Assumption, Expectation And Discrimination: Gender Issues For Girls With Disabilities
Elizabeth Hastings
Disability Discrimination Commissioner 1993-1997
Elizabeth Hastings

Before I begin I'd like you, please, to imagine a classroom full of children, with their teacher ... Now let it be a science class in a laboratory ... Now an art class ... Now a class of children on an excursion to the zoo ... A playground at lunch recess ... The school play ... School assembly ... The school counsellor, with a student ... A sports day ... Health and hygiene class ... The principal's office ... The staff room ... A study period in the library.

I wonder how many of you automatically included girls, and boys, with disabilities in these scenes? How many of you made a conscientious effort to do so, realising that there must be some reason why the Disability Discrimination Commissioner is asking you to do this exercise? How difficult was it? What type and level of disability did you imagine? Was the Principal's office accessible? Were there Integration Aides in your classrooms? Were there any children with disabilities on the excursion? Did any of the teachers have a disability? Was the science lab accessible? The library? The art class? Did the Health and Hygiene teacher feel comfortable with the questions and needs of children with intellectual, sensory or physical disabilities? Were the children with disabilities playing with other children in the playground? Were there any children with disabilities in the school play? As Macbeth or Lady Macbeth? Or in the crowd scenes? Was the staff room accessible? Did the library provide texts in alternative formats? Was the school counsellor giving the widest possible range of choices to a girl, or boy, who had a disability? Were the school literature texts selected and discussed not only to broaden the vision of girls, but also to present a world-view relevant to students who have disabilities? Did any of the parents, friends and relations at the school play have disabilities? What was happening at the sports day?

Were you worrying about the cost of including these children 'who benefit least from education'? Are you worrying about it now?

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was proclaimed on October 18th 1992 and came into effect on March 1st 1993. The objects of the Act are to eliminate, as far as possible, discrimination against persons on the ground of disability in various areas, including education and the administration of Commonwealth Government programs; to ensure, as far as practicable, the same rights to equality before the law as the rest of the community; and to promote recognition that persons with disabilities have the same fundamental rights as the rest of the community.

In relation to education, the Act makes it unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a person on the ground of disability by refusing or failing to accept an application for admission as a student or in the terms or conditions of admission, or by denying or limiting access to any benefit provided by the authority, or by expelling the student or subjecting the student to any other detriment. All of the foregoing is qualified by the exception provided by the defence of unjustifiable hardship.

Other relevant sections of the Act relate to access to premises used by the public, employment, provision of goods, services and facilities, and sport.

The National Action Plan for the Education of Girls 1993-97 was, I presume, written in the light of the DDA; which may be why girls who have disabilities feature in it at all. They feature, however, in a list of 'girls who benefit least from schooling', along with girls from a non-English speaking background, girls from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and girls who live in remote or rural areas or who live in poverty. The phrase 'girls who benefit least from schooling' veers uncomfortably close to blaming the victim. All girls, and boys, benefit enormously from schooling-if the schooling comes to them in a form which is accessible (and perhaps if 'benefit' is assessed as development from a starting point as well as towards an ending point).

Accessibility includes physical, sensory and intellectual accessibility. It includes relevance. It includes a knowledge that one belongs where one is, belongs to the language one is speaking, to the activities one is doing, to the future for which one is preparing, to the people with whom one is 'community'.

This 'belonging' is absolutely central to the concept of 'non-discrimination', and yet the word is rarely used of people who have a disability, or to describe the basic thrust of any policy relating to people who have disabilities. The words more usually employed are 'inclusion', 'mainstreaming', 'integration', even 'welcoming'. All these words imply their opposite, and put the power of decision, of action, into the 'including', 'mainstreaming', 'integrating' and 'welcoming' committees. What people who have disabilities, children and adults, men and women, girls and boys, want and can now, indeed should now, expect, is to belong where they are. Where they are is in this world, in this community, in this school, kindergarten, university, theatre, laboratory, play, speech night, class, office, playground.

That you most probably are worried about cost, that you may not have automatically envisaged children with disabilities in those various scenes, that girls with disabilities must still be the subject of a separate chapter in the National Action Plan, and appear almost no where else throughout the document, is ample evidence that 'belonging' has not yet become a background policy assumption. This is true not only in education circles but in virtually any circle you may care to mention. 'Integration' and 'mainstreaming' are still founded upon an assumption that there are children, then there are children with disabilities. There are people, then there are people who have disabilities, there are policies, then there are policies for people who have disabilities. Policies for people who have multiple disabilities, come from non-English speaking background, live in a remote rural area and are poor have not yet been created. Not to mention being a girl as well!

