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IV. Education for persons with disabilities in Ontario

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1. Primary and Secondary Education


There is a lack of reliable, current information on children with disabilities in Canada. A recent study[4] by the Canadian Council on Social Development (“CCSD”), made some estimates based on data gathered since 1994 by the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth in Canada. According to this study, approximately 13% of children aged 11 or younger had a chronic condition or activity limitation, excluding allergies, “emotional problems”[5], and learning disabilities. If children with allergies are added in, the percentage rises to approximately 23%. If children with emotional problems and learning disabilities are added to the mix, the number rises to over 30%.

Research based on the 1996-1997 National Population Health Survey, which used a definition of disability that included activity limitations, and “special needs”, as well as learning disabilities and emotional problems, found that 14.6% of children aged 6 to 11 were identified in this category.

According to the Roeher Institute[6], between 5 and 20% of Canadian families have children with disabilities. Among children with disabilities, 15% have a moderate or severe level of disability. The most common type of long-term condition among young children aged birth to 14 years is a learning disability, affecting approximately 17 of every 1000 children reporting. 

In Ontario’s publicly funded school system, in the fall of 2000, 12.5% of students (over 260,000 children) were receiving special education programs and services.

Figures for 1997 from the Ministry of Education and Training indicated that approximately half of all students identified as “exceptional” had learning disabilities. There were also significant percentages of students identified as developmentally disabled, speech and language impaired, or “emotionally disturbed”. Boys outnumber girls in almost all categories, including those for physical and sensory disabilities, but most strikingly so in those categories where the schools make the basic determination, such as learning disabilities and emotional disturbances. Approximately twice as many boys as girls are identified as learning disabled, and boys in elementary school are more than five times more likely than their female peers to be identified as emotionally disturbed.

Legislative Framework

The Education Act[7] and its accompanying regulations set out a structure for the identification and accommodation of disability-related needs in Ontario’s publicly funded primary and secondary school system.

Under the Education Act, the Ministry of Education is responsible for ensuring that all exceptional children in Ontario have available to them appropriate special education programs and services without payment of fees. The Ministry is therefore responsible for requiring school boards to implement procedures for identifying student needs, and for setting standards for identification procedures.

Section 1 of the Act defines an “exceptional pupil” as one “whose behavioural, communicational, intellectual, physical or multiple exceptionalities are such that he or she is considered to need placement in a special education program”.

The principal of a school may, by his or her own decision, or at the request of a parent, refer a child to an Identification and Placement Review Committee (“IPRC”) for a decision as to whether or not the child is “exceptional”, and if so, whether the child should be placed in a regular classroom with supports, or in a special education class[8]. In making these decisions, the IPRC shall consider educational, health and psychological assessments, as well as information submitted by the parents. The IRPC can also interview the student. Where placement in a regular classroom would meet the child’s needs and is consistent with parental preferences, the IPRC must place the child in the regular classroom.

The IPRC also has the power to make recommendations about special education programs and services for the student, but does not have decision-making power in this respect.

Parents may appeal the decision of an IPRC regarding a determination of exceptionality, or the placement of a student. Recommendations regarding programs and services cannot be appealed.

If the decision of the IPRC is not appealed, the principal of the school which the student will attend is notified to prepare an Individual Education Plan (“IEP”) for the student.  IEPs include the specific educational expectations for the student, an outline of the special education programs and services to be provided to the student, and a statement of the methods by which the student’s progress will be reviewed. For students aged 14 and over, the IEP must also contain a plan for transition to appropriate post-secondary school activities. In developing the plan, the principal must consult with the student’s parent (or with the student him or her self, if the student is 16 years of age or older), and must take into consideration any recommendations made through the IPRC process.

