New Zealand is a country of 4.2 million people with a record of meeting and often exceeding human rights standards, and of contributing to the development of international human rights treaties and covenants (New Zealand Human Rights Commission 2010). Despite this, exclusion both from and within education is a reality for some children from minority groups, and in particular, disabled students (Kearney, 2011; MacArthur, 2009; New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2010). This paper examines disabled students' right to education in New Zealand, highlighting barriers to the realization of this right. Results from a survey of parents of disabled students who had been excluded and/or marginalized from school are reported and discussed in light of national and international literature.


It is widely accepted that access to education is a basic and fundamental human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states that, "Education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realizing other human rights" (Article 26) (United Nations General Assembly 1948). Education can empower people, reduce inequality and discrimination, break cycles of poverty and oppression; increase tolerance, respect and understanding between different groups of people and reduce conflict (Amnesty International, 2012; New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2010; UNESCO, 2005).

Reports estimate that worldwide, there are approximately 61 million children who cannot access primary school (UNICEF, 2012). For countries carrying the brunt of this statistic, the task of ensuring that children and young people have equal and unrestricted access to education is indeed an enormous one. For countries with more economic prosperity, systems of human rights protection, and resourced and entrenched education systems, this statistic may seem irrelevant and distant from the perceived reality of their situation. New Zealand is one such country where it is supposed that all children can, freely and without discrimination, access quality education. New Zealand is signatory to Human Rights Conventions protecting the rights of children to access free education systems and also has legislation designed to protect the rights of children to attend their local neighborhood school without prejudice or discrimination.

However, despite the perception of 'education for all' and despite legislation and human rights conventions designed to protect the rights of children to access free education, this is not the reality for some children in New Zealand. In particular, exclusion both from and within education is a reality for children from minority groups, with children experiencing exclusion (to a greater or lesser extent) on the basis of ability, gender, social class, ethnicity, sexuality and mental health status (New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2010).

Of these groups, disabled students are particularly vulnerable. Complaints citing discrimination against disabled students within education form a major group of complaints received by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission (New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2009). This phenomenon is not unique to New Zealand — many similar countries around the world report that disabled students do not have equal access to quality education (Booth, 1996) with disabled students being reported as the most likely group to be excluded and marginalized from quality education worldwide (UNESCO, 2005). In response to this, New Zealand, like similar countries is working towards achieving an inclusive education system (Ministry of Education 2010).

Human Rights and Inclusive Education

Inclusive education has been described as a social movement against exclusion and focuses on the restructuring of regular schools so they are better able to respond to the diversity of all students (UNESCO, 2005). Inclusive education seeks to identify the contextual barriers to participation and learning experienced by minority students and to create school systems where all students can meaningfully participate, contribute, and learn. Inclusive education goes much further than mainstreaming or integration and has been described by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child as:

…a set of values, principles and practices that seeks meaningful, effective, and quality education for all students, that does justice to the diversity of learning conditions and requirements not only of children with disabilities, but for all students (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2006, paragraph 67),

Inclusive education is gaining momentum worldwide as the preferred system of education. This is because it is based on the notion of equitable and accessible education for all children and young people, particularly those who have historically been excluded or marginalized from education (UNESCO, 2009).

There is a strong relationship between human rights and inclusive education. Human rights arguments have been instrumental as both the impetus for inclusive education, and the continuing momentum towards it. Similarly, inclusive education has a strong presence in important human rights treaties, conventions and statements.

An important outcome of the International year of Disabled Persons in 1981 was the formulation of the World Programme of Action (WPA) Concerning Disabled Persons, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1982. The message of the WPA was summarized and reflected in the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (United Nations General Assembly, 1993), which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1993. While the Standard Rules are not legally binding, they are intended as a guide to legislation and policy makers to ensure disabled persons have the same rights as non-disabled persons. In relation to education, Rule 6 and associated sub rules set out the educational rights of disabled persons. Of particular relevance to this paper are those rules signalling the importance of disabled students receiving equitable education in integrated settings (United Nations General Assembly 1993, Rule 6).

