Issues In Educational Research, Vol 11, 2001   [Contents Vol 11] [IIER Home]

Why are students with disabilities failing? Is mainstreaming the cause?

Margaret Sutherland
Edith Cowan University

In this paper the emphasis will be on the closure of an Educational Support Unit (ESU), and its implications for the students with disabilities who now have to try to keep pace with their peers and a normal curriculum by being mainstreamed into a "normal" classroom. The study will define what a learning disabled student is and the reason ESUs were implemented into the educational system in the first place. To question whether the move to close ESUs without any thought being given to students, parents and teachers, is in their best interests by having no special curriculum, remedial programs or teacher training in place to allow the students to reach their full potential. The study will pinpoint a particular school in a rural area north-east of Perth, Western Australia, which has had an ESU for 22 years and was closed at the end of 1994. The study will include a questionnaire from the teachers and interviews with students with learning disabilities and their parents who have been affected by the closure.


In a rural area about two hours north-east of Perth WA, there is a large district high school from K to Year 10 which has been in operation since 1945. The first special education school in the district was set up in the Uniting Church Hall and catered for about 25 children including some that lived outside the immediate town. In 1952 the unit was relocated at the local District High School as a demountable building with two rooms separated by a verandah area. The unit was self sufficient, having its own Principal and trained special educators, separate from the District High School (DHS). Resources were good and disabled services such as Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists and Psychologists Services were readily available to support the school. Until 1983 the unit supported 100 students, coming from the DHS for remedial learning and catering for about 5-6 students who were above average. At the moment there are about 10-15 of the above average students who are catered for by the Primary Extension and Academic Challenge known as PEAC. These students meet and work at the school with other students from surrounding schools who are transported in regularly to give them opportunities to have their knowledge extended beyond the normal curriculum. The other students at the centre were offered Direct Instruction in Reading, Spelling, Comprehension and Maths.

There were about 25 permanent students who were later integrated for afternoon sessions at the DHS for whatever subjects were being conducted at the time, eg Art, Music, Sport and maybe Social Studies or Science. These sessions were conducted in the presence of an aide who went with the students for the afternoon. Members of the community came in on a regular basis to add voluntary support for the students' learning programs. A fully equipped hostel was built at about the same time as the ESU and could accommodate nine students, who were brought in from surrounding areas, staying during the week to attend school and returning to their parents for weekends and holidays. There were a number of permanent students at the unit and other students from the main school were sent down to have remedial training in their weakest areas of learning.

In 1992 the ESU became incorporated into the main building as one room as the number of students with disabilities gradually dwindled to about 10 with some still coming occasionally from the other classes. This brought the students closer to the main school and inclusion, as they spent some of their day in the normal classroom and the remainder in the ESU. The students were from various levels and had varying disabilities. Two were dyspraxic, so a special computer was bought for them to allow them to communicate with others. Some had learning disabilities in reading, maths and general basic skills. There were no totally disabled students at this time.

The introduction and closure of the ESU appears to have been in relation to the number of students needing special programs and the amount of money available to finance the program. At the moment there are too few students and therefore seemingly it has become too costly to run a separate unit for them and it has become more cost efficient to include these students in the mainstream classes. This leaves the question of how these students are coping with a regular curriculum and if they are achieving as well as they would if they were in the ESU?(My observations and enquiries of local community members, school librarian, office staff, teaching aides and historical accounts of the way it was, 1996.)


Following is an account of research from several overseas countries and that of Australian schools and how each deals with students with disabilities.

It is the belief of some researchers that ESU's might become the dumping ground for students who are difficult to teach and possibly do not have true learning disabilities (Wang, 1989; Yates, 1988 in Gersten & Woodward, 1990). According to these researchers the Regular Education Initiative (REI) of the United States of America calls for a merger of resources between special education and general education and therefore a more clear definition of learning disabilities has to be addressed to form a consensus of what the term "learning disabled" means. Gersten & Woodward, (1990) say that a clear definition does not exist and there have been too many discrepancies in standardised tests over the years. Some students who have high IQs and low achievement levels are being given places in special programs, while others who have low IQs are being passed over because their achievement levels are slightly higher and this means they do not qualify for remedial programs when they really need them (Reynolds et al, 1987 in Gersten & Woodward, 1990).

