people who have suddenly been made homeless and that’s the reason why they’re disengaged from their education.  We might be talking about young people who are disengaged from schooling because they have behavioural issues.  As Julie from DDLS said earlier, might be caused by their schooling situation but might also be caused and perpetuated by a lack of good disability support.

Very often, when young people come to us with issues around education it’s not, the only thing that they’re facing it’s not the only barrier and the barriers that they’re facing can be really really intertwined.

Just to give a little bit of context and I know I’m repeating some of what Julie and Stephanie have said today, there are about 17% of students in Victoria are listed as having a disability.  About 2% of Victorian students are in special schools and the actual number of students in special schools is increasing.  The State Disability Plan actually shows the Government introducing new special schools because the numbers are going up.

What we do know though nationally so from looking at some of the information coming out of the NDIS quarterly reports, is that when you ask young people who are participating in the NDIS have you been in a mainstream school or a special school, about 27% of young people aged 15 to 24 say that they were in mainstream setting at school and about 52% or 54% of children under 14 are in mainstream settings.  The number of children and young people going into mainstream settings is starting to increase.

One of the reasons that’s important to think about is there’s lots of issues with special schools versus mainstream schools.  Some people say that in special schools, you might get teachers who may have more of an understanding of disability and as you’ve heard from Julie today that sometimes really isn’t the case.  But what it does mean is that young people with disabilities have access to peers who are like them.  When young people are going into mainstream settings they might be getting a better education they might be getting access to being seen by people in their community, which is really really valuable, but sometimes what that means too is that they’re not actually having contact with other young people with disabilities. As I go along you will see why that might be important.

When we talk to young people and when we think about the information that comes back from young people about what issues are relevant to them in their education we gather that information in a couple of different ways.  It’s through observing young people who come to us with individual advocacy matters but also doing some consultation with young people.

We’ve been part of a couple of consultations with relatively small numbers of young people with disability because getting people together can be really difficult when young people have lots of extra-curricular activities on or it’s hard because they’re relying on mum or dad to bring them to things.  But we’ve been part of some consultations with the Department of Education and Training around what inclusive education means to young people and we’ve also run our own consultations late last year around educational issues for young people with disabilities.

The information that I’m about to go into comes from all of those sources.  The key issues for young people are three things really, attitudes of everybody involved so that’s the teachers, the other students that they engage with, their parents too.  It’s access to supports and it’s being able to understand what discrimination is and how that might look in their day to day lives.

I’ve listed these kind of in order of what young people will identify first.  When you ask young people who are in schools what it is that is one of the main barriers immediately the first answer will be attitudes it’s the attitudes of other people.  For young people it’s not necessarily, speaking of attitude Lisa come back here thank you, so it’s not necessarily that young people are prioritising I need an aide or I need a computer or I need more time.  Those things matter but they don’t matter as much as their day-to-day interactions with the people around them.

When it comes to attitudes the first thing young people tend to talk about is their teachers and they say a number of things about what their teachers attitudes are like.  First young people will say, ‘My teacher just doesn’t understand my disability, they don’t understand that if I ask for this thing it’s because I’m disabled.’  Sometimes that’s more prominent when a young person has an invisible disability.  We talked to a young woman with scoliosis who said to us ‘My teachers thought I was just sitting down in the middle of activities because I was lazy.  They wouldn’t accommodate me and they didn’t think there was any issue related to my disability.’  At a very basic level, teachers don’t get the repercussions of a disability and if a young person themselves tries to raise it often they’re not taken very seriously.

Young people also talk about teachers expecting less of them.  If they are academically inclined or if they have talents in particular areas teachers are more likely to overlook them teachers are less likely to take that seriously and that has flow on effects for how much time you get from your teachers the kind of expectations, the opportunities they might offer you for extra-curricular things.  The way they talk about your life after school and the way that they prepare you for your life after school can really change depending on the expectations of the teacher.

Teachers don’t always include the students in practice.  Sometimes students feel like they’re left out of what’s happening in the classroom.  The teachers are not giving information at a pace that works for them or they’re not giving them time to come back to the teacher after class and say I didn’t understand or a teacher will just say well if you didn’t understand that you’ve got time to go over it at home.

Teachers don’t necessarily give young people access to really inclusive support.  That’s not about dollars it’s not about resources it’s about a level of understanding of what a student actually needs.  In some cases that means that, students then disengage.  Julie talked a little bit about this but we’ve seen instances of students who have become so anxious about their situation at school that they’ve not been able to attend school or they’ve been admitted to psychiatric care because their mental health has deteriorated.

When we talk about attitudes, it sounds like kind of a fluffy this is a nice thing to do but it actually has a very real ongoing impact on the way students are at school.

When it comes to other students when it comes to your peers that’s a really important part of school life for most students and especially in the age range we’re talking about.  Most of the young people that we connect with are in high school.  We do have contact with some young people in upper primary but that’s rarer.  So we’re talking about young people who are in settings where they want to be connected to their peers but their peers don’t necessarily understand disability either.  Their peers don’t understand why they might talk differently or behave differently and so as Stephanie said earlier this morning they get bullied and they get bullied a lot.   When you have teachers then who don’t understand your disability as well, it’s very very hard to address those instances of bullying.