The focus on integrated settings is reinforced in subsequent sub-rules where it is stipulated that educational authorities are responsible for the education of disabled students in integrated and mainstream settings and that they should ensure there is provision for curriculum flexibility, quality materials and appropriate teacher training and support within these mainstream settings. As if to reinforce the importance of inclusive education, it is pointed out that "in situations where the general school system does not yet [emphasis added] adequately meet the needs of disabled learners; special education may [emphasis added] be considered" (United Nations General Assembly, 1993, p.4).

While articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 recognize the rights of all children to education, The Committee on the Rights of the Child explicitly recognizes the rights of disabled students to receive an inclusive education. The Committee on the Rights of the Child is an independent body of experts who monitor the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and publish their interpretations on the content of this convention. This committee states that inclusive education should be the goal when educating children with disabilities and that state parties, which have not yet begun a program of inclusive education, should introduce the required measures to achieve this goal (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2006).

The principle of inclusive education was endorsed in the Salamanca Statement (UNESCO, 1994) when representatives from 92 countries and 25 international organizations met in Salamanca, Spain to promote the objective of "Education for All." The Salamanca Statement has been described as a "worldwide consensus for inclusive education" (UNESCO, 1994, p. iv). In this statement, the rights of disabled students to access regular schools are reinforced and the understanding that regular schools with inclusive orientations are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes is emphasized (UNESCO, 1994, p. xx).

In 2006, the United Nations General assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (United Nations General Assembly, 2006). As outlined in Article 1, "the purpose of the present Convention is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity" (Article 1). Article 24 of the Convention reinforces the rights of disabled persons to equal opportunities to education without discrimination, and outlines the onus on state parties to ensure an inclusive education (United Nations General Assembly, 2006).

New Zealand

New Zealand is a country of approximately 4.2 million people situated in the south-western Pacific Ocean. In its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) 1 New Zealand was described as a country with high levels of human rights achievement and a commitment to the development of international human rights standards (New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2013). Having joined the United Nations as a founding member in 1945, New Zealand has a history of involvement in the development all of the major treaties beginning with the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights and has ratified most of the major treaties since then.

Education in New Zealand is free, secular and comprises of 13 levels with a compulsory national curriculum from years 1-10. Schooling is compulsory from ages 6-16. There are over 2,500 state schools in New Zealand. Most are taught in English although some schools are taught in Maori language.

Inclusive Education in New Zealand: legislation, policy and practice

The right of disabled students to attend their local neighborhood school is enshrined in New Zealand law. Section 8(1) of the Education Act 1989 confirms that "people who have special educational needs (whether because of a disability or otherwise) have the same rights to enroll and receive education at state schools as people who do not." Similarly, section 57 of the Human Rights Act 1993 makes it unlawful for an educational establishment to: refuse or fail to admit a student; to admit them on less favorable terms and conditions than would otherwise be available; to deny or restrict their access to any benefits or services of the establishment; by reasons of their disability.

As well as legislation, the New Zealand Disability Strategy (Ministry of Health 2001) has been developed as a framework for government agencies to ensure that barriers to the participation of disabled people in New Zealand society are identified and removed. The aim of the strategy is to achieve "a fully inclusive society that highly values the lives of people with disabilities and continually enhances their full participation in society" (Ministry of Health 2001, p. 1). In the New Zealand Disability Strategy, inclusive education is signalled as the preferred system of education for disabled students. The Strategy is specific in highlighting critical aspects of inclusive education such as the importance of disabled students' access to their local regular school; of schools improving their responsiveness to the needs of disabled students; and of appropriate resources, including trained and knowledgeable teachers being available. Each year, the Minister for Disability Issues must report to Parliament the progress in implementing the New Zealand Disability Strategy.

New Zealand education policy also supports the realization of an inclusive education system. Success for All — Every School, Every Child is the NZ Government's work program to achieve a "fully inclusive education system (Ministry of Education 2010, p. 1). The New Zealand Government has set a target of 100 percent of schools demonstrating inclusive practices by 2014. A range of programs have been implemented to achieve this including teacher professional development, school wide positive behavior systems, extra funding supports and a range of school self-review tools. The New Zealand Education Review Office will measure and report on schools' performance in becoming fully inclusive.

