My daughter celebrated her 14th birthday at the weekend. Around the table for dinner were four of her closest friends and former classmates through many years of primary school.
These friendships have been hard won, forged not from common interests but from something much more elusive and valuable: empathy. My daughter, who has Down syndrome and accompanying difficulties, finds it very hard to make friends. Not surprising in the fast-changing landscape of childhood where she is often left behind. She doesn't get the joke, cannot easily follow a conversation and is not on social media. She exists largely in an imaginary world where she protects herself from the pain of reality with an arsenal of strange behaviours.
For her party she couldn't decide between having a Princess Ball or an Alien Invasion. In the end, it was a mixture of both. One of her female guests thoughtfully came dressed as a prince, and the only boy present obligingly sat and made a mask, with glue, glitter and sequins. Afterwards, we all ate a Green Monster birthday cake.
I offer this vignette, painful as it is to write about, as a testament to the power of inclusive education. Not just from my daughter's perspective, but from that of her friends. The fact that they are here, a bunch of teenagers at a Saturday afternoon Princess-cum-Alien birthday party shows that they have learned something which in this country is unfortunately not taught; empathy.
What exactly is empathy? Atticus Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird, described it as never really understanding a person until you "climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." The eminent psychologist Carl Rogers defined it as "entering the private, perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it".
To do so requires a person to be sensitive "to the fear or rage or tenderness or confusion or whatever that he or she is experiencing". My own experience of raising a child with additional needs has taught me that empathy is a song without words, the ability to be in tune with another without always the need for language. It is elusive; both limited and limitless and sometimes it has to be learned.
During the party, my daughter had several "meltdowns" when the clash between her expectations and reality overwhelmed her. I quietly marvelled at the way her friends instinctively knew when to speak and when to be silent; when to put an arm around her shoulders and when to let her be. It hasn't always been like this. In the beginning I was quite ambivalent about mainstream education and my daughter's fellow students were also wary; many ignored her, while others wanted to know "what's wrong with her".
Relationships, however, are sculpted by time and chiselled by patience. As the terms rolled by, the uncertainty I had first witnessed in her peers gave way to surety; self-consciousness to intuition. A hand would automatically reach out to help her up the school steps, an arm would magically drape around her shoulders when her anxiety began to escalate during a performance. My daughter had unwittingly become a teacher in her own right.
Pauline Hanson is correct when she says that all children have a right to an education. But to define it purely in academic terms is too narrow. Her comments are born out of an insecurity that other countries are getting ahead of Australia in "leaps and bounds", but who is she comparing us to? Not Denmark, where lessons in empathy are considered as important as maths and English and are interwoven throughout the curriculum. Not other European countries such as Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, Iceland, Norway and Cyprus where virtually all pupils are in mainstream education. These are countries which recognise that a school is a world in microcosm. One nation does not equal two classrooms.
The learning of empathy is as important – if not more so – than academic subjects because it is a lifelong skill and the bedrock of all relationships. It is a tool of civility. Without empathy we are destined to live life in a state of defensive numbness, unable to fully experience the rich tapestry of human emotions. The most tactful advisers, effective negotiators, skilled teachers and electable politicians are those who have empathy. These are the people who can really respect a person's difference, their "otherness".
There is plenty of research to show that children with disabilities do better in mainstream settings, and that non-disabled students benefit from their presence. This is only possible, however, when teachers are able to be emphatically tuned to the needs of the class. If any child's behaviour cannot be understood and responded to accordingly, it creates a tension in the room where the child becomes the focus of the problem, rather than the teacher's response. The child gets labelled, and so begins the weary debate about "problem" kids.
My daughter didn't want me at her party. Like any typical teenager, she just wanted her friends. This reminds me that one day she is going to have to live without me as a buffer between her and the outside world, where many people see her existence as problematic. Watching her friends gives me hope. They too have learned that to care for someone more vulnerable than yourself is a privilege. It is a powerful lesson.
Kathy Evans is a Fairfax Media contributor.