The latest available ABS figures indicate that 18% of people living in Australia have a disability of some kind-physical, intellectual, psychiatric, sensory. These figures, however, relate to a narrower definition of disability than that used in the DDA, so the 18% is an underestimate. (I realise not all of this 18% are sufficiently disabled to require specific adjustments in order to participate alongside and within the community.) When we broaden the definition to include learning and neurological disability, the presence in the body of organisms causing (or capable of causing) disease, physical disfigurement, and a disorder or malfunction that affects a person's thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgment or that results in disturbed behaviour, then you can see that the DDA envisages a world in which all people belong. The DDA world is one which is made up of the full range of human beings and 'human being'. It is not the make-believe world of public policy in which there live only vigorous, white, male, employed and not-yet-disabled people.

The DDA requires that its more complete definition of human beings be reflected in all areas of life and government programs (this is not to suggest that government programs are not a part of real life, much though we may wonder at times!), including education programs.

By this circuitous route I bring myself to the detail of the National Action Plan for the Education of Girls 1993-97, and to the questions I was asked to address.

What problems does the construction of masculinity or femininity pose for disabled students?

As I have just indicated, the first 'construction' problem posed for students with disabilities (often literally a construction problem in the form of various barriers) is the more primary one of the 'construction of humanity'. In the Action Plan the word 'girl' is not automatically taken to include a girl who has a disability: she must have a separate section. This means that her experiences as a 'girl at risk' or 'sexually harassed girl', or 'NESB girl', or 'girl living in poverty' may be subsumed by policy-makers to what appears to them to be the more alluring attribute. Her needs-to find herself reflected in the books she reads, to have puberty recognised as a significant time in her life (perhaps, if you asked her, more significant than learning how to walk or mastering another activity of daily living), to receive counselling for the disturbances of her parents' marriage or protection from her uncle's sexual assaults, to experience her own ambitions as interesting and her own social contributions as worthy-these needs may well be lost because she is not first in everybody's mind a 'girl', but a 'disabled'.

The same, of course, can be said for boys who have disabilities.

Reading through the National Action Plan, one is not encouraged to consider the requirements within the various sections of students who have disabilities, and there is nothing as far as I can see relating to general school management and practice, broadening of work education or in improving teacher practice. I shall return to these points in due course.

Having said that, there are ways in which the construction of masculinity and femininity does have an impact on girls who have a disability (you will note that I do not refer to 'disabled girls', and I sincerely hope that no future documents emerging from this or any other Education Authority will do so either).

To begin with, there is the simple fact of appearance. Girls who have a disability are not so 'girl-like' as those in our imagination, in books, in love songs, in our language. This has an effect on a girl's self esteem, and on her expectations. Further, it has an effect on her experience, and on the expectations of those around her. As a child at school I never experienced myself being experienced as a potential girlfriend, wife, mother. Sure, I had fantasies myself, much the same as any girl does-but the possibility of their realisation was never there in the eyes, the words, the assumptions of teachers (or other adults) around me. I experienced others experiencing me as a neutral sort of being. When I was young I did not think in terms of sexual neutrality or identity-I just learnt what I was through how I experienced myself being experienced. This is how children come to know 'in their bones' who or what they are. What you know 'in your bones' will colour what you are free to create 'in your head'. This is the same for boys as well, of course.

A difference arises, however, in the expectation department. Boys in general grow up expecting that they will get looked after. Girls grow up expecting to do the looking after. This is true whether or not you are poor, have a disability, come from a non-English speaking background or whatever. Girls in general grow up knowing their decorative appeal (or lack of it). Boys grow up expecting to be able to choose.

A common outcome is that girls must learn to live alone while boys more often marry. Yes: even in the disability world these assumptions hold true! Attractive caring women, for various reasons, generally love being wanted and loved. Boys who have disabilities seek out attractive, caring women. Boys without disabilities seek out attractive caring women. Girls who have disabilities are usually not sought out. When you are young, appearance is all.

Oddly enough, despite the abundant evidence that, in general, men who have disabilities are likely to find themselves a wife and women with disabilities are less likely to find a husband, the education and training plans for people with disabilities tend to reflect a different assumption. It is felt that boys need the job, the career, for their self esteem-but girls will probably stay at home and be cared for.

Teachers, therapists, doctors, parents, siblings: almost none of these assume that a girl who has a disability will grow up to be a mother, carer, wife-let alone a working mother, carer, wife. The lesson to be drawn from this is clear: all those who surround and influence a girl with a disability must develop their imagination. They must allow the girl to experience herself being experienced not as an eternal neutral, but as a potential woman of potential.

