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Main barriers to education for students with disabilities (fact sheet)

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Barriers to education can take a variety of forms. They can be physical, technological, systemic, financial, or attitudinal, or they can arise from an education provider’s failure to make available a needed accommodation in a timely manner. The following appear to be the main barriers to educational service for students with disabilities:

Inadequate funding:  This was cited as the prime reason for delayed and diminished special education services at the elementary and secondary levels.  Often, accommodation decisions are made based on budgetary considerations rather than on an assessment of the actual needs of students with disabilities.   At the post-secondary level, the funding structure is highly complex, with some programs containing eligibility requirements and restrictions that raise human rights issues.

Physical Inaccessibility:  Students with disabilities continue to encounter physical barriers to educational services, such as a lack of ramps and/or elevators in multi-level school buildings, heavy doors, inaccessible washrooms, and/or inaccessible transportation to and from school. Students at the post-secondary level also experience difficulty in securing accessible students housing.

Accommodation Process:  Accommodation is not always provided in a timely manner, is often insufficient, and sometimes not provided at all.  At the elementary and secondary levels, other difficulties include:  delays at many stages of the accommodation process, a large backlog in the processing of claims for special education funding, long waiting lists for professional assessments, and delays in the provision of special education programs and services.  At the post-secondary level, information about services and supports is not always accessible, there are delays in accessing accommodations, and the right of students to confidentiality is not always respected.

Lack of Individualization:  At the elementary and secondary levels, some education providers are relying on blanket approaches to accommodation, rather than assessing each student on an individual basis.  Some funding schemes rely on pre-set categories and labels, and emphasize student "weakness" rather than strength.  Suspension and expulsion policies are at times rigidly applied and do not take into account a student’s individual circumstances.  At all levels of education, there needs to be a greater recognition of the context in which discrimination occurs.  Not all students will experience discrimination in the same way.  For example, some students with disabilities are also members of other historically disadvantaged groups, and thus may experience discrimination on more than one ground.

Ineffective Dispute Resolution Mechanisms:  The dispute resolution mechanisms that exist to deal with accommodation issues are often ineffective, and disputes about accommodation are often causing students to lose time in school, and are increasingly ending up at the Ontario Human Rights Commission as complaints.  At the elementary and secondary levels, the appeal process for decisions regarding identification and/or placement of exceptional students is cumbersome, time-consuming and overly litigious, and does not allow for appeals regarding programs and services.  At the post-secondary level, processes for resolving disputes are inconsistent, time-consuming, and often, place the onus of proof on students themselves to show that an accommodation would not cause undue hardship.

Negative Attitudes and Stereotypes:  Students with disabilities continue to face negative attitudes and stereotypes in the education system.  Lack of knowledge about and sensitivity to disability issues on the part of some educators, staff and students can make it difficult for students with disabilities to access educational services equally.

For further information or copies of the Commission’s Consultation Report entitled The opportunity to succeed:  Achieving barrier-free access for students with disabilities,