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A school in the bush

They stated that taking on a student such as myself would have caused unjustifiable hardship for the school, that they couldn't justify having to put in a very excessive amount of money towards building ramps, widening doorways and training their teachers, hiring more staff to look after me, and that they just could not justify doing that for what they thought would be only one student.

NARRATOR: Scarlett Finney was five years old and excited to be going to school.

Instead, she became the focus of a national debate about inclusive education.

Scarlett wanted to go here, to Hills Grammar.

She called it "the school in the bush".

Her parents were astounded the application was turned down.

And it just... all of a sudden, it just hit me that this is the sort of obstacles, that this is what her life is possibly going to face.

The thought of going to school was definitely the most exciting thought that I'd ever had.

And then he just said,"We just don't feel that we can cater for Scarlett's disability.

"And we just don't think that we can...

"..that we're going to be the right fit for her."

And I said, "But, you know, she hasn't even gone...

"But the principal hasn't even met her," and...

You know, just... I was just...

Probably I speak too quickly, because I think I was just in shock for a moment.

They lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission and went through conciliation.

I was very passionate from the start that I wanted to definitely expressthat what they had done was not OK with me and that I wanted to stop them or any other school from being able to prevent any other child from being able to go to the school of theirs and their parents' choice for any reason.

Conciliation was unsuccessful.

And subsequent to that, the Human Rights Commission, with Graeme Innes as hearing commissioner, heard the matter.

Commissioner Graeme Innes found that the school had unlawfully discriminated.

The school hadn't really engaged properly with Scarlett and her family to determine her particular needs and that they'd made too many stereotypical assumptions about what a person with spina bifida might need going through their school life.

Hills Grammar pushed back, refusing to accept the ruling, and appealed to the Federal Court.

Once again, surprisingly, I was shocked.

If we happened to lose and the school won, you know, we'd be up for costs and things like that, legal costs.

So that was pretty scary.

BERNADETTE: And if there was going to be any financial amount of money awarded to them, we would have to pay that.

Seemed like quite a gamble.

A massive gamble.

And at the centre of it all was a 5-year-old girl.

The risk of losing, you know, that that would have obviously had a big impact on her as well as the family.

And as a vulnerable child, that would have been quite difficult, to take on that risk.

Private details of Scarlett's condition were exposed both in the court and in the media.

You know, we're putting our daughter into a situation where her whole medical condition is just going to be dissected.

Scarlett showed herself to be stronger than anyone could have imagined.

"Hills Grammar should admit that they... ..admit their mistakes and that they were in the wrong.

And it's interesting how the Hills Grammar School motto is "Strive for excellence".

Why don't they strive for tolerance and more understanding for people who have physical disabilities?"

"The Hills Grammar School should be hanging their heads in shame, as far as I'm concerned.

They weren't just going up to the Federal Court arguing two or three points, they were going with, like, 14 points.

And if they'd been successful on one, they could have won the whole thing.

So we needed the Federal Court judge to come back and basically uphold Commissioner Innes's decision on all of those points.

And he did.

The Federal Court judge ruled that Commissioner Innes got it right.

This week in the Federal Court, she trounced the school which refused to accept her as a student because she has spina bifida.

"Scarlett, what would you like to say? "

"It makes me very happy that Commissioner Innes's decision has not...still stands and has not been overturned.

It's really important to me that everyone gets to be fully integrated, because, honestly, that is how you do learn.

You learn from your peers as much as you do from your educators "

Scarlett's made a lasting difference.

Hills Grammar now leads the way, embracing children with disabilities, like Julie Carlton, who has spina bifida.

"My school is really good at making me feel included.

And the teachers are amazing.

They don't treat me any different.

If I do need that extra help, they do give it to me.

I love it when that happens. "

The education system in Australia is by no means perfect.

And there is still much discrimination experienced by people with disability in education.

But I guess what Scarlett's case did was say to schools, "You can't say no to a person on the basis of their disability."

And so it was the starting point for the education standards that have been developed under the Disability Discrimination Act, which set out some of the principles on which people with a disability should be able to participate in the education system.

I'd do it a hundred times again if it meant that it only helped one student."