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Illness, School and The Law – What does it all Mean?

Practically speaking, there isn’t a simple answer to that question. But then again, if you’re reading this, you probably already know that! The crux of the issue is that when your child is seriously and/or chronically ill it can impact their learning.

What can be done about it? The Answer = Plenty.  What will be done about it? The Answer = It depends on:

  • the school,
  • the individual school leadership,
  • and most importantly, individual teachers.

But the level of parental advocacy is also a critical factor.

Most frustrations occur when the school fails to respond to your child’s specific needs by acknowledging their medical condition and adjusting their learning environment, processes, assessment products and timing to take into consideration their medical condition.

Missing School

Often, the invisibility of medical conditions and school absence leaves the problem out of sight and out of mind … (the schools’ and the teachers’ minds.)  But even if the sick kid is at school, it doesn’t mean they are fully “there”. Despite being physically present sick kids may actually be missing out on much of the experience of school because of any of the following:

  • Feeling tired, anxious, distracted, depressed, out of their depth because of work missed while physically absent
  • Difficulty with concentration/focus due to effect of medications
  • Fluctuating or diminished energy levels
  • Pain
  • Loss of confidence, social dysfunction/insecurity
  • Long term effects of the medical condition on cognitive function including, ability to memorise or recall facts, concentration, prioritising, decision-making, logical sequencing, processing and transferring information, organisational skills.

The bottom line is that it’s really hard to learn when you have a serious illness.

Sick kids are effectively missing school unless adjustments are made to help them. These adjustments might also include accommodating arrangements for connection between the school and the sick kid during periods of absence from school.

What Does The Law Say?

Fortunately, we do have a law that includes serious and chronic medical conditions in its definition of disability. See The Australian Disabilities Discrimination Act 1992.

Disabled or not disabled? The challenge of definitions. See our earlier post on the reasons for applying the term “disability” to kids in circumstances of a serious medical condition.

  • In 2005 the Australian Disabilities Standards for Education were developed. They use the same definition as the Disabilities Discrimination Act, setting out clear expectations of reasonable adjustments at both individual and systemic school level.
  • In 2008 The Australian Government Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians reinforced this as a priority.
  • And more recently, there was a review of the Australian Disabilities Standards of Education in 2011. One outcome of this was a clear statement of intention to bring all the areas of Discrimination (Sexual, Disabilities, Age, etc) under one single Act. Amendments to inclusions and the implementation of the Standards were deferred until after the completion of this. (see Government Response to Review of Australian Disabilities Standards of Education)
  • Also as a result of this review, some money has been given to some schools to focus on professional development in catering for disabled students. It depends on the school system, the number and severity of disabled students within the school as to who received that money. (see More Support For Students With Disabilities)

Holes In The System

  • Students with medical conditions (at least in NSW), are still not considered eligible for automatic, specific funding to cater for their disability in the school.
  • Accessing funds for adjustments for sick kids in schools still depends largely on a series of arbitrary factors. Without funds, which translate to time, human resources and teaching aids/technical resources, adjustments frequently don’t happen.
  • Success still depends largely on parental advocacy.

Yet……the disabilities discrimination act clearly includes sick kids in the definition.  

It remains unclear precisely which (if any) Government Authority is charged with overseeing the compliance of schools to the Disabilities Discrimination Act.

In NSW, The Board of Studies is responsible for the actual registration process of schools but, in the past, Disabilities compliance issues have not been included in their inspections.

In NSW, at least, there is currently no funding available to schools to support students with any medical conditions outside narrow “tick box” definitions, e.g. hearing, sight or physical/mobility impairment.

My opinion…

While students with serious and chronic medical conditions remain “un-funded” their needs will remain un-met. The stated intention of bringing all areas of Anti-Discrimination under one general Law is fraught with danger for each area of potential discrimination. I fear it could compromise the power of advocacy under each of those laws. It may also increase the burden of work for the ministry tasked with overseeing it. (Please note, I am NOT a legal expert. I am a parent, an advocate and an educator).

  • Intentions to change Acts of Parliament suggest massive delay in terms of action on the ground. They provide an excuse for deferral. This is exactly what the 2011 response by the Government has done.

Sick kids in schools need help now. They fit the existing definition of disability but are often overlooked. Many are missing school because of their illness but there is no mandated provision and no mandated funding for them across all states and all school systems.

(Written by SchoolMiss – Parent, Educator, Advocate.)

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