More than 330,000 students in Ontario-funded schools have special education needs. But Ontario’s education system is not designed to fully include students with disabilities in mainstream classes. According to The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), by 2025, our province should be accessible to all its citizens, regardless of their abilities. Over the next three years, legislators will have to approve The Education Accessibility Standard, to ensure that all students with disabilities have equal access to the education system. That cannot be done without removing and preventing recurring accessibility barriers that impede students with disabilities from fully participating and attaining their potential.
Education Is A Right, Not A Privilege
The Ontario Human Rights Code guarantees the right to equal treatment in education, without discrimination. Under the Education Act, the Ministry of Education must identify exceptional pupils and ensure that all of them can access special education programs and services without payment of fees. School boards are required to develop a special education plan outlining programs and services. But, as good as things might look on paper, often, students with disabilities are not properly accommodated. In some cases, they fall through the cracks of the system, and sometimes just leave school.
Recently, 22 major disabilities organisations wrote an open letter to Premier Kathleen Wynne, underlining that “An Education Accessibility Standard should be designed to remove recurring accessibility barriers in our education system, so students with disabilities and their families don’t have to sue one barrier at a time, one education organization at a time.” But which are the barriers mentioned in this open letter and what solutions are there to overcome them? Let’s find out from the people that face them every day.
Unexpected Barriers In Unexpected Places
It’s not always a too tight door, no elevators or the lack of a ramp that prevent children from going to school. Disabilities are sometimes invisible. Let’s take learning disabilities for example. It may take up to 12 months for a child with special education needs to be identified and to receive an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The process is long and confusing and often parents complain about the lack of transparency and the difficulty of obtaining information about the available facilities and accommodations. Also, as the 2016 final report of the Barbara Hall review of TDSB governance mentions: “Parents expressed frustration at their inability to advocate for their children’s special education needs in an effective way. They feel isolated, afraid and unsure of how to work with the school board administration to support their children’s learning needs.” Denisa Stoenescu Tutoveanu, mother of Alex, an ASD child, says that as a parent, she constantly needs to follow up with the school, to do extra research and keep herself informed, to be on the same page as the school, regarding the child’s progress. And if she doesn’t agree with her son’s Education Plan, there is no legal mean of attack. “ Structure the process more and make it straight forward.” she says, “Please, always listen and take the parents’ word because they know their kids the best, incorporate what they do privately in the child’s daily routine in school, so everyone is on the same page. Have meetings every 4-6 weeks, or as often as possible, so by working together, the system really helps the special needs kids to progress and be appreciated.” (Read the rest of the interview on the autor’s blog).
Once the IEP is drafted, it has to be implemented and, as Carry Kayton, a Special Education Teacher in Peel, told us: “The largest barrier is getting teachers on board, having them understand the IEP, and having them implement it. It’s not that they don’t want to implement IEPs, but they are overwhelmed, there is so much to do and it increases every year. Sometimes IEPs are too complicated and have unrealistic expectations. Kids are identified too late.”
Indeed, many teachers have to deal to up to 12 different IEPs in a class of 30 students. Not all teachers are trained in Special Education and there are not enough Educational Assistants for academic support. But some are willing to walk the extra mile, as you can see in the video below.
What Should Be Done
Jen Stevenson, Special Education Teacher Consultant for TDSB, has a few recommendations for the Education Accessibility Standards that might help not only students with IEPs, but kids in general: “We should be open to inclusive practices. The fixed mindset must change. Some kids are in IEPs unnecessarily. Putting different strategies in place for different kids is just good teaching practice. If more school boards embraced that way of thinking, we would have fewer IEPs, but more successful kids. Job embedded training for teachers is needed, not a one size fits all course, but a targeted professional learning model. Class sizes should be smaller and more Educational Assistants should be there for academic support. Teachers should have more time to plan for students who need additional supports. We should come up with better transition plans for middle-school and high school, so kids are not lost to the system once they leave elementary schools. These are just a few that come to mind.” (Read the rest of the interview on the autor’s blog)
The Education Accessibility Standard should also require that the principles of Universal Design for Learning are incorporated into the curriculum taught in Ontario’s schools. It would be far easier to include students with disabilities in the mainstream educational setting, if instructors prepare their lesson plans with UDL in mind. As for parents, they expect less bureacracy and also a fair internal appeal process for the education accommodation issues. They need at least a clearer and faster assessment process, access to information and the right to have a say in their children’s IEPs.
These are just a few of the aspects that The Education Accessibility Standards should address in the next three years to meet the IASR deadlines. The Education Standards Development Committee hasn’t been appointed yet. So, call your MP, send an e-mail, ask a question: what more should Ontarians do to make sure their children can fully participate and be included in the education system, on an equality footing?