Disabilities, young people and education

A group of students including a student in a wheelchair sit around a table drawing together.

Nearly 10% of young people aged 15-24 identify as having a disability according to the Australian Network on Disability, yet the Victorian school curriculum makes only occasional references to disabilities and mental health. They are very much few and far between, mostly appearing in F-10 Health subjects and within Auslan curriculum. Additionally, the VCE Psychology and Health and Human Development study designs intentionally have such vague wording they get away with not covering that content at all.

As such detailed education about disability and access for non-disabled students (as well as disabled students) is far from mandatory. Young people are already a demographic vulnerable to being excluded from conversations about large-scale social issues and young disabled people are even more likely to be excluded from these discussions, given the barriers we face. These barriers can be real ones, or even presumed barriers that mean other groups avoid making the efforts required because of misinformation about what barriers there are.

Often, large-scale social issues will have a greater impact on young disabled people than they would on the general public, which is why it is so crucial that we are included in these conversations. But we aren’t there yet.

Which is why Australia needs a reform – one where education about disability and appropriate access and inclusion is a mandatory part of the curriculum beginning when students enter primary school, with more complex discussions all the way up to year 12.

What does having a disability look like?

The real answer to this question is that there is no defining characteristic or feature binding all disabled people, except maybe exclusion.

Young people are forced into informal fallacies about the nature of disabilities and disabled people. Furthermore, false assumptions are perpetuated by mischaracterised representations in the media of young disabled people. This happens because there isn’t widespread education about disabilities in schools or in wider society. True understanding will continue to be suppressed and ableism will continue to mean disabled people don’t get access to the basic human rights that all people are entitled to.

“One in five Australians are disabled. And disability presents itself in many ways. Yet disabled people are still underrepresented in media and literature. There is a diverse experience of disability – disabled people come to acceptance and pride at different times, and some not at all. All experiences are valid.”

Carly Findlay

group of people with varying disabilities, genders, sexualities and culturesvia Facebook, © @12th.ofnever


Unfortunately, ableism rests fundamentally in, and is upheld by, Australian culture. Breaking it down is difficult but incredibly important, which is why major reform is required. Ableism can exist in both subtle ways and comments or outright discrimination, but when disabled representation is far and few between, it becomes increasingly hard to challenge.

According to disability activist Leah Smith:

“Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’.”

Here is a video of a disabled young person discussing the ways in which “diet ableism” or subtle ableism really diminishes the self-esteem of disabled people as well as access to services, specifically from the view of someone with autism (ASD).

Ableism unfortunately is highly prominent in our education system. According to the Victorian state government, “in 2015, between 55,000 and 66,000 students with disabilities attended Victorian government mainstream schools”. This equates to between 10-15% of all students in Victoria, where these students will unfortunately be further alienated as the burden seems to be on them to educate their peers about disabilities.

This is problematic because people with disabilities have considerably more difficulty accessing even basic services or being up to standard in the education system which for many students with disabilities can be incredibly distressing. This results in the pressuring of the maybe two students in a classroom to either disclose their disability and have to deal with the constant re-education of their peers about their condition and the world of disability. Or, have to attempt to hide their disability (which is often impossible) from their school and classmates in order to have enough energy to cope with daily tasks.

Placing disabled students into these boxes not only limits their capacity to participate in their own education, but means that fellow students are relying on only a single or few disabled voices for the entirety of their education surrounding disabilities.

What can we do about it?

So, what is needed to decrease the burden on these already disadvantaged students?

There are two key approaches that must be taken in order to achieve disability literacy for all young people, as well as continued accessibility for disabled young people.


Schools, their curriculum and the educational standards across Australia must exist at a standard that means all people, regardless of ability, will be able to access them. This is more than just having a few wheelchair-accessible buildings in a school (which is still a necessity); it means that students with any form of disability will not be so alienated by schools or the education system as a whole that they are forced into special or alternative schools as the only option for their presence in education.

While special schools provide an extraordinary opportunity for young disabled people to access the education they need, the resources and skills that these schools provide should be accessible in mainstream schools. Without a reform in the education system so that any student can access any school at any time without any barriers, disabled young people will continue to be excluded from mainstream society. This will also mean that the stigma surrounding disabilities and disabled people will not be allowed to continue as disabled people will be able to exist in the everyday environments of non-disabled students.

While currently seeing a fully accessible and inclusive educational world doesn’t seem feasible, that is likely because the curriculum writing, schools and buildings planning, and welfare systems creation is not done by and with the lived experience of disabled people. Therefore, there must be continued consultation with and focus on disabled voices when developing things that are as important such as education.

If schools and educational institutions continue to hide and exclude disabled people, discrimination and blatant ableism will continue, unchallenged. This is a necessary first step towards reform in the education system.

student in wheelchair in a classroom with two other students writing at desks


There must be a requirement in the curriculum that discusses the complex issues of disabilities (all of the different types), accessibility and inclusion. Whether this education is delivered by teachers or other organisations doesn’t really matter, as long as the content is mandatory and created by people with lived experiences of disability.

This will mean those who have never had to question the accessibility of the world will do so. This will happen because access to resources and information about this topic will encourage critical thinking. This critical thinking will be of themselves, their environments and wider society’s lack of accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities.

Additionally, this information will equip and empower young disabled people to be able to better access things (which admittedly should already be provided to them). By doing this, it will enable them to achieve the same successes as their peers despite the fact that society has been created in a way which limits them.

Increasing ‘disability literacy’ will also enable students with disabilities to understand the wider world of disabilities; while one disabled student would be the expert in their own disability, there are so many ways in which completely different disabilities impact the world and as a baseline young disabled people will not have an extensive knowledge of all disabilities – nor should they be expected to.

Equipping young people with the capacity to understand the world of disabilities will mean that when they are studying or working or creating businesses or doing really anything in the world, they will consider the more than 18% of Australians that have disabilities.

Without this education, people in privileged, able positions are not ever forced to confront the fact that the world does not exist for them in the same way as disabled people.

These young people will have a more equitable and overall better informed view and skillset, meaning that they will be able to influence the world around them as allies to the disabled community. Likewise, when jobs are being advertised, they will be advertised a way that breaks the barriers disabled people face. There won’t just be a line at the end of a PD (position description) that claims “we encourage those with disabilities to apply” and will instead already have 1 in 5 employees identifying as having disabilities.

This education is crucial for non-disabled people to be able to use their capabilities to assist and lift up the voices of people with disabilities who for so long have been fundamentally ignored. This will also mean that whenever disability is represented, it will not just include the one image of disability that seems to be perpetuated today.

A final point for both approaches is that considering the intersections of disability and other marginalised groups in society is so fundamentally important, and if not sought out in a way that acknowledges those intersections, will fail to actually be inclusive.

So what now?

If you are a non-disabled young person, I urge you to look at the world in which you live and consider it from the lens of a disabled young person. If you can’t do this, or if you realise that your environment isn’t accessible or inclusive, that is a sign that a change in education is necessary.

Be an ally! Ask disabled young people what you can do as an able person to help forward the cause of disability advocacy and activism.

About the author

Is Hay VicSRC Editorial Team 2019