There are compelling reasons for schools to ban mobile phones in the classroom and early evidence indicates that there may have a positive impact.
However, there are key equity considerations for student with a range of disabilities, issues that are too often missed in an ableist society.
It is understandable that for some children, the ubiquitous nature of social media and the presence of notifications on mobile phones can be a distraction within the classroom.
It is the unexceptional presence of mobile phones, however, that allows them to function as a powerful assistive technology for those children with a disability who need support to experience genuine and invisible inclusion.
Invisible inclusion is when a child in a school who has challenges, is able to partake in activities without stigma and without having their diversity/difference highlighted. If we ban mobile technology yet grant ‘preferential’ usage to such children, this will only serve to highlight their disability and single out these individuals, which can limit inclusion.
The usage of camera technology in a mobile allows children with a visual impairment to take an image and magnify it, allowing them to read or engage with visuals more readily.
Many adults who wear glasses will photograph items so as too ‘zoom in’ on the small print such as instructions/ingredients before purchase (particularly if they do not have their reading glasses present when shopping).
For children with a visual impairment disability, the ease of access to mobile phone technology and the ubiquitous nature of mobiles allows them discrete access to an inclusive, unremarkable and financially viable tool.
A similar situation applies to those children with a hearing impairment. Through using the recording facility of the phone, they can boost their success in spoken conversations with peers and in the learning environment, while to an outsider it appears the child is just listening to music through their headphones.
Children with Developmental Language Disorder or Dyslexia can make use of dictation and spelling apps to help with their written work. Children with anxiety issues often feel more secure knowing that they have easy access to their phone.
Children with fine motor skills can use mobiles and apps attached for writing, for drawing, for developing their skills in these areas without the negative potential consequences.
For some children with dyspraxia, the first drawings they make successfully make are with fingers on touch sensitive screens. Given that mobile phones can function in various ways as assistive technology, routine phone access allows such children to partcipate in the classroom without being singled out.
Individuals should not be made to highlight their differences nor have society impose an awareness of their disability, unless the individual so desires.
Of course, the difference in price with mobile phones over tablets, or the need to obtain multiple devices because of a mobile phone ban, creates issues for those from a low SES background.
In a BYOD environment, a mobile phone may be a child’s only ‘device’. It is unsurprising that data from the ASBS and organisations such as ARACY demonstrate that too often families with children with a disability have financial challenges often compounded by their overwhelming representation in low SES statistics.
This is also true for children with Indigenous heritage. With the banning of mobile phones there is the potential that multiple disadvantaged groups will be further disenfranchised from the education system.
We know that bullying and abuse through social media will continue whether a mobile phone ban is introduced or not. What mobile technology can provide is evidence of such abuse (through screenshots of abusive messages or the filming of incidences).
This includes not only pernicious bullying that occurs in playgrounds, but footage can also provide evidence of when adults abuse children.
Without such evidence, it is difficult to prove allegations and claims are often considered hearsay. Too often children, especially children with a disability, are wrongly pre-judged as less reliable witnesses - hence in NSW there were over 657 allegations against school staff of abuse of children in 2018 alone.
It is only when there has been recorded evidence, often from mobile phones, that authorities have been able to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
Schools need to deal with the behavioural management issues that come with phones such as distraction, lack of focus, and misuse of mobiles, but disadvantaging the most vulnerable in our schools is not the solution to these problems.
A ban represents an ableist approach, which must be re-thought in light of the fact that phones function as a normalised, invisible and assistive technology.