Skip navigation


In the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first 50 years of the twentieth century, a number of schools were established in South Australia for children with specific disabilities. These schools were operated by charitable institutions or voluntary organisations. During the 1970s the State Government passed the Education Act and took on responsibility for educating all children, including those with a disability. Today, the government maintains special schools for students with disabilities who require intensive support, and have established special education units within regular schools to enable children with disabilities to attend. Many children with disabilities are now attending regular schools, with the assistance of special support services.

Townsend House and Minda Home
In the latter part of the nineteenth century two schools were established in South Australia for children with specific disabilities. These schools were operated by charitable institutions.

The earliest South Australian school for children with disabilities was established in 1874 for children who were deaf or blind. The South Australian Institution for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb (Townsend House) provided education which was described as ‘of an ordinary school type’.

In 1961 a deputation from the Board of Townsend House went to the Minister of Education and requested that the government take over the responsibility of educating the children due to its deteriorating financial position. The government assumed responsibility and the Education Department took over control of the School. There were major changes in the approach towards educating the Deaf between 1963 and 1976 with an emphasis toward mainstream education.

In 1898 the first school for children with an intellectual disability was established at Minda Home. The home had accommodation for 22 pupils. It opened with 10 children but soon filled to capacity. The children were cared for by Matron Elizabeth Barker and educated by Miss Edna Fox. In 1962, at the request of Minda’s Board, the Education Department took over the school.

Dr. Constance Davey
The South Australian Education Department first established a service for children with special needs in 1924, when it appointed Constance Davey as a psychologist. She examined children who were considered ‘retarded’ educationally by testing them and observing their home conditions. She provided vocational and educational guidance and was often consulted by Minda and the Blind, Deaf and Dumb School, the Children’s Court, and the Children’s Welfare Department.

Dr. Davey worked hard to improve conditions for ‘retarded’ children and established Opportunity Classes in schools.

In 1925 the State’s first ‘opportunity class’ for problem cases and slow learners was established in which twenty children could learn at their own rate, based on Davey’s testing of their intelligence.
Australian Dictionary of Biography – Online Edition

At the end of 1926 there were four Opportunity Classes, one each in Alberton and Norwood and two in Port Adelaide. On 1st October 1935, The News praised Dr. Davey for the ‘wonderful’ work she was doing for ‘backward children’. At the time there were 21 Opportunity Classes in South Australian schools.

The first Opportunity Class teachers were volunteer teachers without any training in special education. As the number of Opportunity classes grew it became apparent that the teachers needed extra training. Dr. Davey devised a six week, full time course to train teachers to work with children with an intellectual disability. The Education Department offered the course in 1931 but it had been reduced to four weeks. It was called the ‘Training course for teachers of retarded and subnormal children’. The course was open to women with three years teaching experience. Nineteen teachers attended the first course. In 1947 the name of the course was changed to ‘the ‘Training course for teachers of backward and difficult children’. The course continued until 1973.

Dr. Davey believed many children in the Opportunity Classes were inappropriately placed. In an Annual Report of the Chief Psychologist in 1925 she stated:

In our Opportunity Class rolls at present there are 286 children…Of this number 158 are subnormal and need the training that can be given most effectively and economically in a Special School for such children. There are eight low grade uneducable children who will always need special care and supervision. These children are incapable of school work and the Opportunity Class is not the proper place for them.
Wicks 2000 p139

As Chief Psychologist Dr. Davey continued her campaign for the establishment of a Special School but the government was satisfied with the success of the Opportunity Classes and was unwilling to do any more.

Post-War Australia
After the end of World War II parents of children with disabilities in Australia wanted their children to get an adequate education in state schools.

[I]n the immediate post-war period, the major efforts of state education departments were concentrated upon children with mild intellectual disabilities. In consequence, voluntary organisations were formed to provide special schooling for children with moderate and severe levels of intellectual disability and for children with physical disabilities…It is clear…that the rise of…voluntary organisations represented a mobilisation of concerned citizens faced with enormous problems in the absence of any government effort.
Elkins 1985 p164-5

The Crippled Children’s Association of South Australia (Novita)
The Crippled Children’s Association of South Australia (Novita) was incorporated in 1939 and Somerton Home was established for children with poliomyelitis (polio), where they were cared for and received an education. By 1951 Somerton Home was providing services to children with disabilities other than polio.

In 1946 The Crippled Children’s Association started a school for children with cerebral palsy in a room in the Outpatient’s department of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital. They employed Daphne Gum, a trained primary school teacher to be the director of the Spastic Centre at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital and later at Ashford House.

In 1952 they purchased Ashford House on Anzac Highway and used it as a school and therapy centre for children with cerebral palsy. In 1976 the children were transferred from Somerton Home and Ashford House School to the newly built Regency Park Centre for Physically Handicapped Children.

Today, Regency Park School and Ashford Special School are operated by the Department of Education and Children’s Services (DECS) and support students with physical (Regency) and intellectual (Ashford) disabilities.

South Australian Oral School
In the mid 1940′s a group of parents with children who were deaf or hard of hearing formed the South Australian Oral School. The school taught lip reading and speech skills providing an oral education rather than sign language which was the only form of education for the deaf in Adelaide at that time. Mrs Cora Barclay became the Principal in 1950, a position she held until her retirement in 1989. The school closed in 1989 and became a therapy centre training parents to teach their children to listen and speak using the auditory approach. The school was re-named The Cora Barclay Centre.

South Australian Spastic Paralysis Welfare Association Inc.
In 1948 a group of parents and friends established the SA Spastic Paralysis Welfare Association Inc. to provide care for spastic children. The Miss Australia Wing was built in 1959 for treatment and education and by 1971 was used solely as a special school. A new complex, including the James A Nelson School was opened in 1978. The organisation changed its name to the Spastic Centres of South Australia (SCOSA) in 1983. The James A Nelson school was closed in 1993 and the children were transferred to other schools.