The REI in the USA expects students with special needs to follow a double curriculum. One in a special education class, where the classes are smaller, where the curriculum is skills oriented and the students work at a slower pace with more guidance. The other is in the normal classroom where teachers do not have time or expertise to deal with the one-to-one instruction evident in the special education setting. Gersten and Woodward, (1990) ask why so many students are called on to deal with a dual curriculum which often leads to confusion and a false sense of progress. The calls for change have not been accepted without resistance from parents and classroom teachers because of the concern from special educators who believe that regular educators have neither the attitude or instructional capabilities to adequately meet the needs of students with disabilities (Davis, 1989 in Gersten & Woodward, 1990). Also the large amounts of time wasted in travelling to and from the resource room leaves the students with no cohesiveness from one lesson to another because sometimes they have to pull-out halfway through a lesson and, because the teacher is already busy with other students they have no one to direct them into productive activities (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1989).

Westwood, (1991) stated that in some Australian states the Educational authorities are closing down ESU's at an alarming rate and only focussing on about 5% of the population who have the most obvious learning and significant disabilities. Those who have less obvious learning or adjustment problems are being viewed by administrators and policy makers as the total responsibility of the general classroom teachers even though they have no training to teach students with disabilities. According to Kaufmann, (1989) in Westwood, (1991) it appears that the current changes are not wanted by classroom teachers or parents and he asks what is the logic of a policy that argues that regular schools should take responsibility again for students that the system has already failed to educate. Westwood, (1991) says that the REI in North America is now expressing most serious doubts that the motives behind their policy is feasible and is totally changing the nature of the special education delivery. If it is not working in North America then why is Australia, who has a history of living to regret adopting overseas trends, continuing to bring in the changes? All of the present initiatives seem to be at odds with the Australian Curriculum Development centres statement that any child with special needs, or who requires extra help for whatever period of time, becomes a client of special education (Curriculum Development Centre, 1985 in Westwood, 1991).

According to Westwood, (1991) there is no evidence that teachers are now better able to cater for an ever widening ability range in their classrooms and asks whether there must be more individualised programming within the regular classroom. Should teachers give serious consideration to finding daily curricular activities which are inclusive of children across a wide ability range? If the trend to use the same curriculum continues then the attainment levels of the students will be at a much lower level than if the special education services are retained because the activities will be aimed at the lower level students and higher level students will have to work at a slower pace. Teachers cannot teach effectively if they do not have the training and resources to implement varied and individualised programs (Westwood, 1991).

Stevenson and Stigler, (1992) found that research done in Japan and China, claiming that children in these countries did not have the reading disabilities that are highly evident in American schools, were later proven to be unfounded and the percentage between the countries was found to be similar. The differences were explained as the way parents, teachers and children thought about "disabilities" in a different way. Americans tended to attribute children's academic successes and failures to inborn abilities or disabilities.

The Asians attributed theirs more to environmental factors and their children's own effort to learn as an explanation of school performance. The diagnosis of disability varies between Asia and the USA. Cultural assumptions and medical evidence are commonly used in the USA to determine whether children with reading difficulties are to be diagnosed as having minimal brain dysfunction (MBD) or are in the attention deficit disorder category (ADD). The children are subjected to both physiological and psychological testing. Once a diagnosis has been made it is assumed that children with learning disabilities are physically different to their peers and are consequently separated from them and given special kinds of educational experiences. There are two extremes to this thinking. What becomes of children who are gifted and have no learning disabilities as opposed to those who are not and have problems? What happens to children with emotional problems, hyperactive children, mildly retarded children and children from many other categories who may have ability to learn, but find that their problems get in the way of learning and advancement? Separating these children from their peers and providing special education for them becomes very costly both financially and emotionally (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992).

In most Asian communities the idea of special education has never been popular and special classes or schools only exist for obvious handicapped groups such as the blind, profoundly deaf or severely retarded children. Others who have learning difficulties are routinely placed in the mainstream Japanese and Chinese classrooms. The reasoning is that they believe that the differences among children are not great enough to warrant the allocation of funds for special programs. Chinese and Japanese societies allow no excuses for lack of progress in school. Advancement is believed to be available through more effort from the students and high scores on a test are interpreted as a sign of diligence, but conversely a low score on tests would never be regarded as a sign of stupidity. It is simply an indication that the student has not yet learned to be more persistent and hard working in his/her learning pattern. In this report there was no indication or evidence to say what happens to the children in Asian schools who have learning disabilities and whether they eventually succeed in graduating with their peers or whether they fail (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992).

American educators on the other hand put much emphasis on innate abilities and because of this their children believe that their high ability is enough to insure success and therefore they have no reason to put the extra effort into their own learning to improve their test results. Low ability students also doubt that they can achieve through continued effort and therefore have no reason to work hard as they believe they will not improve anyway. American children with learning difficulties, because of their self-fulfilling prophecies and low expectations, finish their education with inadequate skills and insufficient knowledge for finding employment. Stevenson and Stigler, (1992) state that because of the American emphasis on innate abilities the pursuit of public education is being undermined at all levels.

