Maryam arrived in Australia with her family at age 9. The family had had some bad experiences in their home country and when Maryam was enrolled in school, staff noticed that she was very nervous and shy. She often seemed exhausted in class and sometimes fell asleep. Staff learned that this was because she had nightmares and sleep problems.

In year 6, Maryam had a panic attack getting onto the bus for a class excursion. A doctor diagnosed Maryam with post-traumatic stress, an illness that affects people who have had life-threatening experiences.

Maryam’s post-traumatic stress has improved over time and, at 14, she has friends and is much more outgoing. Her sleep is normal and she has not had a panic attack for 2 years. However, her teachers still tend to think of her as delicate. Maryam’s class is going on a bus trip to Canberra to visit the Museum of Australia, the War Memorial and other sites for SACE.

Her teacher is worried that Maryam may panic or may not cope with the trip and decides that she should stay home and research the sites on the internet instead.

Is this discrimination? If so, what kind?

This is disability discrimination.

Even if Maryam has now recovered from her illness, if she is treated unfavourably because she used to have an illness, or because her teachers believe she still has an illness, it is still discrimination.

The school has a duty of care towards its students. At the same time, it must not discriminate.

How should the school have handled this?

The school could have asked Maryam and her parents how they felt about the trip. If concerned, it could have asked for a doctor’s letter to say whether Maryam would be okay. It could also ask medical advice on what to do for Maryam if she had a panic attack while away.

Possibly, if Maryam is cleared to go on the trip, the school could arrange a way for her to let them know if she was feeling panicky, before things developed into an attack.

What could Maryam do?

  • Discuss the issue with her teacher or get her parents to.
  • Get a letter from her doctor saying that she is well enough to go.