This has implications for the other sections of the Action Plan that I mentioned before. Teacher training and professional development should include 'girls with disabilities' not as a separate group, an optional extra, but as a core part of the curriculum just as they are a core part of humanity.

I would like to add here that I have discussed the 'sexual identity' issue within very traditional boundaries. This is not in any way to suggest that girls, and boys, who have disabilities are not as likely as all girls and boys to be lesbian or gay and to seek same sex partners. They are also just as likely to be bisexual or transsexual, to cross dress, to wish to set up all the varieties of householding that currently exercise the minds and definitions of those involved in the International Year of the Family. Girls and boys who have disabilities require the same attention to these issues as do all students. I note that these matters are not addressed in the National Action Plan.

How can we address gender issues in their post-school pathways?

Again, the construction of masculinity and femininity no doubt has an effect on the subjects made available to girls who have disabilities, and therefore on their futures, but the construction of the school has an even greater effect. When science laboratories, art rooms, technical skills areas, staff rooms and class rooms, texts and information, computer hardware and software, libraries and excursions are all accessible, then girls who have disabilities can be in the fight to be included in the traditionally male pursuits. Until that time, it would be helpful if girls who have disabilities were included in the National Action Plan's sections on role models, language, analyses of power, discussions of body image, cultural texts and the influence of the community on the construction of gender.

Perhaps it would be more useful and coherent to consider the 'construction of self', of which gender issues form one aspect. I commend this to you for further consideration.

Choice of post-school pathways is in part going to be influenced by those to whom the student looks for advice. When I was in Year 9 and told the Principal that I wished to go to university, her only response was 'do you think you could really manage that, dear?' Such a negative response has a huge impact on future choices. The vocational and career counselling available to all students with a disability must be of a very high standard. It must be well informed, free of stereotyping, imaginative and demanding. It is not all right to suggest telephonist work for students who are blind, cleaning for those who have an intellectual disability, sedentary office work for people with a physical disability and labouring for the deaf.

Neither is it acceptable to give more attention to the employment futures of boys than of girls as I have already indicated.

How adequate is the National Action Plan in addressing the needs of disabled students?

Not very.

Let me expand: in the first place, the National Action Plan extracts girls who have disabilities from the mainstream and 'deals with them' in one section, as though they (and their similarly disadvantaged sisters who come from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or non-English speaking backgrounds, from remote or rural areas, and those who live in poverty), were not, first and foremost, girls. I take no issue with the specific needs of these students being emphasised. Rather, my concern is that they consequently (and I think it is a consequence of such categorising) do not appear in the other parts of the document. This is particularly true of those who have disabilities, those from rural and remote places, and those who are poor.

Examining the construction of gender

This priority does, to the amazement of one so accustomed to being left off the list, mention in its preamble that girls who have disabilities, along with Aboriginal girls, are likely to encounter more offensive forms of sexual harassment than other girls-but when we get to the priority on 'Eliminating sex-based harassment' disability is not mentioned. I think this preamble is the only place where girls who have disabilities have escaped from their special and segregated chapter.

In the questions for schools there is no suggestion that issues of life choice, health and violence, traditional occupations, resources and materials, and adult role models should include as a matter of course an analysis of these things from a disability perspective as well as from a gender perspective, or that there may be some intersection of the two. I trust that my comments will open up some of the ways this intersection occurs, and some of its impacts.

Eliminating sex-based harassment

Girls who have disabilities are not explicitly mentioned in this section, yet it has been noted already in the document that it is a significant problem. If I were to deconstruct this priority I would have to draw some very unhappy conclusions about the real recognition of the implications of and attitude towards sex-based harassment of girls who have disabilities.

In 1990 the Office of the Directorate on Equal Opportunity in Public Employment in NSW (more easily referred to as ODEOPE) established through research that women who have disabilities experienced more harassment of every type, including sexual, than other women, and those with disabilities affecting their legs encountered more harassment than any other group. This is not an ignorable matter, yet the National Action Plan, apart from the one statement I have quoted, attends to the issue not at all. Indeed, in the third priority area, that relating to girls who have disabilities, the only harassment mentioned is racially based.

Are girls who have disabilities, those known to encounter most harassment, not to be given the benefit of programs and strategies which reflect and respond to their particular circumstances? Are they to generalise as best they can from programs which relate to girls who do not have disabilities? Are there to be no videos, texts, role models of girls and women who have disabilities managing harassment in an effective way? Are these rhetorical questions? I hope so.

