Teachers can shape the future of students with disability

On International Day of People with Disability, one of Australia’s greatest athletes Kurt Fearnley talks about his experience with public education as a student, teacher and parent.

03 December 2020
Photo of male wearing a blue and white checked shirt with a running track in the background.
Image: Kurt Fearnley acknowledges the role his teachers played in setting him on a pathway to success.

Teachers are critical in the lives of students with disability and through their interactions have the potential to change the course of these young people’s lives, disability advocate and one of Australia’s greatest athletes, Kurt Fearnley says.

Mr Fearnley, a three-time Paralympic gold medallist, joined Secretary Mark Scott on the Every Student Podcast to share his experience with the public education system and what learning opportunities should be provided for all students to flourish at school.

A graduate of the NSW public education system, Mr Fearnley has often credited the important role his teachers played in setting him on the pathway to success.

“There are quite a few pivotal moments in life where a teacher or educator was able to stand in and gently push me in the direction that I believed I needed to go,” he said.

Starting Kindergarten in 1985, Mr Fearnley was originally going to be transported to attend a special school in Orange, about 50 minutes away from his family home in Carcoar, until the local school principal stepped in and took measures to ensure Kurt could attend his local public school.

“He [the principal] said that I deserved to go to Carcoar Public, that he deserved to teach me, the kids deserved to have me, and my brothers and sisters deserved to have me in the same school as them,” Mr Fearnley recalled.

Moving to Blayney High School, Mr Fearnley experienced similar support with one teacher spending her lunchtimes finding contacts at Wheelchair Sports NSW when Kurt began to feel isolated by his differences, particularly highlighted by sport.

“That teacher and the advice I received from such community-minded public education teachers is the reason I would become a teacher,” he said.

“There was a real appreciation of the value and the powerful contribution that public education plays in the lives, especially in the lives of people that are potentially marginalised.”

Training to be a PDHPE teacher, Mr Fearnley found the Bachelor of Human Movement and Bachelor of Education helpful to understand more about his body for training and understanding how to learn.

Mr Fearnley faced a few challenges in his degree including being told he would fail as he wasn’t able to participate in volleyball – a requirement to pass the degree.

“My argument was that if I can learn how to teach, if I know the practical elements, then I think that I should be able to get through it,” he said.

“Those moments for people with disability, unless you are a fierce advocate of yourself, can be pretty crushing.”

Mr Fearnley has also dealt with the negative aspects of having a celebrity profile and being an advocate of people with disability, receiving hate mail when he speaks out about progressing the lives of people with disability.

He credited his family with helping him through his vulnerabilities as a child and saw his role now to help others in that same vulnerable position.

Looking at the history of NSW public education, Mr Scott admitted the needs of students with disability had not always been well met.

However, he said a renewed focus through the Disability Strategy was helping to improve teacher capability and embedding inclusion in all areas of school life.

As an advocate of increased participation of students with disability, Mr Fearnley said he was conscious of the impact that could have on his two children who are without disability.

“I want my kids to be in the same room of every variation of disability, they deserve it,” Mr Fearnley said.

“That kid, my kid, deserves to experience all different types of behaviours, all different types of life experiences so that they understand somewhat the privilege of life and a variation of life.

“From an advocacy point of view, the hardest-working people in our country are public education teachers ... by far the majority want to make the lives of people with disability better, but they are also the critical part of the creation of a high-functioning, contributing person with disability.”

Listen to the full episode now:

Read the transcript of Every Student Podcast: Kurt Fearnley.

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