Stories of Parents with Autistic Children in the Search of Mainstream Schools
I see inclusion and inclusive education more a matter of ethics: how we learn to live and learn together with diversity. Arguments against (or at least skeptical about) inclusive education based on the lack of skills among teachers or suitability for the students concerned are, to me, not always convincing. I believe that these are but technical difficulties or resources problem that can be overcome relatively easily and therefore are not good grounds for depriving any human being of being treated equally. Human diversity is just a plain fact. We all have to learn how to get on with others in an respectful and ethical way. Isn't it what education is about?
Respect for the equal dignity and moral worth of the persons with disabilities is a demand of ethics. By protecting equal rights, law is always used to help achieve this end. Law provides practical mechanisms for enforcement and sanctions. It also provides cultural schema and symbolic resources which people, especially the less advantaged or historically mistreated, may rely on to assert for equal treatment. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), to which Hong Kong is a signatory, stipulates that state parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels (Article 24(1)). The Convention marks a “paradigm shift” in the attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities labels. Persons with disabilities are not being seen as objects of charity, medical treatment and social protection but rather as subjects with full citizen’s rights and active members of the society. Some important values lie at the core principles of the Convention: respect for dignity and individual autonomy; respect for diversities and differences; non-discrimination; inclusion; equality and accessibility.
Locally, the Disability Discrimination Ordinance (Cap.487) (DDO) makes it unlawful for an educational establishment to discriminate against a person with disability (a) by refusing or failing to accept that person’s application for admission as a student; or (b) in terms or conditions on which it is prepared to admit that person as a student. (Section 24(1)(a)(b)) In case of an unlawful act, a person may approach the Equal Opportunities Commission to lodge a complaint to seek assistance by way of conciliation (Section 80), or to institute a court proceeding (Section 81). The Code of Practice on Education issued by the Equal Opportunities Commission is based on the DDO to assist schools to make policies and procedures to prevent and eliminate disabilities discriminations in schools, and to provide educators with practical guidance on making provisions for students with disabilities in line with the DDO. There are also guidelines for schools to ensure that recruitment and admission procedures do not discriminate against students with disabilities. Although the government policy is to encourage integration/ inclusion of SEN students and the building of inclusive school environment, implementation is not mandatory. The DDO only prohibits discrimination, harassment and vilification based on disability in education and a number of other areas but does not confer positive legal rights to inclusive education. Nor does The Code of Practice on Education mandate a school to practice inclusive education.
Despite the legal guarantees, some parents of children with autistic labels have concern about disclosing their children’s diagnoses and labels. This concern is persistently an issue among parents who wish to include/ integrate their children in mainstream regular schools. It is also interesting to note that the Parent Association of Autistic Children in Mainstream Education has made suggestion on their official website that for “very slight degree” of autism, disclosure may not be necessary (http://www.paacme.org.hk/faq02.html#q12). How should this concern be understood? What does the dilemma tell about the inclusive culture in Hong Kong?
Relying on the scholarship of legal consciousness (in the Law and Society tradition), this paper looks at the experiences of some parents of autistic children and the dilemma faced by them in primary school search and application.