Politics & Society Blog

Melbourne School settles disability case

The recent Australian case of Goldsmith v Yeshivah & Beth Rivkah Colleges Inc [2014] FCA 996 reveals only the bare bones of the alleged discriminatory conduct experienced by Ben Goldsmith, a 10-year old Asperger’s Syndrome sufferer. The reason for the lack of detail relates to the fact that the negotiated settlement required Federal Court approval (under Rule 9.70) because the applicant was under a legal incapacity.

Ben Goldsmith had attended the Melbourne based College between August 2009 and November 2011, at which later time he was suspended and then expelled. He suffered from pragmatic language disorder, fine motor skills disorder, depression, hyperactivity and aggression. 

It was alleged that the College had failed to “…provide for or properly accommodate the disabilities” of the young Ben.

The amount of the settlement is not disclosed in the judgement. Although it is unlikely to have been insignificant, the court noted that the methodology of calculating the amount may not have reflected compensation for some of the more serious allegations of restraint and bullying. However, in accepting and approving the settlement agreement, Justice North took account of an independent report submtted on behalf of the plaintiff and the fact that “…the applicants indicated that the provision for an apology from the respondent was an important element”.

A number of key conclusions might be drawn from the rather brief facts and reasons reported in this case.

Firstly, schools, colleges and universities need to have coherent and effective disability policies in place.

Secondly, such institutions need to be sure that they are properly equipped to cater for students with severe disabilities. If they are not so equipped, they need to properly articulate that to parents and/or students the limits of their capability to cope with and adequately serve severely disabled students.

Thirdly, if there has been a failure to cope or serve, the psychological power of a genuine and heartfelt apology can never be underestimated.

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