Changes in Education
Changes in attitudes towards education for children with disabilities began around the 1960s. In 1964, the Australian Council for Rehabilitation of Disabled (ACROD) recommended that children with disabilities should be integrated into regular schools rather than attend special schools.

The South Australian government introduced the Education Act 1972 making it compulsory for all children between the ages of six and fifteen, including those with a disability – even a severe disability to attend school to get an education. Peter Duncan was the Minister of Education at the time and was responsible for the legislation. As a consequence of the Act the Education Department had to take on responsibility for educating all children.

By 1974 there were eight Junior Special Schools and one Senior Special in the metropolitan area, as well as Special Schools within the institutions of Minda and Strathmont [Centre]. The Education Department employed approximately 150 special education teachers, who taught approximately 1,400 children.
Wicks 2000 p166

Justice C Bright
During the 1970′s the State government set up the Committee on Rights of Persons with Handicaps and Justice C Bright was the Chairperson. The Committee produced a report called The Law and Persons with Handicaps in 1978. It made a number of recommendations in a number of areas including education. They acknowledged that education for disabled children in South Australia occurred in various settings ranging from residential institutions at one extreme to the ordinary classroom in the local school at the other extreme. The report believed,

It is preferable that whenever possible, handicapped children should be placed in the least restrictive environment, i.e. the ordinary classroom…if a special class is necessary, it seems desirable that it should be conducted within the walls of normal school
The Law and Persons with Handicaps 1978 p125

Schools for all project
In 1989 the Ministerial Advisory Committee: Students with Disabilities (formerly the Special Education Consultative Committee) was established to develop policy advice for the Minister for Education in the area of children and students with disabilities. In 1992, the Federal Minister of Employment, Education and Training, Kim Beazley provided funding to the Committee with the challenge to put into practice the policy of integrating children with a disability into neighbourhood schools. The result was the Schools for all project.

This project presented a unique opportunity for research to be undertaken in neighbourhood schools to identify practical solutions to the implementation of the policy in ways that have value and meaning for students, service providers, parents and educators
Schools for all Winter, P 1993 (i)

Education Today
In South Australia, children and students with a disability have a range of educational options. These include:
• mainstream care sites, preschools and schools
• special education classes and special units in mainstream schools
• special educational settings for preschool children
• special schools

There are three education sectors i.e. State, Catholic and Independent. All have developed policies and guidelines regarding the enrolment and education of children and students with a disability. This ensures they are provided with appropriate services and support.

Australian Dictionary of biography – Online Edition. 2006. [online]. [Accessed 15 June 2007]. Available from World Wide Web:

Australian Women Biographical Entry. 2005. [online].
[Accessed 16 July 2007]. Available from World Wide Web:

Can do 4 kids: Townsend House. 2006. [online]. [Accessed 12 April 2007]. Available from World Wide Web: <>

Committee on rights of persons with handicaps. 1978. The law and person’s with handicaps. Adelaide: Committee on rights of persons with handicaps

Cora Barclay Centre. 2007. [online]. [Accessed 17 July 2007].
Available from World Wide Web:

Elkins, John. 1985. ‘Disability and disadvantage: Special education in Australia, Past, present and future’ in Melbourne studies in education. ed. Palmer, Imelda. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, pp164-5.

Find your way home: with SA Link-up. 2005. [online].[Accessed on 30th April 2007]. Available from the World Wide Web: <>

Life to live. 2007. [online]. [Accessed 15th May 2007]. Available from World Wide Web:

Linn, Rob 1994. Perserverance: the story of Spastic Centres of South Australia. Woodville, South Australia: Spastic Centres of South Australia

Novita Children’s Services. 2007. [online]. [Accessed 12 June 2007]. Available from World Wide Web:

Special Education Consultative Committee 1993. Schools for all project. Adelaide: Department of Employment, Education and Training

Support for children and students with a disability in South Australia. 2006 [online]. [Accessed 21 June 2007]. Available from World Wide Web:

Turnbull, T. 1998. A social history of disability services in South Australia and a review of previous, current and future policy directions. Adelaide: University of Adelaide

Wicks, Keren. 2000. Teaching the art of living: the development of special education services in South Australia, 1915 – 1975. Adelaide: University of Adelaide

5 Responses to “Education”

  1. Kerry Gummow Says:

    I have just commenced my new employment and good to get a good brief overview of education in disability within SA

  2. Amy Says:

    Thank you heaps

    I am doing a special study for Child Studies, This information will be very useful my topic of disabled children

  3. Sue Waite Says:

    Dear Sir,
    I googled the oral school south australia and have found nothing .All I want is to know the contact details and see a modern upto the minute web site to interest prospective immigrants from the UK.
    I have to say with my newspaper back ground this site is no way to introduce yourselves to the public.
    I would like details to enroll a prospective student.


  4. leanne irvine Says:

    hi. i was a sufferer of the polio disease, south australia 1971. i went to the royal adelaide childrens hospital. wondered if there is somewhere that has records of my stay there and/or can i be put in touch with a doctor or nurse that treated me at that time. would appricate any help. Leanne (a paralytic polio survivor)!

  5. Marissa Says:


    Thank you for the information on the ‘History of Disabilities SA’ which has provided in-depth knowledge into disabilities. I am a registered teacher with SA and wish to specialize in disabilities as I want to teach and assist children with learning difficulties.

    Other than the university can anyone give me advice on what kind of course I could complete in order to teach in special schools. My basic qualifications are B.A.ARTS/M.A.ARTS/B.Ed Education.

    I want to spend my remaining teaching career with special children.

Leave a Reply