Funding Structures

The funding structure currently in place to provide for students with special needs is complex. The basic grants that school boards receive for such costs as classroom teachers, heating, and lighting are expected to cover the basic needs of all students, including those with special needs. The Ministry also provides Special Education Grants, which are intended to cover the incremental costs of special education programs and services. Special Education Grants include both a per-pupil amount, based on overall enrolment, and an Intensive Support Amount (“ISA”), which is intended to recognize differences among boards in the incidence of students with special needs. The ISA covers the cost of programs and services for very high needs students, as well as specialized equipment. ISA Grants are claimed by boards based on specific eligibility criteria.

For the school year ending August 31, 2001, the Ministry’s total spending on Special Education Grants was $1.36 billion, about 10% of the total amount provided to school boards in that year[9]. Of this amount, $724 million was provided through the per pupil amount, and $571 through the ISA process (the remaining $66 million was for students in care, treatment and correctional facilities).

2. Post-Secondary Education


A study by the Canadian Council on Social Development, using Statistics Canada’s Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics, illustrates the unequal access of persons with disabilities to post-secondary education in Canada[10]. According to this study, in 1998, only 36.4% of persons with disabilities, aged 16 to 64, had graduated from a post-secondary program, as compared to 51.4% of persons without a disability. This appears to be improving very gradually: the statistics for 1993 were 31.3% post-secondary graduation for persons with disabilities, as compared to 48% of persons without a disability.

This differential access is of particular concern given the correlation between higher education and successful transition to the labour force. According to the same study, on the whole, men and women of working age with disabilities were far less likely to have full-time employment than those without disabilities. While 77.4% of men without disabilities were employed full-time in 1998, only 39.2% of men with disabilities were; the numbers for women were 64.8% for women, as opposed to 28.1%.  Access to education appears to increase employment opportunities: in 1998, approximately 52% of men, and 41% of women with disabilities who had post-secondary education were employed full-time, as compared to 43% of men and 28% of women with disabilities who had only completed high school.

There is a lack of statistical information regarding the number of students with disabilities currently attending post-secondary institutions.  Based on 1991 Statistics Canada figures, it has been estimated that seven percent of the population enrolled in post-secondary education has a disability of some sort.  However, Offices for Students with Disabilities have reported a significant increase in post-secondary attendance by students with disabilities in recent years[11]. Based on this figure, it has been estimated that there were 96,000 students with disabilities enrolled in post-secondary education in the 1997-98 academic year, about seven percent of the total enrollment. A comprehensive survey on disability and post-secondary education completed in 1999 by the National Educational Association of Disabled Students[12] (“NEADS”) indicated that most of Ontario’s post-secondary institutions had populations of full-time students with disabilities of between 200 and 1200.

According to the NEADS study, which was based on an extensive survey of post-secondary students with disabilities, 36% of students with disabilities at post-secondary institutions self-identified as having learning disabilities, or attention deficit disorder. Mobility impairments were the next most frequently cited type of disability, at 30%. Just under 30% identified sensory disabilities such as vision or hearing conditions. Persons with mental health conditions accounted for just 5% of the survey respondents.


Post-secondary education in Ontario is provided by a wide range of public and private institutions, including publicly funded universities and colleges, private vocational schools, and privately-funded degree-granting institutions.  The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities is responsible for post-secondary education in Ontario.

Accommodation of students with disabilities at the post-secondary level is not subject to the same detailed legislative structures as at the primary and secondary levels. Accommodation of students with disabilities is governed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and by provincial human rights statutes. Post-secondary institutions have developed a wide range of delivery methods and structures in order to meet these obligations. Almost all post-secondary institutions appear to provide some specialized facilities, policies, equipment or services for students with disabilities. 

According to a study completed in 1999 by the Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-Secondary Education[13], 75% of post-secondary institutions have developed formal disability and accommodation policies, covering such matters as admissions, alternative academic accommodations, experts and advisory committees, service accommodations, procedural considerations, and undue hardship. The content of such policies varies widely.

