Graeme Innes says 'appalling' cage practice not one-off, calls for inquiry on education of children with disabilities

Graeme Innes, former Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Photo: Andrew Meares

In the wake of revelations an autistic Canberra student was confined in a cage-like structure, former disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes says such abuses are widespread and has called for a broad inquiry into the treatment of children with disabilities in the nation's schools.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten immediately backed Mr Innes' call, declaring: "we cannot assume this is a one off case".

Mr Innes, who served as the nation's disability discrimination commissioner from 2005 until last year, said such "appalling" incidents were not confined to the ACT.

"It's not an isolated incident," he told Fairfax Media. "I hear about these incidents relatively regularly. I think there is a need to look at it far more broadly than just in the ACT."

Mr Innes said while he did not want to excuse the ACT case, it was an example of the impact of  "a serious lack of resources to support kids with disabilities in education systems around the country".

"I think it would be a mistake to think that this problem just relates to kids with autism – I hear lots about kids with learning disabilities who are not given appropriate levels of support in schools, and that's partly because the teachers aren't properly trained throughout the school system, and partly due to lack of resources."

He said he had no strong view on who should conduct an inquiry. While school systems are state-based, much of the funding to support students with disabilities is provided by the Commonwealth. 

Mr Shorten said he strongly supported an inquiry, which could be conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

"We need to hear the voice of parents of children with disabilities as well as schools and teachers in such an inquiry," Mr Shorten said. "Schools and teachers are stretched and often without the knowledge or resources they need. Our schools and teachers need greater support when it comes to understanding children with challenging behaviours."

"Parents of children with disabilities are often made to feel like trouble-makers because they demand support for their child at school and that's just not right," he said.

The Assistant Minister for Social Services Mitch Fifield, who has responsibility for disabilities, said the ACT case was "deeply disturbing." He said in March the government had supported the establishment of a senate inquiry into the mistreatment of people with disability which would include both schools and restrictive practices. 

"There will no doubt be lessons from the inquiry for state government arrangements to protect students with disability in their schools. The federal government will also closely consider the work of the inquiry as we development a national safeguards and quality framework for the full NDIS."  

A spokesman for Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne said that under the Australian Constitution, the operation of schools was a matter for state and territory governments.

"The Commonwealth doesn't employ any teachers or have any role in managing students," the spokesman said.

The spokesman said the Commonwealth was providing record funding to the states and territories for students with a disability, delivering $1.2 billion in 2015 alone and $5.2 billion over the period 2014 - 2017.

"States and Territories can spend this funding on additional teacher training or other support services for students with a disability, it is a matter for them."