All public authority departments in Western Australia, under the Disability Services Act, (WA No. 36 of 1993), are required to prepare and implement a disability service plan. It has to be a document that outlines how they will ensure that people with disabilities and their representatives have access to department buildings, facilities and services. The DSA defines a disability as one which is attributable to an intellectual, cognitive, neurological, sensory or physical impairment or a combination of those impairments; one that is permanent or likely to be permanent; one which may or may not be of a chronic or episodic nature; and one which results in a substantially reduced capacity of the person for communication, social interaction, learning or mobility and a need for continuing support services.

The Education Ministry of WA has devised a 77 page Disability Services Plan (DSP) in consultation with a reference group drawn from various education department personnel, representatives from key organisations in the disability area and a parent representative. The plan was produced in 1995 and outlines the objectives and strategies to be put into place to overcome the various barriers of those people with disabilities. The Disabilities Service Plan looked at the adaptation of existing services, access to buildings and facilities, information about facilities and services, public consultation, grievance mechanisms and the decision making process. Many concerns were expressed by schools, parents, students, teacher and interested persons about the lack of facilities for those with disabilities. Some of these included accessible toilets, physical access, reception desks, parking and the lack of appropriate signs.

The main concern was the barrier identified in relation to school educational programs and the lack of knowledge and skills of some teachers and their inability to modify the curriculum and provide specialist programs. As this study is about the closure of a facility, why does the Access Policy Statement of the plan emphasise that it is committed to provide resources necessary to implement the strategies outlined in the plan and that the DSP will promote the implementation of the policy without compromising or disadvantaging students or schools, when it continues to close centres and withdraw support? If a centre has been operation for twenty two years and there are still students who are in need of special programs, then is the department remiss in its duty of care to these students?

The Education Department in WA provides education to over 250 000 students in 770 schools and employs 30 000 teaching and non-teaching staff. Of 250,000 students approximately 4,300 have intellectual disabilities and physical or sensory impairments. Should the department attempt to provide them with a quality education which best meets their individual needs or should they withdraw all aid and mainstream all students with learning disabilities no matter into which category they fit? If they do, can they then develop the understanding, skills and attitudes relevant to individual needs to fulfil their potential through a regular curriculum?

Among the nine principles set out by the DSP there is one that states that people with disabilities have the same rights as other members of society to realise their individual capacities for physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development. Does this mean that if a student is placed in a normal classroom that the teacher is bound to provide a program of all of the above for the student or does it mean that he/she will receive none of these and have to struggle with a curriculum beyond their capabilities? In another Education Department publication, Social Justice in Education for students with Disabilities, the introduction states that it is recognised that students with an intellectual disability are capable of realising much higher levels of achievement than was previously believed possible. The policy is supposed to address the needs of all students including those with disabilities. What assistance do they give when some schools and parents express concern about students who are experiencing difficulty in progressing through the regular curriculum? (Social Justice in Education, 1995)

The policy lists several services that they claim to provide. The important one for this study is the Education Support Units which are said to be located on regular school campuses and generally cater for students with less severe disabilities and in country areas these units cater for the full range of students with intellectual disabilities. There is also supposed to be a visiting teacher service which takes over when a country area loses its support centre. In this case support is supposed to be provided in the form of a visiting teacher service similar to the isolated rural schools service, supporting teachers and students, assisting with specialised equipment, individual programs, curriculum adjustment, teaching aids and building modifications. Schools do not have to find the money to fund this assistance as financial grants are available to provide assistance and teacher aide time which is allocated on a needs basis in the management of individual students and their educational programs (Social Justice in Education, 1995).

If all this help is available then why are schools taking students with obvious intellectual disabilities and learning difficulties and placing them in a normal classroom where they may not be able to achieve their potential and, have to compete for time with more able students, instead of applying for the special services when the ESU has closed down? It seems there must be some confusion between schools and the department. The timeline for most of the strategies in the DSP extend into the year 2000; are ongoing and cover such things as professional development for teachers and administrators, therefore changing the attitude of teachers where parents are concerned, by listening to and developing parent/teacher partnerships, for the advancement of the students' education from their induction into school (Disability Service Plan, 1995).