Larger institutions often have a specific unit responsible for providing and administering services for students with disabilities. Smaller institutions are more likely to have decentralized service models for students with disabilities.  Some institutions have offices that coordinate services, rather than directly administering them.  Some institutions dedicate full-time staff to serving students with disabilities, while others rely largely on volunteers[14].

Common forms of accommodation include academic accommodations[15], provision of or training on adaptive technology[16], academic assistance such as notetakers, and support services for students with learning disabilities (such as assessment or advice on learning strategies). According to the NEADS survey, two-thirds of responding students required extended test-taking time as a form of accommodation, and approximately half required other academic accommodations. Many students also required adaptive technology, or drugs and medical supplies. Survey respondents indicated difficulties in accessing adaptive technologies (generally for financial reasons) and academic accommodations.

As well, a number of institutions have undertaken initiatives to improve their physical accessibility, and the accessibility of their student housing and programs. 

Student organizations and access advisory committees are also important features of the post-secondary structure for persons with disabilities, particularly in terms of providing students with access to information about services and programs, and in providing advocacy support.

Funding Structures

Prior to June 1997, Ontario students with disabilities were provided with support for their educational accommodation needs through the Vocational Rehabilitation Services Act. Students made individual applications for funding under the Act, which funded the entire cost of the needed accommodation through direct transfer to the student.

Under the new system, students can apply for a Bursary for Students with Disabilities.  The Bursary is available to students who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents, are residents of Ontario, have applied for or a received a loan through the Ontario Student Assistance Program, and have extra education-related expenses resulting from a disability, which are not covered by another agency. The Bursary, which provides students with up to $7,000 per year, assists with disability-related costs for students undertaking post-secondary studies.  The Bursary is non-repayable, and taxable. Accommodation costs in excess of $7,000 are the responsibility of the educational institution in question.  The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities provides targeted grants to universities and colleges for meeting these accommodation needs. As well, students may be eligible for assistance with some expenses from Vocational Rehabilitative Services, Workers’ Compensation, or the Assistive Devices Program, depending on their individual circumstances.

There is also a special financial assistance program for deaf, deafened and hard-of-hearing students attending American post-secondary institutions for the deaf.

The Ministry does not, however, provide targeted grants to private vocational institutions. These institutions are not funded by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. However, they are required, under the Private Vocational Schools Act[17], to meet registration requirements under that Act on an annual basis in order to operate legally. A Superintendent of private vocational schools has the power to refuse registration where there are concerns about an institution’s financial viability, where the course of study or method of training do not provide the necessary skills or knowledge, where the institution violates the Act, or where the conduct of the institution “affords grounds for belief that the applicant will not carry on the private vocational school in accordance with the law and with integrity and honesty”.

[4] Canadian Council on Social Development, Children and Youth with Special Needs, (November 2001), available online at
[5] This is the term used by Statistics Canada.
[6] Roeher Institute, Count Us In: A Demographic Overview of Childhood and Disability in Canada (2000).
[7] R.S.O. 1990, c. E.2
[8] Identification and Placement of Exceptional Pupils, O. Reg. 181/98.
[9] Office of the Provincial Auditor General of the Province of Ontario, 2001 Annual Report, Section 3.06, “Special Education Grants to School Boards”.
[10] Canadian Council on Social Development, Disability Information Sheet Number 2, (2001), available online at
[11] Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Postsecondary Education, Towards Developing Professional Standards of Service: A Report on Support for Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education in Canada (1999).
[12] National Association of Disabled Students, Working Towards a Coordinated National Approach to Services, Accommodations and Policies for Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities: Ensuring Access to Higher Education and Career Training (July, 1999).
[13] See Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers, supra, note 11.
[14] See National Association of Disabled Students, supra, note12.
[15] Examples of academic accommodation include extended test times, extended time limits for course completion, private rooms for test writing, modifications to attendance requirements, and provision of alternative formats for examinations or course requirements (e.g., oral examination substituted for essay).
[16] Such as, for example, voice activation software, or large print computers.
[17] Private Vocational Schools Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. P.26, s. 5. 


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