The New Zealand Curriculum is a framework designed to give schools direction for learning and teaching (Ministry of Education, 2007) and it provides a strong foundation for inclusive education in New Zealand. It is underpinned by eight key principles, one of which is inclusion. In relation to this principle, the curriculum is described as non-sexist, non-racist, and non-discriminatory, and a curriculum that ensures that students' identities are affirmed and their learning needs addressed (ibid). Similarly the curriculum document outlines the need to encourage students to value equity through fairness and social justice (ibid).

Measuring the Right to Education in New Zealand

Four standards for assessing the achievement of the right to education have been adapted for use in New Zealand in the form of A Right to Education Framework (New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2004; 2010). These were taken from the standards proposed by the late Katerina Tomasevski, the United Nation's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education. These standards are:

  • Availability: ensuring free and compulsory education for all children, educational opportunities that meet the needs of all learners, and appropriately skilled and qualified educators;
  • Accessibility: eliminating discrimination in access to education;
  • Acceptability: focusing on the quality of education and its conformity to minimum human rights standards;
  • Adaptability: ensuring education responds and adapts to the best interests and benefit of the learner in their current and future contexts (New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2010, p. 170).

Availability and accessibility focus on rights to education and acceptability and adaptability on rights in education. Each of these four standards has been used by The New Zealand Human Rights Commission to judge New Zealand's progress towards "education for all." In 2004, in relation to availability, New Zealand was found to be performing well. In terms of accessibility, participation rates for disabled people are disproportionately low. In relation to acceptability, The Human Rights Commission reported that there were disparate standards of education for disabled children and they experienced discrimination, bullying and harassment over issues of disability. Finally in relation to adaptability, it is reported that disabled people experience disproportionately low achievement rates (New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2004). In 2010, it was found that barriers to engagement in education still existed for disabled students and that discrimination, bullying and harassment continued to persist for this group. Also reported was that many disabled students had difficulty accessing inclusive education, an important vehicle for fulfilling the objectives of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2010).

The remainder of this paper reports on a study carried out by the author into the exclusion experienced by disabled students from and within school. In this study, parents of disabled students who had experienced exclusion from and within schools were asked to identify the obstacles and explain how they were experienced. Findings from this study are reported in relation to the Rights to Education framework of availability, accessibility, adaptability and acceptability.


Short advertisements were placed in New Zealand parent disability magazines and newsletters inviting parents of disabled students who had experienced exclusionary pressures or barriers to their children's inclusion in school to log on to a web address and complete a short questionnaire. A barrier to school inclusion was defined as anything that has acted as an obstacle, or has got in the way of a child or young person participating as a valued and accepted school member with equal access to all the things that happen at school (such as learning experiences, resources, friendships, school and class rewards, teacher time and so forth). In the questionnaire, parents were asked to identify the barriers that their child had experienced to being included at school. At the end of the questionnaire, parents were invited to participate in a follow-up interview where they would be asked to elaborate on their child's experiences. Sixty-three participants completed the questionnaire, and over 80% of respondents (51) indicated that they would like to participate in a follow-up interview. A random stratified sampling procedure was used to identify 12 participants. The population of 51 respondents who had indicated a willingness to be interviewed was stratified according to the identified main barrier their child experienced to being included at school (main pressure of exclusion). Then, from each stratification every fifth willing participant was randomly chosen to participate.

The web questionnaire consisted of 14 questions, related to gender, date of birth and area of need or disability, the nature of the exclusion experienced, where this happened and how it was experienced. Interviews were unstructured and consisted of asking the parent to talk about the exclusion that their child had experienced. Qualitative data from the interviews were transcribed and then entered into the software program, NVivo(7). An adaptation of an analysis model by Boyatzis (1998) and Bailey (2007) was used. This model is based on an inductive or data-driven approach to thematic analysis where the researcher immerses themselves in the data, allowing the themes to emerge. Qualitative data were first read to provide an initial familiarization with the data. At the second reading, data were given an initial code. Finally, focused coding was applied where the initial coded data was combined into larger and broader categories that subsumed multiple codes, further reducing the data.


