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A disability rights advocate has commended the publication of an image of a cage used to confine an autistic child in a Canberra school. Craig Wallace, president of People with Disability Australia, said the stark portrayal of the two metre square, purpose-built cage intended as a "sanctuary" for a 10-year-old special needs student was a powerful tool in promoting inclusion and awareness of people with disabilities.
"It is important to confront people with the reality of restraint as it's practised against people and children with disabilities," he said. "I think this should be a wake-up call to everybody about what restraint actually means. I think it is a visual marker of the way that some children are excluded from mainstream settings and the importance of inclusion in mainstream classrooms."
Mr Wallace condemned attempts to try to describe it as anything but a cage.
"Using euphemisms, talking about 'cage-like structures' could range from anything from a playpen or a quiet corner," Mr Wallace said. "You've got bars above; you've got a latch on it and it's bright blue – that's a cage. It is an incredibly powerful image."
Meanwhile Canberrans have taken to social media to express their outrage and horror at the image.
"This is absolutely appalling, not to mention illegal! Am shocked and horrified by the standards of education and social care in ACT for children and adults with autism and intellectual disabilities," one commenter wrote.
"Hearing about it was bad enough, but to see it – now that's another matter. That poor little boy," a different commenter added.
Other people were more sympathetic and said schools were under-resourced when it came to supporting students with disabilities.
"Nothing like a good lynch mob. The story and the reactions demonstrate the failure of proper resourcing for both special needs students and educators," one person wrote.
Mr Wallace echoed calls for more support and training for teachers from the education department and from the teacher's union. He said the cage was indicative of a phenomenon often seen by his organisation in school systems across Australia.
"We also have a lot of cages out there that are less visible but are equally onerous for students with disabilities. They are a result of people being placed in special schools or segregated settings away from other students. Not all of them have blue bars and a lock on them," he said.
ACT Education Minister Joy Burch slammed the publication of the image, saying it violated the "privacy" and "dignity" of the people involved and was potentially "emotionally damaging" for the child's family. A spokesman from the minister's office said contrary to an earlier report by the ABC, the minister had seen a photo of the cage prior to the publication of this image by Fairfax Media, however the photo they had seen was in black and white and from a different angle.
"Publishing this photo does not assist in getting to the truth or add any more insight as to why it was constructed," the minister said in a statement. "The structure in this picture is undoubtedly appalling, but the decision to publish this picture shows scant regard to the dignity of the child, the dignity of the family, and the dignity of others involved."
But opposition education spokesman Steve Doszpot believed finally seeing the cage after months of speculation was "sobering".
"It does beggar belief that it took the department so long to discover its existence," Mr Doszpot said. "Irrespective of what happened, by whom, when and why, the fact remains the cage was built to contain a child. Any system that tolerates such a response is clearly flawed."