Young people also then start to say, ‘Well I don’t want to identify as having a disability, I don’t want to even think about the fact that I have a disability.’  We have a steering committee at YDAS, which is made up of young people with disabilities.  It often steers to an older age group because many of the people who come to our steering committee say, “Oh, when I was a teenager or when I was at school I didn’t want to identify as disabled, I didn’t think it was important.  I just wanted to be normal like everybody else.’  That means that if you have students around you who don’t understand your disability that’s encouraged if you have teachers who don’t understand your disability that’s encouraged and students instead of feeling like they can speak up and advocate themselves about what they might need they start to withdraw.

What’s also really important to understand is that when that withdrawal happens some of you might have heard what Julie and Stephanie have said today and gone I feel really angry about this situation, I feel like this is really unjust.  Young people with disabilities are surrounded by a lack of understanding of who they are and what their lives are like with disability.  What we notice in talking to young people is that often they’re not angry.  They don’t see this as a sense of injustice because the ableism around them the ignorance about disability is so entrenched that it becomes acceptable that they’re treated differently and they have to step away from the part of their life that is related to disability and to hide it.

So we also know that the attitudes of parents can be a factor in the lives of young people.  Anyone in this room who has raised a teenager or been around teenagers knows that those relations can be tense and they can be quite complicated even if you don’t add in the kind of desire and drive to make sure that your child is getting the best that they can at school.

Often parents are very very supportive of trying to rectify situations at school.  Often it’s parents who will contact us first around individual advocacy issues but then it becomes an issue for parents to really start to step back and let their child take the lead and for the young person themselves to feel like they’re comfortable to take the lead in dealing with the school.  Often parents are interested in being much more forthright with schools than the students themselves or the young people themselves might be.

That’s really complicated because sometimes all of this lack of understanding around a student all of this sense of them being very very isolated means that they might not want to rock the boat or they might just think I want to deal with one of these issues at hand and then just kind of get along with fitting in as best I can while their parents are really concerned about broader and deeper issues.

It’s an ongoing challenge both for advocacy agencies like us to respect the differences between young people and families and at YDAS, we sit on the side of the young person as much as we possibly can.  But also to acknowledge that there are real challenges in the system and sometimes parents looking at from further down the road can see different things to young people themselves.

There’s already been a fair bit of talk today about the lack of access to supports for young people with disabilities in schools.  There’s a whole range of areas that can cover but for young people with disabilities themselves there’s obviously an emphasis on wanting to stay at school to start with and to be able to participate fully in the full hours of schooling.  When I was talking earlier about homelessness and disengagement from schooling in that regard mental health conditions and disengagement, it can be really hard for young people to be able to reengage but schools aren’t sure how to do that.  They aren’t proactive at doing that.  Young people might be moving into different school environments because they’ve been displaced and that can be quite difficult.

Schools are also as Julie said, the problem of young people having limited hours at school or having no schooling because of what are considered to be behavioural issues is a real issue.  Schools are not always proactive at bringing students back in in a logical and a timely sort of way.

Young people also talk to us about the lack of support to learn.  Often when we see students who are in mainstream settings there’s commonly it will be Term 2 and someone will be calling us and saying, ‘I’m in VCE and I don’t have the supports that I need for exams.’  That’s a big on going kind of systems issue because each of those individual issues is often quite relatively easy to resolve but it happens time and time again.  There’s obviously some issues within the system that mean that’s a problem that’s on going.

Also use of technology.  Sometimes we see young people who might need to use technology in creative or different ways.  Often schools for instance will ban the use of mobile phones for most students but if you have a student who is using that as a sensory tool for autism just letting them have access to that.  Again it doesn’t cost any money for the schools it’s not something the school is being asked to provide, they just need to offer a different accommodation and getting those accommodations can be quite difficult.

Support to engage in work or work prep is really really important to young people.  A lot of young people say to us I only really have the energy to go to school and to study and I really just want to focus on my studies because if I do nothing else that’s the thing that’s most important to me right now and to my life going forward.  If you have really limited energy because of your disability or limited focus then you focus on your studies and especially so if you’re on an academic track but of course, that’s true across students in all parts of schooling.

What then happens is that students don’t get to have the work experience opportunities or those very early first jobs of maybe doing a paper round or flipping burgers at McDonalds.  A lot of those jobs are not necessarily accessible to young people and even when they are the energy issue kind of gets in the way.

Again, if you’re on an academic track it’s really difficult to get support from within the education system to help you to get your foot in the door and start having on the job practical experiences.

When young people go to the career advisors at their schools that burden of low expectation that I talked about earlier really bites.  Sometimes the career advisors don’t know what they could be doing outside of school they don’t have a vision of what it means for a disabled person to work.  Sometimes careers advisors will say as they did to one young person that we spoke with, ‘Oh, well I don’t know where I would find any accessible design agencies for you to do work experience so you’re going to have to research which of the agencies might be physically accessible to you and your wheelchair yourself and find your own work placement.’  There’s a real lack of both structural kind of opportunities for young people to engage through their schooling in practical work skills and then for career advisors and others to take on board that young people with disabilities can have jobs and to be able to provide really appropriate support for them.