Respondents to the questionnaire were asked to identify the one main area of need of their child. Thirty percent of respondents indicated their child had an intellectual need, 14% indicated a need associated with Asperger Syndrome and 13% indicated behavioural needs. The remainder of respondents reported their child's main need as one of physical, emotional, social sensory or multiple/complex needs. Table one outlines this information. Table two provides information regarding their child's level of schooling when the questionnaire was completed. Fifty four percent of the respondent's children were in primary/elementary school, 16% in intermediate/middle school, 22% in secondary school and 6% were in a special school.

Table 1: Main area of need of child
Main Area of ImpairmentFrequencyPercent
Speech and/or communication58
Multiple/complex needs58
Table 2: Child's present level of schooling
Present Level of SchoolingFrequencyPercent
Special School16
Not at school anymore42

A list of barriers was presented to respondents and they were asked to choose up to ten barriers that had acted to exclude or marginalize their child from or within school. The barriers were identified from a previous review of the literature. Responses were then analyzed in relation to the Rights to Education framework as described earlier in this paper. Table 3 provides an overview of the main themes which will be discussed in the next section of this paper.

Table 3: Parent questionnaire: Barriers experienced
Teachers not being knowledgeable about the special needs of my child4369
Lack of funding3760
Lack of teacher aide time3556
Poor attitude of class teacher3353
Poor attitude of the school principal3048
The teacher not giving my child enough of their time1626
Discrimination on the basis of child's special need2236
Being segregated from the regular class1423
My child not being wanted by the school1423
My child being treated unfairly by those in control at school1321
My child being bullied or harassed2439
Child not having friends1931
Lack of adaptation of my child's school work2540
Lack of school policies around meeting the needs of students with special needs2439
Inadequate school policy on inclusion2032
The physical environment of the class1219
Inadequate physical resources1016


The issue of availability in relation to children and young peoples' right to education is concerned with free and compulsory education for all, and educational opportunities that meet the needs of all learners including appropriately skilled and qualified teachers. Issues of availability were identified by up to 69% of the parent respondents to the questionnaire. These included 60% of the total sample, who reported issues with funding, while 56% of respondents indicated that lack of access to a teacher aide or support worker was acting to exclude their child from school. Teacher knowledge was also identified as a barrier by 69% of respondents, and issues associated with teacher attitudes (53%) and school principal attitudes (48%) were common barriers. When issues of availability were followed up in the interview with parents, parents described being asked to fund teacher aide/support worker hours; schools diverting their child's allocated teacher aide/support worker hours; difficulty with the funding application process; and a general lack of funding to support their child's participation and learning at school. The following quotes from parents demonstrate some of their responses:

Yes I get 10 hours a week of funding from the Government and I pay the other 20 hours a week. But because I don't fund at the same crap level as the Government I pay $340 a week for my son to attend school. (Parent 2)

I have funded my child privately through pub charities. (Parent 7)

The issue of the compulsory nature (or lack thereof) of primary school was also highlighted by some of the parents who took part in an interview. This included parents who were phoned to come and pick up their child from school during school hours, and parents who were told that their child could only attend school for part of the day or part of the week:

She [name of child] was coming home about 1 pm — that was all the time we had for a teacher-aide. (Parent 9)

She [Ministry of Education representative] said "basically the school is asking you to voluntarily withdraw your son". I said "there is no way this has been voluntary here, we've been told" … I wonder how that represents the interests of a little boy." And then the Principal said "I don't really want to do it but we can, if you won't co-operate, we will basically exclude him for disobedience." I was so shocked I couldn't say anything. (Parent 4)

A lack of teacher knowledge and understanding was the most significant barrier identified by parents who completed the questionnaire. Here 43 out of 63 respondents highlighted this as a factor that excluded or marginalized their child from and within school. Issues included teachers who did not recognize the needs of their children and did not meet those needs; teachers who held outdated "deficit model" thinking and applied this to their children; teachers who had low expectations of their children; teachers not taking responsibility for the teaching of their children; and teachers not willing to learn about the specific needs of their children:

When [name of child] didn't want to go to school it became apparent that [name of teacher] had inadequate skills to include [name of child] in the classroom when she decided that the solution to any difficulties were to put a teacher aide into form class time. (Parent 1)