Slaven, Madden, Karweit, Dolan, Wasik, Shaw, Mainzer, and Haxby, (1991) say that to overcome the problem of not knowing whether to mainstream students with mild academic handicaps, who are usually identified as learning disabled, would be to improve the capacity of the general classroom teacher to accommodate the needs of students of wide ranging abilities, by giving teachers new programs and skills. Some students with learning disabilities have been at risk long before the problem becomes evident. Critical mental and physical skills may not have been developed during the early years before the child arrived at kindergarten. Some of the lack of skills may be attributed to toddler health care, parent training and the lack of early stimulation programs for at-risk toddlers. The important concept underlying neverstreaming as cited by Slavin et al, 1991 is that instructional programs need to start with success for the student and continue to maintain that success at each critical stage of development. There must be an assurance that first grade students go on to higher grades being well on their way to success in reading and other critical skills. To formulate this success effective pre-school programs; effective first grade instruction and curriculum programs; family support programs to ensure parental support of the school's goals; one-to-one tutoring or other intensive interventions, must be in place for students who have difficulty in reading. If students are not competent in skills each year, then monitoring their progress to improve regular classroom instruction and intervention in the form of organising school and non-school resources that go alongside the curriculum, should maintain students at a performance level that systematically prevents them from becoming academically handicapped.

According to Slavin et al, (1991) there will always be a need for high levels of special education services, especially for those who are retarded or severely emotionally disturbed, eg autism, physical, speech or language deficits. The neverstream school is feasible if the schools recognise that prevention and intervention can be used to keep students in early grades from falling behind by providing specially trained teachers to give additional time each day separate from the regular reading time to students with difficulties. Evidence shows that reading failure is a key element of the profile of most students identified as learning disabled (Slavin et al, 1991). The effect of the neverstreaming method of teaching would allow the focus of special education to return its emphasis to more severely impaired students and those truly in need of special services (O'Neil, 1994-5).

Sapon-Shevin, (1994-95) says that educators should recognise that there is a need to create schools and classrooms that meet the needs of all children, with more innovative and creative ways of providing services so that students can be prepared to be members of a broader community. Kaufmann in O'Neil (1994-95) argues that Sapon-Shevin is supporting a method that has no sound research and that may not be effective for instructing all students with learning and behaviour problems or other disabilities. He does agree with Sapon-Shevin that inclusion should be the "default" setting for schools while looking at ways to make it appropriate so that parents and teachers will believe that the practices adequately meet the needs of the students. At the moment teachers and parents do not believe inclusion works. He says there has to be control over inclusion so that it is not poorly implemented and pushed to destructive extremes resulting in more, not less students needing to be separated from their peers.

The questions that arise from this discussion are difficult to answer. Should our educational facilities follow the Japanese model and place students with intellectually or learning disabled or those at risk, straight into mainstream classes from day one, and hope that they achieve? Should special educational units be provided in order to separate the disabled students from their peers where specially trained educators can give them the correct basic training and skills so that they can join their peers at a higher level using the special services provided by the education authorities? How can we ensure that the learning disabled students will be safe within schools and not have to be at the receiving end of taunts, bullying, abuse and neglect? In an article in the West Australian newspaper issue on September 14, 1996 Catherine Fitzpatrick reported on the problem of some disabled students having been physically and sexually abused by their peers. A $50 000 national project has been launched to identify discrimination of disabled students by their peers. The senior project officer, Ms Flynn from the National Children's and Youth Law Centre said that the problems highlighted a lack of resources to support students with disabilities. A phone-in was to be conducted as part of the project on the 15 September 1996 in conjunction with the Federal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to allow students and their parents or carers to report any discriminatory experiences they may have had. The project was to recommend ways that schools, governments and complaints organisations can stamp out discrimination against students with disabilities. Many parents were complaining that they had trouble getting their children into mainstream schools because of lack of access ramps and other facilities to cater for children with physical disabilities. Law Centre chairwoman, Moira Rayner said the failure to provide adequate education for students with disabilities was a damning indictment of school systems and the governments which funded them. From this, is there enough support going into schools to support students with a disability? These questions are difficult to answer simply because there are so many different levels of disability and therefore can parents of children with learning disabilities call for and expect to have the best facilities and education supplied for their children so they are equal at their own level with the mainstream students?


The study consisted of a questionnaire and interviews which asked pertinent questions of teachers who deal with students with disabilities in the normal classroom each day. The interviews were with students with disabilities who have had experience in an ESU, and their parents who have had to deal with the disability problems from the beginning of their child's school life or earlier. The purpose of the study was to try to determine whether students with learning difficulties were able to cope with the pressures of being in a mainstream classroom; learning through a normal curriculum; peer pressure in social situations; group activities; and playground socialisation. Research questions included the history of the students; childhood developments; how the parents dealt with problems as they arose and what if any solutions are available to solve problems that arise from inclusion into mainstream classes.


