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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 11

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (10:08 AM) —I would like to thank senators for their contributions to the debate on the Disability Discrimination Amendment (Education Standards) Bill 2004 [2005]. At the outset, can I say that the government is strongly committed to ensuring that all students are able to enjoy the benefits of education and training. The bill makes minor amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act that will ensure that the disability standards for education are fully supported.

This bill was referred for inquiry and report to the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee, which reported on 8 December last year. A majority of the committee recommended that the bill be passed without amendment and urged the government to introduce the final education standards into parliament as soon as practicable after the passage of the bill. The support for the passage of this bill is very positive.

The primary benefits of the disability standards for education will be the clarification and elaboration of the obligations of education and training providers in relation to students with disabilities under the Disability Discrimination Act and the provision of guidance on how to meet these obligations. Secondly, education providers will have increased certainty in knowing that compliance with the disability standards for education is a defence to a complaint made under the act’s general provisions. Thirdly, persons with disabilities will benefit from clearer procedures in relation to the obligations upon an education provider to make reasonable adjustments and the need to consult with the student or his or her associate.

When adopted, the disability standards for education will clarify when and how a school needs to consult with a student with a disability. For example, a parent might accompany a child with a disability to school, and the school might need to assess with the parent what, if any, adjustment would be necessary in order for the student to participate in the school and its programs on the same basis as other students. I have seen examples of this on visits to schools, such as the installation of ramps, or signs for those who have visual impairments. These are practical issues which really can address a student’s disability.

It is important that there is a process of consultation with the student or the student’s associate to decide whether any adjustments are necessary. This consultation would include an assessment of the likely effectiveness of the adjustment for the student with a disability as well as its impact on other students. The student’s associate may not be a parent. In some cases, an associate might be a foster-parent, guardian, partner or another person with a genuine relationship, as set out in the act. Examples of the types of adjustments that might be appropriate include a student with a communication or learning disability being allowed extra time to complete an examination or providing assisting computer technology for a student with visual impairment, as I mentioned before.

Of course, most providers already make adjustments to meet the needs of students with disabilities. By clarifying the obligations of providers and how they can be met, the standards will ensure that all students with disabilities are able to participate in education on the same basis as other students. Given the importance of the disability standards for education to people with disabilities, it is important that this bill be passed as soon as possible. Passage in the Senate today is important to demonstrate support for these standards. It is an important milestone which will be well received by education providers and the disability sector. The standards will go a long way towards removing unlawful discrimination against people with disabilities participating in education or training.

A number of issues were raised during the debate. Senator Carr raised some issues and I would like to address those. Firstly, I reject Senator Carr’s assertion that the government has given scant regard to the costs borne by education providers. The standards and the amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act make clear that education providers will not be required to make adjustments for students with disabilities if those adjustments would cause the providers unjustifiable hardship. In addition, there should be no or very minimal additional costs incurred in implementing the education standards if providers are currently meeting their obligations under the act. Of course, the standards clarify existing obligations.

On 17 November 2004 my colleague the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Brendan Nelson, introduced legislation containing a $33 billion package of funding for Australian schools for the 2005-08 quadrennium. The funding includes an estimated $2.1 billion for a new overarching targeted program for literacy and numeracy and special learning needs targeted at the most educationally disadvantaged students, including students with disabilities. This money will be shared among the government, independent and Catholic school sectors. The minister for education has also offered to contribute to the development of professional development materials to support the introduction of the standards. These are all very positive aspects—

Senator Carr —They are very weak!

Senator ELLISON —They are not weak, as Senator Carr asserts. Of course, Senator Carr raised some other issues. One of them was: would the extension of unjustifiable hardship increase the disadvantage for students with disabilities? The government is keen to ensure that, once formulated, the education standards will reflect an appropriate balance between the interests of a student, or the prospects of a student, with a disability and the effects on the education provider of making an adjustment to accommodate that student. The amendment to extend the unjustifiable hardship defence beyond the point of enrolment will avoid the undesirable effect of discouraging educational institutions from admitting students with disabilities because they are concerned about the future potential unjustifiable costs of accommodating the students. In the Finney v Hills Grammar School case, the extension of unjustifiable hardship would have meant that the school could have admitted Scarlett Finney safe in the knowledge that, if future adjustments were necessary, it would not be required to make them, causing the school unjustifiable hardship.

In conclusion, the development of the draft disability standards for education—which will be supported by the amendments in this bill—are the product of extensive consultation with industry, government and disability sector representatives. The standards are a practical way of clarifying the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act in the area of education. They will provide certainty for education providers as to their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act and will clarify the rights of people with disabilities in relation to education and training. As I have said, this bill has wide support. Its passage should proceed as speedily as possible. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.