So in the classroom nothing was happening. Um he wasn't learning, he was unhappy, the teacher had given up. (Parent 6)

I… I just realised it was, the Principal didn't have a clue. The other two, the special needs person, the teacher, they weren't interested. Nobody was trying. (Parent 6)

…I felt that she (school principal) really didn't have any knowledge of special needs, you know. I also felt his first couple of teachers had no knowledge at all of special needs. I mean maybe it's a lack of training through Teachers College or something, yeah and I feel very strongly. (Parent 7)

On the surface, it sounded like they were… like we had a few school meetings with the teacher, the special needs teacher was involved, but she really had no idea. She couldn't understand it at all. (Parent 8)


Accessibility focuses attention on eliminating discrimination in access to education. Issues associated with this were identified by up to 36% of the parent respondents. The follow-up interviews identified more specific descriptions of accessibility issues associated with enrollment and full-time attendance at school; with accessing the curriculum; and with being physically segregated from peers. In relation to enrollment and full-time attendance at school, parents reported being told that they would have to keep their child at home if there was no teacher aide/support worker "cover"; children only being permitted to attend school for part of the day; children's enrolment being approved with certain conditions; and parents being pressured to take their child out of school:

First we went to [name of school] and we were automatically turned down. He said "you only have the choice of home schooling, that's your problem" and they are not interested. (Parent 12)

You wouldn't expect the other children in the class have their parents rung up for three weeks solid, saying take your kid home. Yeah right that would go down a treat. It's almost like they get all the Rolls Royce treatment and we get the crap. It's not fair. (Parent 2)

I think that the principal thought that if he made it shitty enough for [name of child], she would go away. (Parent 9)

Parent respondents identified physical segregation as an obstacle to their child's education. This included not being included in the normal classroom and school program, and instead being grouped or timetabled with other disabled children; and being physically excluded at break times:

I objected to at one stage [name of child] being taken out of the classroom and being taught in a resource cupboard, I said I didn't want that happening, I wanted her to be taught in the classroom. (Parent 4)


Acceptability focuses on the quality of education and its conformity to minimum human rights standards. Of particular concern to parents in this study was the safety of their children at school: 39% of respondents reporting bullying and or abuse of their children. This included teacher bullying and abuse as well as peer bullying and abuse. A major aspect of teacher bullying was humiliation but also included teachers shouting, encouraging other children to abuse or bully, and physically abusing disabled students:

But I think there is a lot of bullying of teachers, teachers bully other teachers you know and every teacher I know has told me about terrible bullying that goes on so it's a pity they, you know they are trying to target the bullying of kids but they're not targeting the bullying of teachers, that might help. (Parent 3)

I was just asking about something and the first teacher lost her cool and shouted at me that she was sick of what she had to do for my daughter". She didn't do much anyway, but for any teacher to say that to a parent I thought it was absolutely bad. I actually complained to the principal but nothing was done. I said I would really like an apology but nothing happened. (Parent 9)

Peer bullying included both physical and emotional aspects:

No, it was different children every time. And I'm pretty sure it was because, they figured he was the weakest link in the chain. They had probably observed the earlier incidences; they knew that there had been no punishment so he was, well why not go for it. And as well as these big major incidences he was routinely been um pushed, scratched, bitten, having stones thrown at him by um a particular group of girls every day. And again we were told it was his fault for annoying them. But he reckoned they were seeking him out in the playground. (Parent 6)

Um the major incidences were he had his head pounded into the ground repeatedly by a boy at the school. The major ones all happened at lunchtime in the playground. So he had his head pounded repeatedly into the playground. (Parent 6)

Parents also identified issues associated with their children accessing friends and their peer group:

They have had him in a lunchtime program up until mid-term, every lunchtime he's not allowed out … he just hates it he wants out, but they won't let him out. What his classroom teacher has done is that she comes back early to get him out for 10 minutes at the end of lunchtime to play. I'm quite ticked off about it really. (Parent 11)