An approach to the school in the form of a letter of permission to conduct the study produced six teachers, 3 male and 3 female, who were willing to fill out a questionnaire. Of these 5 were from the senior classes and 1 from the primary area. One of the female teachers was a roving teacher for both primary and senior classes who works part time with students with disabilities. Other subjects were two students who had attended the ESU and are now in the mainstream classes and their parents. One of the students in particular is one that I personally tutor twice weekly after school and have done since 1964, and is now struggling to cope with Year 8 work. His prior experience has been with the ESU from the commencement of school. The second student has also attended an ESU throughout his schooling and is now in Year 6. A special education teacher is available and helps the ESU students in the classroom occasionally in some subjects, mainly Maths and English. Sometimes an aide takes them out of class to another room to work individually. The parents filled out a profile interview paper of the students' development from birth. These interviews were informal and a general list of questions were used and expanded during the conversation.


Most of the teachers answered 98.5% of the questions. The questions that were not answered were those that did not apply to particular teachers. The first four questions, separate from the main questionnaire, related to general enquiries about whether the teachers were involved with students with disabilities; whether their training had relevance to working with children with special needs; whether they had sufficient training to meet the students' needs and whether they had attempted to provide remedial programs for the students. 83% had students with disabilities, who had previously attended the ESU, in their classroom. 66% said their teacher training had relevance to working with children with special needs. One teacher had actually chosen to do one unit at college as it was not in the training course. 50% said they had sufficient training in other areas than remedial to adequately meet the needs of the students, while 50% said they had not. 100% said that they had attempted to provide remedial programs for the students. These four questions only required a yes/no answer. The other twenty questions required full sentence answers.

Question 1 asked about the problems experienced in providing for the ever widening ability range in the classroom. Teachers made comments such as time; difficulty achieving attention that each student deserves as ESU students need constant advising; it is becoming more difficult to "stretch" yourself to all the students' needs; it is difficult for low achieving students to maintain motivation; many problems when normal and ESU students are in the one class, but because of the small classes in a country school it is possible to provide for all students. If classes were larger it would be impossible because of time and no training experience. One teacher said that this question was an assumption because according to him/her ESU students had always been integrated. The consensus here is that some students who were less disabled were integrated and they were following a dual curriculum.

In Question 2 all teachers said that they had no problems in gaining support from the school administration for students with disabilities, with one commenting that teacher aide time is not realistically available, (two supplied for the whole school).

Only one teacher in Question 3 expressed experiencing problems with District Office (DO) services for students with disabilities, saying that sometimes services were unavailable on demand so delays were inevitable. The DO is about 150 km west of this school. Another said that support from the DO was limited, sometimes as little as half a day a fortnight, infrequently. Other teachers had not approached the DO for services and expected no problems if they were to try.

Responses from Question 4 highlighted the problems students with disabilities have of being able to follow a mainstream curriculum and failing to achieve. Some of the comments were: they are left sitting unable to follow the lesson and only work if a teacher aide is present or the class teacher notices their need to have help; they get left behind the mainstream often due to lower reading ability and sometimes through laziness because they are not constantly monitored and so do nothing; they also get left behind and miss out on whole chunks of basic skills and knowledge; in a unit curriculum based course coverage of objectives is often perceived as a higher priority than student learning, therefore students with disabilities get left behind and learn very little. The primary teacher appeared to think that presenting the concept again would solve the problem, while another teacher believed that nothing would happen and that students with disabilities would just take longer to understand the concepts presented.

The question on the problems, Question 5, of students with disabilities working in group situation with normal students brought negative results except for the teacher who said that the students with disabilities adjusted very well and that the normal students gave them support. Other comments were totally opposite to this teacher's view. Some said that students with disabilities did not participate in group activities readily; "normal" students are sometimes unwilling to have these students in their groups because they feel it decreases the group's success level and that normal students are inclined to do all the work themselves rather than asking the disabled student to contribute; normal students get sick of making allowances; normal students can be distracted; they spend their own time helping disabled students to their own detriment; normal students sometimes exclude disabled students in the rush to get work done and sometimes normal students can be verbally cruel; also some students with disabilities are unwilling or too embarrassed to work in groups in case the other students tease them about their ideas.

The problems experienced in relation to attention levels of students with disabilities in Question 6 revealed that it is difficult to maintain attention levels especially in High School classes where the work is usually beyond the students capabilities; provided the tasks are meaningful and they can do them - very little; very short; attention wanders so they can't keep up especially during note-taking and are usually better during oral presentations; students with disabilities are unable to concentrate for long periods of time (40 mins) especially if the task is difficult; and attention levels are low.

