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CYDA: What makes an inclusive classroom?

Inclusive education is incredibly important for children and young people with disability. 

Everyone, no matter who they are, should be able to participate meaningfully in learning and have access to an inclusive environment where diversity is valued rather than seen as a problem.1

This idea is applicable at every step of the learning journey, from early childhood settings to university lecture halls, and is core to CYDA’s (Children and Young People with Disability Australia) advocacy efforts. It emphasises that every child and young person has something to bring, deserves to be included, and has an inalienable right to independence and equal opportunities within the classroom.

Each child and young person has unique support needs, interests, and strengths, and this individuality and diversity must be embraced.

As CYDA has heard over the years, Australia’s education system is not currently supporting young people in the most effective, inclusive, and supportive ways. This must change. What follows are solutions, strategies, and tools teachers and institutions of all stripes can consider when working with disabled young people.

Inclusive practices are more prevalent today than they were 20 years ago, and educational institutions are increasingly attempting to make accommodations and provisions part of everyday teaching. That said, the current level of inclusivity still falls short of the standard it needs to be. Ongoing training and adjustments must be made routine to ensure that children with diverse support needs get the learning experience they deserve.

Further, allowing young people’s voices to be at the heart of decision-making and creating change within schools and universities is crucial. Time and time again, people with disability are excluded from dialogue about their own experiences in research and everyday life within the classroom.2

Young people have told CYDA about various elements within their educational experiences that they wish could be different. They have highlighted the need to dismantle the “one size fits all” approach to inclusivity and inclusive education within the school system and early childhood sector.3 Instead, they call for individualised, unique support for all children with disability and improved funding through the NDIS for continuity of support at schools.4

It is vital for parents and students to be able to make decisions collaboratively with learning staff so their experiences are listened to and assumptions aren’t made about a student’s capabilities.

Within tertiary education, young people have pointed out various barriers preventing them from adequately participating, enrolling, and engaging in university life.5 Unsupportive staff and inaccessible design have made it difficult for some to complete enrolment processes or even just access their campus grounds. Others have experienced unsuitable placements, been subjected to unnecessarily long wait times for crucial support services such as counselling, or have dealt with teachers who wouldn’t follow through with learning plans and accommodations.

Young people with disability have also shared their struggles with social isolation when attending university, feeling excluded, and lacking peers. They have highlighted a need for more flexible approaches in learning materials generally.5

Research shows that disabled people are more likely to drop out of university, more likely to score their tertiary education experience lower than their classmates, and are considerably less likely to attend university.6 This shows just how much needs to change to ensure that young people with disability have a more positive university experience. 

Ultimately, young people with disability should have access to the same opportunities as their peers through improved support and services within tertiary education.

There are practical ways that teachers and education institutions can help dismantle entrenched ableism and ensure that an inclusive classroom environment is the standard for every student.

Firstly, embedding a strengths-based approach within the learning experience can be deeply empowering, supportive and accommodating for students with disability. A strengths-based approach involves acknowledging a person’s strengths, not focusing solely on their deficits and struggles.

Educators must move away from deficit-based thinking and language, especially present within ‘special’ education.1 This is significant within the classroom because a strengths-based approach will celebrate and welcome diversity, facilitating true inclusive education.1 Another critical approach to consider is universal design, as the environment and the curriculum should be designed with all people in mind, including people with disability.

A strengths-based approach can be used within Individualised Education Plans (IEPs) for students. Young people with disability will all have their individual and unique needs to be accommodated. It is crucial to consider how IEPs that build on a child’s strengths will ultimately allow them to participate in the best way for them.

In universities, similar methods should be a part of a student’s accessibility learning access plan, where they receive accommodations for their learning to allow participation. The accommodations could be extensions, extra time on exams for reading, comprehension or processing, assistive technology within the classroom, additional resources if absent, and more. These accommodations and learning plans are not there to give young people with disability an unfair advantage but to even the playing field.

Teaching teams need ongoing learning and training to implement a strengths-based approach within the classroom.1 This would equip schools and universities with the appropriate knowledge of accessibility, discrimination, legal obligations, ableism, disability and universal design practices.1

Research shows that many higher education staff have not received or completed crucial disability and anti-ableist training.6 Those who have are more likely to have positive attitudes towards disabled students.1 This underscores the importance of staff training; simply put, more students would feel listened to and included.

It is also important to note that true inclusion is not possible until students are not segregated into separate schools just because they have a disability. Teachers need support and funding to educate all young people in the same classroom, not segregated from their peers.1 It is crucial that allied health professionals and the teaching team collaborate to create a holistic approach to inclusive education for students, considering their individual needs.

Finally, when constructing the overarching curriculum, school environment, policies and procedures, and making decisions within the education system, people with disability or who have lived experience must be involved. This emphasises the universal design approach by ensuring that students with disability are thought of in creating each partof the education experience.

Disabled people’s voices must be involved in designing how institutions support their students; in turn, it would enhance education for all students. Inclusivity and accessibility improve education for everyone, not just disabled students.

There are many ways to support an inclusive classroom environment for students, from early childhood to tertiary education and many more not mentioned here. Ensuring these tools and strategies are implemented into the education system will create a significant, positive and impactful change in the lives of children and young people with disability.

Actively breaking down the embedded narratives of ableism enables children and young people with disability to be part of a future where true inclusivity is integrated into their education experience.

Overall, educators, learning support staff, schools, early childhood centres and universities should consider how important and life-changing an inclusive classroom environment can be, not only for young people with disability, but for all children.

By Grace Garrahy

Grace (she/her) is an OT student, accompanied by her assistance dog, Sebastian. Grace’s lived experience navigating the world with disability, mental health, chronic illness and neurodivergence has led to her passion for working with disabled people. She is particularly passionate about representation, accessibility, inclusion and awareness of invisible disabilities, and is an active member of CYDA's Youth Council. 


1. Cologon K. Towards inclusive education: A necessary process of transformation. Children and Young People with Disability Australia. 2019. Accessed November 30, 2023. Published October, 2019. ISBN: ISBN-13: 978-0-646-80949-6 

2. Cologon K. Is inclusive education really for everyone? Family stories of children and young people labelled with ‘severe and multiple’ or ‘profound’ ‘disabilities’. Research Papers in Education. 2022;37(3):395-417. DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2020.1849372

3. CYDA YouTube. Poppy Mullins – Veiled Inequality – LivedX 2020 (Auslan). Youtube. December 2, 2020. Accessed December 1, 2023. 

4. Sayers M, Tape S, Mullins P, Wroblewski X. Being realistic about inclusion: What’s realistic for young people with disability? Bulletin Learning Difficulties Australia. 2022:54(2):27-31. 

5. Polglaze C, Ganon E. LivedX Series: What Young People Said Tertiary Education and Learning. Children and Young People with Disability Australia. 2022. Accessed December 2, 2023. 

6. Shim AW. Joint Position Statement & Research Report: Disability & Higher Education in Australia. The National Union of Students, The Australian Law Students’ Association, Australian Medical Students Association; 2022. Accessed December 2, 2023. 

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