When I looked at her daily timetable she was not going to have contact with her classmates if she was going to a resource centre because at almost every change between subjects, which is the main time that they have contact with each other, she would be going in a different direction from the others. (Parent 1)


Adaptability is focused on ensuring education responds and adapts to the best interests and benefit of the learner in their current and future contexts. Up to 40% of respondents to the questionnaire identified issues associated with adaptability as acting to exclude their child from and within school. In particular, lack of adaptation to the curriculum, lack of policies that support the inclusion of disabled students and issues associated with the physical environment and resources:

We had his vision checked and they said he needs glasses…I took the glasses along to school and they wouldn't let him wear them, they said no. (Parent 8)

There is not a state funded school option for [name of child] to have an inclusive secondary education there. There is a moral wrong about taking an ordinary child and putting them into a situation that you know is not designed for them [special class] because you are not willing or able to put together the support for the family to make the other [inclusion] work. It is morally wrong to do that. (Parent 1)


Results from this study indicate that for some disabled students in New Zealand, barriers still exist in relation to the accessibility, availability, adaptability and acceptability of education. These issues are all associated with equality of opportunity and treatment for disabled students when compared to the opportunities and treatment of non-disabled students. In relation to availability and accessibility (rights to education), this amounted to a less than free, and less than compulsory education being available to disabled students. Parents were asked to fund aspects of their child's education, keep their child home for parts of the school day or week, and had special conditions put on the enrollment of their child at school. Some parents also reported that their children did not have access to skilled teachers in relation to their specific needs, and in some instances, teachers were unwilling to learn about those specific needs. Similarly, parents reported that some teachers did not take responsibility for their children. Difficulties with disabled students accessing the curriculum and accessing their peer groups were also reported. In relation to acceptability and adaptability (rights in education) parents reported teacher and peer bullying, and a lack of willingness on the part of the school and teachers to adapt to the needs of the students.

Rights to and in education appear to be well supported in New Zealand law and by way of human rights conventions and treaties. However, as shown in this study, exclusion and discrimination still occur. This begs the question: why is it that, despite legislation that guarantees equality of opportunity for disabled students, and human rights conventions that make explicit the right to education, educational exclusion and discrimination still occur? Some have argued that there are strong forces of exclusion working within our societies, including the societies of schools (e.g. Ainscow, Booth & Dyson, 2009; Slee, 2011). So powerful are these forces that they usurp disabled students' rights as set out in human rights conventions and make silent their legal rights to access their local neighborhood school without discrimination. The reports of parents of disabled students retold here demonstrate this power. Therefore, understanding these forces are critical in the move toward the realization of disabled students' right to education.

Researchers in the area of inclusive education are working towards uncovering and dismantling these forces and a number of important factors have been identified. In particular, critiques of neoliberal policies that emphasize individual benefit over collective benefit; competition over cooperation; and the application of free market policies to education. These policies have led to an emphasis on high-stakes testing and the publication of testing results, creating competition between schools to attract students who will do well in such an environment, and on the other hand discourage students who are not likely to do well (Slee, 2011). New Zealand has such policies, including a policy of National Standards where data is produced on the success of students and collated and presented in tables that demonstrate the best and worst performing schools. Free market ideals then guide parents to choose schools that do well. The real estate prices in the surrounding areas of these schools soar, limiting those who can afford to buy there. In these free market educational environments, disabled students and other marginalized students are likely to feel extreme forces of exclusion and marginalization from education.

The detrimental effect of these policies on the realization of human rights has not gone unnoticed in New Zealand. In its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2013, New Zealand was described as a country with high levels of human rights achievement and a commitment to the development of international human rights standards. However, the Review pointed out that New Zealand is less consistent in fully incorporating those standards into its legislation and policy, stating "human rights considerations are generally not at the heart of public policy decision making" (New Zealand Human Rights Commission, 2013, 6). A major recommendation of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was that the Government commit to the development and implementation of a human rights education strategy as recommended by the World Programme for Human Rights Education (2005). It was recommended that this strategy be aimed at parliamentarians and senior civil servants to ensure that human rights imperatives inform the development of policies and legislation. This appears a critical first step. In addition to this, international "best practice" suggests that the New Zealand government should consider the inclusion of human rights as an important education curriculum area. The inclusion of human rights within a school curriculum raises the awareness of human rights in general and promotes basic human rights principles of respect, justice and acceptance (Tibbitts, 2009).