Question 7 addressed behaviour problems but because the school is low in numbers, behaviour problems are minimal and able to be handled with ease. The only problem encountered is that of keeping disabled students on track during activities in the classroom.

All but one teacher in Question 8 agreed that it is difficult to place students with disabilities in the social organisation of the classroom (ie seating arrangements) as it is sometimes difficult to convince normal students that they have to accept the disabled students and treat them as equals and as a class or group member; the normal students don't want to work or sit with them; primary students accept them more readily than high school students; and normal students make distinctions between those with disabilities and who they will accept or exclude.

The problems observed in Question 9 in playground socialising is the difficulty that disabled students have integrating with normal students; some tend to be isolated by choice or mix with much younger students; normal students can be embarrassed by the loudness and immaturity of disabled students so isolation is again evident; teasing is a factor along with a lack of acceptance and patience. At this particular school and in this particular area (country), the ESU students appear to be on the whole well accepted.

Most of the teachers, in Question 10, except for two had never heard of early intervention or could not compare it with any other concept. One commented that there would be social problems as the tendency to label students with disabilities is high. The other said that because the disabled students at this school have been in the ESU for a long period of time there were realistically few problems that could have been avoided by early intervention.

Question 11 asked about peer tutoring. Students with disabilities achieving more from having peer tutoring did not seem to be a concept that was accepted readily as all teachers agreed that it depended on the ability of the peers to co-operate with the disabled students. Some comments were that it would put too much pressure on peers and they would and already do resent it; the primary teacher just said yes, seemingly the concept is different in high school where students appear to be more independent; normal students feel that they are being slowed down by the disabled students especially in high school; some students do help with disabled students without resenting it, but they are few; and if the gap is 20-25 points below average it seems impossible.

For Question 12 the teachers thought that success of students with disabilities did not have any relevance to more effective teaching methods because the problem of the ratio of staff to students needing 'concentrated' assistance was low at this school; the content of programs being too difficult for students to comprehend; teaching methods not being relevant to the particular situation and not enough time and class support. One teacher thought that it would work as he/she would have more appropriate and varied learning/teaching strategies to implement.

Question 13, the matter of spending more time with students with disabilities would appear to give them success if it did not have a detrimental effect on the normal students or time constraints were not a problem. According to most of the teachers modifying work to the disabled level would work if the difficulties could be explained as they arose; again time would be a problem; there would definitely be an improvement if it taught self-reliance and not dependency; self-esteem and outcomes would rise especially with basic objectives.

The teachers thought that the question of modifying the curriculum (Q14) for the students with disabilities would give a much improved sense of learning success of the students, but sensitivity needs to be addressed in the light that students with disabilities do not like to be seen as different. According to the majority of the teachers the curriculum must display qualities of similar concepts as those used for normal students. One teacher said that limited success could be expected but only under a trained remedial teacher and not in the mainstream class. Most expected that learning outcomes would improve.

Question 15 addressed the problem of the amount of teacher aide time that was available and whether increasing it would bring success. The only successes that could be seen with increased teaching aide time would be that it would only work if the aide time was 100% and not as it is now with students having limited time each week in some subjects.

Question 16 was about the frustration that students with disabilities feel when they are faced with concepts that they know they cannot overcome because of their learning or reading disabilities. Most teachers said that students with disabilities would have a better feeling about school, their own ability and improvement of skill levels if they did not have to compete at the normal curriculum level. Two asked if there had been an assumption made and whether these students really are frustrated, because according to them the disabled students want to do what the normal students are doing, even though underneath they realise they are not capable. Another said if full-time aides were available the disabled students could use the normal curriculum, which to this teacher seemed fine.

Self-concept problems of students with disabilities, in Question 17, is usually low so if this was lifted in some way there would be an expectation of these students being marginally successful and according to some of the teachers it would produce greater learning outcomes because the students would be more prepared to have a go even at a lower level. One teacher said that there was no direct link between self-esteem and increased academic success. The others presumed there would be better outcomes.

Problems with future employment prospects in Question 18 were thought by the teachers to be limited, most indicating that minimal, repetitive or assembly line work with little variation so that the students would feel comfortable in the role of their choosing. Prospects of employment within the local community would be enhanced by the fact that the local employers accept and are aware of these students and would try to accommodate them in some way if possible. Some students live on farms in the district and therefore can look forward to working on their parents' farms. These students also have life skills which the school has enhanced in some way so they are able to do simple tasks outside the school.