Which brings me to:

Improving the educational outcomes of girls who benefit least from schooling

In many ways this is the weakest section in the Plan because it tries to do too much, in the wrong place. In relation to girls who have disabilities, I'm afraid it does worse than nothing because it eliminates them from the lists even of its own subject matter. Let me illustrate. In the suggestions for strategies and professional development for teachers the areas for 'critical reflection on their own assumptions and beliefs' include gender, culture, ethnicity, rurality and socio-economic status. Are we to conclude that no-one has any assumptions worthy of critical reflection about girls who have disabilities?

I have already commented on the lack of mention of sex-based harassment of girls who have disabilities.

The best way to improve the educational outcomes of girls who have disabilities is to take the Disability Discrimination Act seriously and create schools, systems and budgets which recognise that these girls, and their social and political brothers, boys who have disabilities, are an inherent, integral and necessary part of the school population. Their right to education is ensured by the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, as well as under the DDA.

The terms of the Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights make clear that issues of equality, non discrimination, access and participation have priority over issues of adequacy or availability of resources or services in the areas covered. Whatever standard is attainable in the progressive implementation of the rights recognised is required to be respected and ensured without discrimination. These principles are expressed again in the provisions of the DDA.

Whether or not any legislative instrument can compel governments to meet desired levels of commitment to education overall, we can at least expect non-discriminatory access to whatever there is.

In saying this, I do not dismiss the need for discussion of some more general form of guarantees of rights in this area, to achieve results which anti-discrimination law is not well suited to achieve on issues of overall adequacy of services and resource allocation. An equal share of nothing is, after all, still nothing.

The Disability Discrimination Act requires schools, teachers, planners, policy-makers, funders to develop non-discriminatory mainstream educational environments. It means that parents, students and their associates can begin to demand them. The offering of parallel or segregated systems will not be seen as sufficient. This is not to say there may not be choice: some parents will prefer to send their children to schools which would be described under the DDA as 'special measures', just as some now prefer to send their children (who may or may not have disabilities) to private, religious, community, experimental, Steiner or home-based schools. Now, however, all those schools must, unless they can demonstrate unjustifiable hardship, provide a discrimination free education to girls and boys who have disabilities.

It would be quite difficult, I imagine, for the multimillion dollar state system to demonstrate that it would be an unjustifiable hardship to provide an education to students who have disabilities if they were obliged to respond to a complaint under the DDA.

There are a couple of cases which may interest you at this point: first, late last year, under the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act, it was determined that a rear access provided for people who have disabilities, 43 metres away from the front of the Queensland Convention Centre which glories in 27 steps, was not consistent with the principles or the provisions of the legislation. The State Government was ordered to install a lift at the front of the building. The Tribunal underlined the fact that 'adequate' access is not 'equal' access, and 'equal' is what is required.

There have also been several 'inaccessible bus' matters brought to the Commission for Interim Determination and Hearing. It has been found on each occasion that it is unlawful to purchase new buses which are not accessible to people who use wheelchairs. The various Ministers of Transport are now awaiting a report from a suddenly revivified 'accessible transport task force'-as am I!

I hope these decisions will percolate through to Ministers of Education so that there can be a proper and equitable distribution of their resources, rather than the 'you can get into our school if you bring Commonwealth dollars with you' which pertains at the moment. No other child has to find her own funding to be able to participate in the education to which she has a right by birth.

It will behoove curriculum developers and teacher educators similarly to teach about the whole population of students, and not save 'special' education for 'special' teachers. All teachers should have knowledge of disability issues so that schools can be managed in a discrimination-free way.

Addressing the needs of girls at risk

Again, this section from its silence on the matter appears to assume that if a girl has been identified in the 'least benefit' section she does not need to be brought forward again in the 'at risk' section. Girls who have disabilities, however, are at great risk from out of school factors if only because any such factor will have a significant impact on a life already complicated by disability. Girls who have disabilities may also be victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, they may also be anorexic or bulimic, or have other secondary health problems, they may become pregnant and they may become homeless. Added to this they, too, may have responsibility for the care of younger siblings, household tasks, and other duties. They may be arriving at a school at some distance from home having taken two hours to get up and get dressed.

If a teacher imagines that the only difficulties a girl with a disability has are those directly related to the disability, then that teacher is doing a great disservice to these students.

Families of children with disabilities are known to be among the most stressed. Parents often split up, leaving the child in the care of a single parent. Siblings may put huge pressure on the child or the mother, thus exacerbating the stress. There is often an atmosphere of blame, or of tragedy, for which the girl who has a disability may feel responsible. She may be isolated at home, lonely, unable to visit friends or even venture outside the front door without assistance.

These risk factors will have a deleterious effect on her capacity to create her own future. If nobody talks to her about anything other than disability related matters, she may never find the appropriate moment to bring forward her own concerns. Then she will be at risk indeed.