Results from the small New Zealand study reported in this paper suggest that teachers play a critical role in the realization of the rights of disabled students. Parents in this study reported a lack of teacher knowledge and understanding as a major barrier to their child's presence, participation and learning at school. Research has consistently shown that skillful and knowledgeable teachers are a requirement for inclusive and just education systems (Forlin & Chambers, 2011; Rouse & Florian, 2012; UNESCO, 2009). Also important are teachers' beliefs and principles as well as their commitment to social justice and human rights (Keddie, 2012; Wilkins, 2005; UNESCO, 2009). In their work through the Index for Inclusion (a set of materials that schools can use to guide them in the process towards inclusive school development and a publication that has been translated into over 30 languages, and used throughout the world), Booth and Ainscow (2011) emphasize the importance of teacher values and in particular those values of: "equality, participation, community, respect for diversity, sustainability, and non-violence" (Booth & Ainscow, 2011, p. 11). Recently, the New Zealand Ministry of Education launched its own set of tools called the Inclusive Practices Tools (Ministry of Education, 2013a), designed to assist schools as they review the extent to which they promote and display inclusive education practices, and to develop policies and practices conducive to inclusive education. The Inclusive Practices Tools recognize the critical role of the teacher with an emphasis on reviewing teacher knowledge, skills, beliefs, and values. Both pre-service teacher education and in-service teacher education will need to ensure a focus on teachers' skills and knowledge as well as beliefs and values if progress is to be made towards the realization of disabled students' rights to education.

No discussion of human rights is complete without a consideration of corresponding obligations, and in particular, government obligations. The obligation for ensuring access and realization of human rights falls to governments, for as Tomasevski, the late United Nation's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education pointed out, "human rights are defined as government obligations because they do not materialize spontaneously through the interplay of market forces or charity" (Tomasevski, 2004, p. 57).

In the report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Kishore Singh reiterated state obligations regarding the right to education as set out in article 13 of the ICESCR (Singh, 2013). Not only are state parties obliged to ensure that the right to education is "protected, respected and fulfilled" (p.5), international law has interpreted state obligations regarding the right to education to be justiciable — that is, they can be liable for trial and they are capable of being settled in court (ibid). In relation to protecting and fulfilling the rights of disabled students to education, it behooves state parties to identify and eliminate those barriers that prevent disabled students realizing their right to education. Accountability for this may not occur until this is tested in court in New Zealand and this is likely to occur when a New Zealand disability action group (IHC) takes a claim to the Human Rights Review Tribunal.


This paper has examined disabled students' right to education. Drawing on literature as well as results from a small New Zealand study, the difficulties experienced by disabled students in realizing their right to education have been highlighted and critiqued and a consideration of factors that are limiting disabled students right to education have been presented. New Zealand has a strong reputation for meeting and exceeding human rights standards, and for contributing to the development of human rights conventions and treaties over the last 70 years. However, there is obviously still work to be done to ensure that disabled students have equal access to education. Simply becoming signatories to important human rights treaties designed to protect the rights of disabled students, and the enactment of legislation designed to do the same, is not enough to realize disabled students right to education. The realization of the right to education will require concerted effort and commitment to a plan of action to ensure that the rights of disabled students are turned into realities. At the forefront of this action should be a focus on government policies, a greater emphasis on human rights education and a much greater recognition of the role of the teacher and school principal in the exclusion of disabled students from and within school.