The reasons given for the closure of the ESU in Question 19 were varied. The decrease in the number of students with needs in the community; the closure of the local hostel; the inclusion of students in the mainstream classrooms; the numbers game - financial reasons; and students from other towns who formerly came to the unit being encouraged to stay within their own local school community.

In Question 20 the reasons teachers gave to support or reject the re-introduction of the ESU were that the students with disabilities would have more specialised instruction; for the students' successful learning of basic, very necessary skills that need constantly revising; social equity demands that these students are given the best chance to succeed, ie full time aides and separate classes/programs. 50% of the teachers did not think that the ESU should be re-introduced. One said that the model of ESUs needs reviewing because a separate centre/unit is not always appropriate even though it probably increases outcomes but has a detrimental effect on social outcomes.

Results of student interview

The two subjects chosen for an interview were two male students. One in Year 8 who has had a history of learning problems before he began school and the other in Year 6 who has had a similar history. They both agreed that they knew that they had learning problems but were able to learn some things such as how to play board games and some basic maths concepts. Reading appeared to be a problem to both. They agreed that they needed a special educational program but neither wanted to return to the ESU and thought being in a normal classroom was more acceptable. They did not like to join into group activities as they felt intimidated by the normal students. The Year 8 student thought that the normal students accepted his opinion when working in a group situation while the Year 6 said that they didn't. Neither student had trouble with playground socialisation. The Year 6 student said that he was receiving plenty of help from the classroom teacher. The Year 8 student felt that the teachers were not really aware of his problems and did not give him the help that he thought he was entitled to. He also said that the teachers became angry and spoke loudly to him when he could not understand the concepts they were presenting. He did not feel that he needed special treatment but he would prefer to have a modified program that he could cope with. In answer to the question of whether they enjoyed going to school both said no mainly because of the learning problems they both experienced. Neither student likes being at school. They feel that they are not receiving the help they need from the teachers or the system. The Year 8 student has become angry with the whole idea of gaining and education as he thinks that the system has not done enough for him to make it possible to gain employment of his own choosing when he leaves school. He considers that going to school is just a formality until he turns 15 so he does not try to do the work in the classroom. His latest trick in the classroom is to sit with his file closed so that he does not have to work. The teachers are saying that they do not have time to keep on at him about it so it looks like he will continue to go through the motions of being at school for another two years until he can leave. The Year 6 student has not really thought about what will happen to him in the future but says he will probably become a shearer because that is what his father does. His father is already talking about taking him out to the sheds on a Saturday as soon as he is strong enough to be a roustabout.

Results of parent interview

The parents of two learning disabled students were asked about the history of the development of their children from birth and as to whether they thought they had developed normally. Both said that their child had been a normal active baby and had shown no signs of abnormality until they started to crawl, walk and talk. When these stages were reached problems appeared. The Year 8 student did not crawl with cross patterning and moved around on his bottom. He began walking later than most babies and did not start talking until after 12 months and then it was discovered that there was a speech problem. Communication with other children was very limited because he lived on a farm. This student attended pre-school at age 4. There it was found that he had problems with small and large motor activities, eg cutting with scissors, pasting pictures etc, balance, skipping, hopping etc.

As he grew he had problems with co-ordination, tying his shoelaces, using a knife and fork, rhythmic movements, balancing, catching a ball and reversing the letters "d" and "b" and various words. His confidence was lacking in all areas and he was not able to tolerate stress and had a low self-esteem. These problems appear to be atypical of vestibular bilateral integration dysfunction which is caused by a problem in the vestibular system of the brain where the two sides of the brain are not communicating effectively with each other and neither side of the brain has specialised to master a skill - both sides are attempting to carry out the same function with less favourable results (Oxford Child Development Group, 1995). The organisation tested this student on the Permobil Eyetrack Recorder in January this year (1996) and found that his problem did not seem to relate to visual problems.

Testing was carried out on this student at the end of his pre-school year by the DO and it was decided to place him in the ESU from Year 1. Although he is now right-handed he did have confusion when doing activities between left and right. He has always lacked confidence in his abilities mainly through shyness. His speech problems were addressed in Year 1 and he attended a visiting speech therapist regularly until Year 5. The therapy was recommenced in Year 7 so that he could try to overcome his speech problems before going on to high school where peer pressure and teasing could become a problem and further interfere with his learning.

Despite the overall efforts of his parents and teachers this student had problems in all areas of learning which tended to frustrate him badly. He could not grasp maths concepts, his reading and writing skills were poor so subjects such as Social Studies, Science and creative writing were activities that he could not do or enjoy. Instructions had to be given to him in a simplified manner and one at a time as he could not follow a sequence.