It’s also really important when we talk to young people they do recognise sometimes that they need aides and sometimes there’s a couple of issues around this.  Often those kind of supports are pulled within a school environment and it can be really hard to get one when you need it.  But what young people say to us more often is that it’s really important to work out when you have an aide, because aides can be really good at giving you the practical information you need from a class but if you are 16 year old and there’s a 50 year old woman sitting beside you in class I’m sorry you don’t look like the kid everybody else wants to sit next to.

It’s really important that schools try to find appropriate aides and to use them appropriately and to recognise that use of an aide might actually be more of a problem for a student in other aspects of their schooling.  Also, schools don’t necessarily provide aides for social times when students might find it more challenging to not be stressed out and not act out because of socially complex situations where the rules just aren’t as clear.  There is all kinds of stuff about the provision of aides, which isn’t talked about in terms of social impact for young people with disabilities.

Navigating discrimination so all of the things I’ve talked about so far today are in some way a form of discrimination whether that’s benign discrimination because a teacher just doesn’t know, whether students are actively cruel or whether some of them just haven’t been taught about disability.  Whether the system discriminates by not providing enough resources for young people to be able to engage well in their schooling.  But young people themselves don’t always look at discrimination in the same way as adults.

There really isn’t a lot of education out there for young people with disabilities about disability discrimination law and about how they can speak up and when it’s okay to do that.  It’s something that YDAS is working on.  Laws can be really really hard to understand.  I know that I have parents contact us and say, ‘What does this bit of the disability standards on education mean, is this being discriminatory.’  I think if parents are calling up and asking those questions young people are going to be struggling with it even more even if they think to ask is this being discriminatory.

Young people often have other pressures in their life as well.  Even if a young person goes, ‘Yeah, it maybe wasn’t so good that my teacher laughed about the fact that I was a young person with autism giving a presentation about social skills, maybe it wasn’t good that they wrote that in my assessment.” That young person might also be doing exams, they might be struggling with their social life, maybe they’ve just broken up with their boyfriend or girlfriend.  They have lots of things going on and when you’re at an age where you’re figuring a number of things out all at once dealing with one kind of discrimination or one piece of discrimination can feel really overwhelming.  Especially like I said before, young people with disabilities have been in some ways a little bit immunised to the idea that they should be angry because they’ve been shown instances of not being accepted of not being understood all of their lives.

The final reason that young people with disability might not act on discrimination is because they’re worried about relationships at school.  Whether that’s relationships with their teachers whether that’s relationships with the school overall or whether that’s relationships with their peers.  So maybe if they get the thing that they really need they will end up in a situation where they are perhaps not given the opportunity to socialise.

So what are some of the solutions to this?  Well first of all one of the things that YDAS does is to listen to young people with disabilities themselves.  When we think about solutions, as we’ve been talking about solutions all day, I think it’s important that whatever those solutions are they include young people with disabilities who are directly affected by what happens to them in the classroom and in the school yard and on school campus or in the instances when they don’t get to go to those things.

Young people themselves talk about wanting peer groups and peer connection both with students without disabilities and with other students with disabilities.  They talk about wanting mentoring opportunities so that older young people with disabilities can go and talk to students in schools and help them through, help them to feel less alone.  There’s no easy solutions.  There’s no quick fixes.  I would urge everyone here today to make sure you think about young people with disabilities at the core of what you do.

I’ve just got a couple of resources that I’m going to end on today, I was going to end on today and now I’m not I don’t know what button I just pressed.  There we go, so there’s a relatively new thing called the Independent Office for School Dispute Resolution.  It’s a bit of a misdemeanour because as people point out it’s still reporting to the Deputy Secretary of Education so it’s not entirely independent but it’s another step for people navigating the school system.

If families decided, they don’t want to go the legal route and young people decide they don’t want to go the legal route they can go within their school to the regional office and now there is the independent office as well.  Of course, there are legal routes and Julie has done a really good job of outlining why it’s sometimes a good idea to take those steps.

The other thing I want to mention is Vic SRC.  Vic SRC as I said at the start are an organisation for student councils and young people with disabilities, young people generally to come together and talk about what they as students want.  They hold a congress every year for young people to get together and come up with what the most important issues are for students across the state and they also have an executive who does systems work throughout the year.  They’re a really important way to connect students who might have ideas who might want to be involved in changing things at a systems level but don’t have a place to go.

Of course, there’s us.  Of course, there’s DDLS.  There’s Youth Law for young people who want legal advice more generally and there’s also Project Rocket who do a lot of work with anti-bullying workshops in schools.  If you’ve got any questions about any of those resources or what YDAS does, I’d be more than happy to answer them.  Thank you

Has anybody got any questions for Leah?

[no questions]

I have to say your comment about the teachers’ aides really brought back memories.  I remember having a 50-year-old teacher’s aide with the worst BO ever and I think I was unpopular just for that reason.  Really horrible.  Thank you very much.


Date published:
Fri 16th Feb, 2018