  • Ainscow, M. (2008). Teaching for diversity: The next big challenge. In F.M. Connelly (Ed.), The Sage handbook of curriculum and instruction (pp. 240-260). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412976572.n12
  • Ainscow, M., Booth, T., & Dyson, A. (2009). Inclusion and the standards agenda: Negotiating policy pressures in England. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 10(4-5), 295-308. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13603110500430633
  • Amnesty International. (2012). Haki Setu The Right to Education. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Author.
  • Bailey, C. A. (2007). A guide to qualitative field research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412983204
  • Booth, T. (1996). Stories of exclusion. Natural and unnatural selection. In E. Blyth & J. Milner (Eds.), Exclusion from school. Inter-professional issues for policy and practice (pp. 21-36). London: Routledge.
  • Booth, T., & Ainscow, M. (2011). Index for inclusion: Developing learning and participation in schools (3rd ed.). Bristol, United Kingdom: Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education.
  • Boyatzis, R. E. (1998). Transforming qualitative information: Thematic analysis and code development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Forlin, C., & Chambers, D. (2011). Teacher education for inclusive education: Increasing knowledge but raising concerns. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 39(1), 17-32. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1359866X.2010.540850
  • Kearney, A. (2011). Exclusion from and within school: Issues and solutions. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6091-499-7
  • Keddie, A. (2012). Educating for diversity and social justice. New York: Routledge.
  • Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Author.
  • Ministry of Education. (2010). Success for all. Every school-Every child. Fact sheet. http://www.minedu.govt.nz/~/media/MinEdu/Files/TheMinistry/EducationInitiatives/FactSheetSuccessForAll.pdf
  • Ministry of Education. (2013). National Standards. Questions and answers. http://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/National-Standards/Key-information/Questions-and-answers
  • Ministry of Education. (2013a). Inclusive Practices Tools. Wellington, New Zealand: Author. http://www.wellbeingatschool.org.nz/inclusive-toolkit
  • Ministry of Health. (2001). The New Zealand disability strategy. Wellington, New Zealand: Author.
  • New Zealand Human Rights Commission. (2004). Human rights in New Zealand today. Auckland, New Zealand: Author.
  • New Zealand Human Rights Commission. (2009). Disabled children's right to education. Wellington, New Zealand. Author.
  • New Zealand Human Rights Commission. (2010). Human Rights in New Zealand. Nga Tika Tangata O Aotearoa. Wellington, New Zealand. Author.
  • New Zealand Human Rights Commission. (2013). 18th Session of the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review. Report on New Zealand's Human Rights Performance. Wellington, New Zealand: Author.
  • MacArthur, J. (2009). Learning better together. Working towards inclusive education in New Zealand schools. Wellington NZ: IHC.
  • Rouse, M., & Florian, L. (2012). Inclusive Practice Project: Final Report. Aberdeen, Scotland: University of Aberdeen.
  • Singh, K. (2013). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to Education. Justiciability of the right to education. Human Rights Council Twenty-third session. Agenda item 3. http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A.HRC.23.35_en.pdf
  • Slee, R. (2011). The irregular school: Exclusion, schools and inclusive education. London, UK: Routledge.
  • Tibbitts, F. (2009). International developments in the field of human rights education. Comparative and International Education Society Newsletter, 151.
  • Tomasevski, K. (2004). Manual on rights-based education. Global human rights requirements made simple. Bangkok: UNESCO.
  • UNICEF. (2012). Press release. United Nations, New York, 26 September 2012. http://www.unicef.org/media/media_65947.html
  • United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. (2006). Comment number 9. The rights of the Child with Disabilities. http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/crc/comment9.html
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. (1994). The Salamanca statement and framework for action on special needs education. Paper presented at the World Conference on Special Needs Education: Access and Quality, Salamanca, Spain, June 7-10.
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. (2005). Guidelines for inclusion: Ensuring access to education for all. Paris, France: Author.
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. (2009). Policy guidelines on inclusion in education. Paris, France: Author.
  • United Nations General Assembly. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III). http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3712c.html
  • United Nations General Assembly. (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1577, p. 3. http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b38f0.html
  • United Nations General Assembly. (1993). The Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/dissre00.htm
  • United Nations General Assembly. (2006). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities : resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 24 January 2007, A/RES/61/106. http://www.refworld.org/docid/45f973632.html
  • Wilkins, C. (2005). Teaching for equality and diversity: Putting values into practice. In A. Osler (Ed.), Teachers, human rights and diversity practice (pp. 155-170). Stoke on Trent, UK: Trentham Books.


  1. UPR is a system whereby the Human Rights Council reviews the human rights records of United Nations member states.
    Return to Text
Return to Top of Page