Reforming the curriculum

In this priority area there is no mention at all of influencing the expectations of girls who have disabilities. Should not such reform include consideration of why the experiences, achievements and contributions of women and girls who have disabilities have been excluded from the knowledge that is valued by society? I do not mean trotting out the same tired old examples of what we used to call 'super crips' (who were largely male, by the way!), but including in the ordinary course of events the ordinary women who have disabilities and contribute to the social, economic and political life of our community.

Should not access to a 'wider range of knowledge, skills and ways of being' include as a matter of course the ordinariness of having a disability, the ordinariness of the girl in the desk next to you who has a disability?

Why, in the acknowledgment of the 'multiple perspectives which women have because of ethnicity, culture and class' is the perspective of disability suddenly eliminated from the list? Are we not to be interested in this?

Why does the unravelling of 'dominance' not reflect the real world of the dominance of experts, of professionals, of the informed-whether they be men or women? I can assure you, the perspective of a person who lives with a disability would be very illuminating!

Why is the concept of social justice narrowed to the analysis of 'what it means to be male and female'? In this section all the so called 'disadvantaged' groups were left off the list.

The effect of language on, and the hurtful use of language about, people who have disabilities is not mentioned as an area of concern for curriculum reform. Neither, in the notes on post-school choices and the domain of unpaid work, is there any acknowledgment that girls (and boys) who have disabilities will contribute enormously to the nation's voluntary work force.

The key strategies and questions for schools for this section similarly ignore matters of significance in the education of girls who have disabilities: non-discriminatory assessments, examination of social practices and structures, access to all areas of the curriculum, skills to meet needs of dependants and domestic responsibilities, and programs about relationships and sexuality (including information on conception, contraception, pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing, and parenting) are all central to the lives, aspirations and sense of self of students who have disabilities, yet are approached as if these students did not exist outside their segregated chapter.

I can make the same criticism of the priorities on improving teaching practice and changing school organisation and management practice. The whole document is predicated on girls with disabilities being a separate group from girls.

This brings me to the next two questions which can, I think, best be answered together:

What strategies have worked well? What are the areas of most pressing need?

I don't know what strategies have worked well. I suspect, given that girls who have disabilities are relegated to a fifth part of an eighth part of the National Action Plan, that there has been little or no evaluation of strategies designed to enhance the ways in which education may benefit them. Perhaps you can cheer me with unexpected good news on this shortly.

Certainly most of the complaints relating to education which come to me at the Commission concern the reduction, withdrawal or absence of assistance for children who have disabilities to be educated in mainstream schools, and the lack of choice for parents in the education of their children with disabilities. Neither parents nor students are yet well enough established as consumers of mainstream education to be picky about the types of issue outlined in the National Action Plan. When you are dying for want of food you don't fuss because there's not enough choice of condiment.

This does not in any way mean that I consider the issues raised in the National Action Plan to be unimportant. Perhaps if the improvement of educational experience and opportunity for girls who have disabilities were taken seriously, some of the other problems of funding and equity would begin to be resolved.

Let me underline one very important thing: education in a 'special' school is not and never can be the same as education in the mainstream. The range of subjects offered is very limited: science, Latin, art, languages, biology, advanced mathematics, literature, home economics-these will not be taught to the required level, if at all, in 'special' schools, most of which have no facilities at all for teaching technical or laboratory based subjects.

Many girls who have disabilities have been restricted in their future choices by being exposed to the narrow curricula of 'special' schools.

Furthermore, the range of experiences offered is limited-the ordinary competition and rough and tumble of school life is not present in segregated education. Ordinary expectations, naughtiness, opportunities for risk, failure, success, personal challenge, anonymity, leadership, responsibility-ordinary ordinariness-cannot be found in the segregated system.

The areas of most pressing need have, I think, been sufficiently outlined as I have discussed the National Action Plan. Without doubt the most significant advance required is the placement of girls who have disabilities, and boys, firmly in the mainstream of teacherly discourse and professional development. The fallacy that there is a 'normal majority' and a series of 'special minorities' is not helpful in planning any social benefit, including education. The even greater fallacy that if a child fits one category she need not be taken into account in any other group, is the most segregating of all.

Girls who have disabilities are girls. They worry about their looks, their attractiveness to boys, the unattractiveness of scholastic success, whether or not they'll find true love, their parents' marriage, their siblings' peccadilloes, their puberty, their future, their employability, religion, music, peer pressure, self identity-and if they have time, they notice that they have a disability.

It is up to education authorities, schools, teachers and curriculum designers not to create conditions which are in themselves discriminatory and disabling.