A Whesk test was carried out on this student as late as third term this year which shows that he falls well below the level of an average student into the 2.2 percentile at -2 standard deviation which categorises him as intellectually disabled. All his scores on the scaled scores for Verbal and Performance subtests were below the average of 9, 10 and 11.

The parents have often requested the teachers and the DO to help resolve this student's problems. Although it seemed on the surface help was being given the parents have felt frustrated when it has been shown that not much was achieved. The parents also feel frustration because they think that their son should have a properly supervised modified program to work with in the normal classroom because he is now in Year 8 there is not enough time left to gain enough knowledge and skills to be able to have a career of his own choosing (Parents of Year 8 Student).

The Year 6 student has about the same pattern of growth as the Year 8 student except that he did develop cross pattern crawling. He is left handed and still has problems deciding which hand to use. His speech did not develop until he was two and he had to be assessed and treated by a therapist. He has been diagnosed as being hyperactive and having ADD. His self-esteem is low and he resorts to tantrums when he becomes frustrated and can't do activities. The school authorities have not helped him as much as the parents would like mainly because they have not approached the school to seek help. They find the child's problems frustrating but still think he should be in a normal classroom so he does not appear to be different to other students. They agreed that he needs a special program so he can work at his own pace and feels some satisfaction in any achievement. They thought that he would not gain enough knowledge and skills to be able to have a career of his own choosing if his learning continued on as it is now. (Parents of Year 6 Student).


The teachers' attitudes to students with disabilities being integrated into mainstream classrooms especially at the high school level appears to be one of helplessness as they do not have the time or expertise to deal with the immense problems that these students have. They do not think that the students should follow a dual curriculum or be put into a separate unit, but should have a modified program of their own with full teacher aide support for each student.

Normal students' attitudes to students with disabilities were lacking in cooperation during group work and in social situations. Group situation learning for students with disabilities is not conducive to the benefit of them and it is obvious that the normal students will not accept them as peers because they believe that their grades will suffer by their presence. No amount of convincing or pleas to accept them is going to change the attitudes of normal students.

Teachers found it difficult to maintain good attention levels with these students because of time constraints so have mainly left them to sit in the classroom sometimes doing nothing for much of the period. The teachers in the normal classroom do not have time or expertise to change the way they teach so that students with disabilities could have a slight chance of understanding the concepts presented. As it is now most of these students are so far behind that they do not have any idea of higher learning because they have not grasped the basic concepts in most of the learning areas.

Accessing aid from the DO is sometimes difficult mainly because the DO is an hour away (100 km) and has an extremely wide spread area, servicing 24 schools from District High Schools to two teacher schools in an area of approximately 200 km square, so time and distance limits the number of visits a school can have in a year. Sometimes it may take more than a term to resolve problems unless they are extremely urgent and pressing.

Socially and academically these results show that students with disabilities need a curriculum that has been modified to their needs so that they can achieve at their own level and feel comfortable about being in a normal classroom, to feel that they are useful class members when a separate unit cannot be supplied for them. Whether the reasons for closing the unit were financial or the lack of trained staff to supervise, these students will always have difficulty fitting in with the normal students, the curriculum and the general atmosphere of a normal classroom. The recommendations are that the whole system of remedial teaching be reviewed to help schools, teachers and the curriculum to allow these students to have equal opportunity to learn and to become productive members of society instead of joining the 30% of students who have recently been reported to be leaving school illiterate and therefore mostly unemployable. Equal opportunity to learn is not happening in this particular school at the moment because of the problems the teachers are encountering in providing special programs for the current students and the lack of sufficient teacher aide support. Next year, 1997, will see a further set of problems when the Educational Support teacher who goes to all classrooms will no longer be at the school so this will diminish aide support further.

Overall this study showed that the teachers, students and parents thought that the ESU should not be reinstated and that the students could achieve if their program was modified to suit their ability levels and they were allowed to work at their own pace. It also showed that the system needs updating and more financial assistance is necessary to support the resources and programs needed to help all students with disabilities.


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Author: Margaret Sutherland was born in Dubbo in 1937. She has lived in Sydney for 10 years in Papua-New Guinea for 10 years, and in Malaysia and Queensland. Currently she lives on a farm in the central wheatbelt of Western Australia and is employed as a relief teacher in surrounding schools. She has two children and is currently enrolled in a Masters degree at Edith Cowan University in Perth, specialising in the study of children with special needs. Email:

Please cite as: Sutherland, M. (2001). Why are students with disabilities failing? Is mainstreaming the cause? Issues In Educational Research, 11(1), 41-61.

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