There have been many definitions offered of what characterises inclusive education. However there is now consensus that inclusive education provides every individual student with disabilities or special needs, access to and the right to equal opportunities for learning and participation in the classroom, in the same way that students without disabilities would have (Hyde, Carpenter and Conway, 2010; Westwood, 2007). A new paradigm emerged moving away from earlier attitudes that focused on groups of students with disabilities, to individuals with disabilities. This is an important factor that manifested in subsequent legislation and state policies, as governments progressed from the deficit model, which focused on the student’s disability or special need, towards an equitable social justice model. Legislation and government policies have impacted on how teachers and school policy makers must adapt their teaching methods and implement practices to ensure they cater for the diverse needs of learners, in order to create a genuinely inclusive classroom.
In 1989, the United Nations (UN) established an innovative treaty called the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). Australia’s commitment to this declaration was ratified in 1990 (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014), but has not actually been legislated. The convention stipulates that all countries who sign up must commit to ensuring all children enjoy the rights set out in it and report every five years to the UN. Australia’s last report was in 2013. The convention focuses on gender and disability discrimination and the general protection and wellbeing of all children. Whilst it states that children should receive a free primary education, its generalisation in this respect does not strictly relate to creating inclusivity in classrooms thereby not allocating enough accountability for diversity and inclusion in classrooms at school or government level.
Whilst ratifying the CRC in 1990 meant Australia had to commit to the principles contained within it, the Disability Discrimination Act (Australian Government, 2013) became legislation in 1992, meaning discrimination towards those with disabilities would be unlawful. This gave greater credence to the government’s attitude in combatting discrimination. Section 22, targeting education, clearly stated that curricula cannot be developed if it excluded persons with a disability. This meant that schools had to consider all aspects of enrolment practices and teaching implications to ensure students with any form of disability would not be refused access to the content or participation as reasonably as possible. However, this still did not bear any semblance to a fully inclusive classroom.
The term mainstreaming was coined in the 1970s and 1980s to describe the situation were students with disabilities spent a portion of their school day in a regular classroom for social benefits and instructional integration (Schulz & Turnbull 1983, as...