The best for all

Multiple special needs
 A disability unit in South Australia is striving towards ‘deep inclusion’

Clare Taylor loved teaching internationally, but having seen what can be done in South Australia, she suggests international schools could become more fully inclusive.

An early experience

For many people, an early experience of a child with complex disabilities can be disconcerting. It certainly was for me. My first encounter was as a teenager, when I enrolled as a volunteer for a play-scheme at the local ‘special school’. I remember being thrown in at the deep end, supervising a non-verbal young girl with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) on a café excursion. She subsequently ran away from me into the road. Lacking the communication tools and strategies to support her, it was an overwhelming and frustrating experience for all involved.

Teaching internationally

More than twenty years later, I had taught many primary classes in London, as well as in international schools in Singapore and Dubai. These classes had often included students with ASD, and, on rare occasions, complex and multiple needs. I decided that it was time to learn how to better support these students. Accepting a learning support role in Dubai was the stepping stone. Soon after I enrolled in a Master of Education (MEd) in Inclusion, specialising in autism.

International schools: inclusive . . . . to a point

The international schools in which I had taught, were inclusive to a point, yet were not able to support complex needs for a variety of reasons. The children that were accommodated faced constant physical and social challenges. I questioned whether there was adequate means for children with complex, additional needs to receive an education in international schools as there appeared to be a gap in the provision provided.  Students with ASD were generally accepted for enrolment if they could fit in within the mainstream. However, cultural misgivings, lack of community understanding, and other complexities supported my view that inclusion for students with complexities were rare.

Disability Unit in South Australia

Soon after relocating to the suburb of Seaford Rise, South Australia in 2016, I noticed a separate building was just being built adjacent to the local primary school. I discovered this was to become a much-needed disability unit for primary-aged students in the south of Adelaide. Like similar disability units throughout Australia, the unit now shares a site with the main school and is secured by the means of keypad entry and secure fencing around the perimeter. Children are educated in a disability unit for several reasons. They may have complex physical, health or communication needs. They may have extensive learning difficulties with various degrees of intellectual, behavioural, and sensory needs, or a combination of these. In short, students are educated in a disability unit if they need extensive adjustments to the curriculum to accommodate their learning needs.

Respect, learning and fun

Never one to shy away from a challenge, when the opportunity to work in the unit presented itself, I accepted without hesitation.  Four years and a shared coordinator role later, I have been able to build my understanding of the unique attributes and qualities of children with disabilities. The disability unit operates as a place of trust, respect, learning and fun. A cohesive, supportive, and committed team is essential to the daily running of the unit and I am grateful to work with such a team.

How it works

Our disability unit consists of two classes, with eight students per class. Each class is staffed by one teacher and one School Services Officer (SSO). If additional funding can be secured, supplementary SSOs may assist us further to work alongside students with greater needs. Each class has a purpose-built kitchenette, sensory room for regulation, and secure outside transition area. The two classes share a central space used for regulation activities or as an additional learning area.

We have a purpose built, secure yard, designed with nature play and sensory learning in mind. As teachers, we employ a wide range of creative teaching strategies to accommodate the many different learning abilities represented in our highly diverse student body. As reported on the school website, ‘we strive to support our students to be as independent as possible, reach their potential and have their needs met in a socially appropriate manner.’

Play-based learning

Our programme takes the form of play-based learning focussed on supporting students who are working towards the Foundation level of the Australian Curriculum (AC). Via multi-modal teaching we use a variety of communication tools, such as picture visuals, key signs, and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices. We support and utilize the students’ special interests, teach daily living skills, support developing communication and social/ emotional needs. Students have individual “One Plan” goals that support the development of cognitive, social, behavioural, and daily living skills.

Developing social awareness

Students at Seaford Rise Disability Unit use the main school facilities (library, gymnasium etc) and participate in whole school events such as World Book Day, Sports Day etc, where possible. Some students are supported to join in with their peers in specialised classes, for example, STEM, Physical Education and Science. This is invaluable for our students to develop social awareness and social learning. Furthermore, we work closely with specialised agencies to support students learning to their full potential. External providers are welcome on site for explicit therapies, such as Speech Pathology and Occupational Therapy. We also utilize the local community infrastructure where students visit local playgrounds and access the local café as part of their Personal and Social Curriculum.

Constant debate

Like many schools, we strive to get the balance right with inclusion. My colleagues and I know our students well enough to be able to see both the advantages of inclusive education and the challenges and barriers to achieving inclusion.  We often debate the model of integration, where children access mainstream education, but are not necessarily immersed in activities available to others, versus the inclusion model, where children are socialised and educated alongside their peers. The social value from either perspective cannot be undervalued. Regardless of which model is used, we believe every child has the right to an education that is tailored to their requirements.

Picking up the baton internationally

I am positive for the future of our young learners. I hope that we will see inclusive places of work, inclusive colleges and universities and inclusive communities. The more we can teach social awareness to all children by pursuing the model of inclusion during the influential school years, the more likely this is to become the norm.

I now go back in my mind to my days teaching overseas. I loved teaching internationally, but having seen just what can be achieved at our unit in Seaford Rise, it would be great to see more international schools pick up the baton of truly inclusive education and strive for excellence in this area in addition to all their other wonderful work. One thing for sure: the children deserve it.


Clare Taylor taught in her native UK before working as a Primary teacher in Singapore and Dubai. Developing her interest in inclusive education, she is now joint coordinator of the Disability Education Unit at the the Seaford Rise Primary School in South Australia.



Feature Image: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay