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All children should feel like they belong at school

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September 2, 2018

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The first day of school is a time to reconnect and arrive recharged and ready to learn. But for students with disabilities and their families, it is often a day that is filled with anxiety. Will they be accepted by their peers? Will they get the support they need from educators? Will they meet their full potential?

All children want to be included, both at home and at school. And students with disabilities have a legal right to be included in all aspects of the education system. Inclusion has a positive impact on cognitive and social development.

Unfortunately, Ontario’s current approach to “special education” is premised on exclusion. It labels students with disabilities as “exceptions” before meeting their needs. Ironically, the “exceptional” label excludes many common mental health, intellectual and learning disabilities altogether, making it even harder for students to get help. Families find the process for identifying and supporting students with disabilities bureaucratic, confusing, alienating, unnecessarily adversarial and exhausting.

To cap it off, Ontario’s legislation gives principals wide discretion to refuse to admit students whose presence “would be detrimental to the physical or mental well-being of pupils.” In a recent survey of parents of students with intellectual disabilities, ARCH Disability Law Centre found that many students are literally being excluded from school and denied their right to education, with no official tracking or due process. A quarter of parents reported being told not to bring their child to school, while more than half (54 per cent) said their child had to leave school early on a regular basis.

How did we end up here? Part of the problem lies with the Education Act, which views disability as an anomaly to normalcy rather than an inherent and expected variation in the human condition. The legislation reinforces ableism — the negative attitudes, stereotypes and stigma that people with disabilities face every day.

And it undermines social inclusion. At an impressionable age, students with disabilities learn that they are not “normal,” that they will have to navigate adversarial and bureaucratic processes just to be included, and that there is always a looming risk they will be excluded from mainstream society altogether. It’s not surprising that people with disabilities have lower educational achievement levels, higher unemployment rates, lower incomes and file the most human rights claims.

Ontario’s special education system is nearly 40 years old and its core premise around “exceptionalities” stands in direct contrast to progressive shifts in society and law that embrace inclusion and universal design. It’s time we rethink how we can truly support and include all children, while maintaining positive learning and working environments.

In our new policy on accessible education for students with disabilities, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) lays out students’ and educators’ legal rights and responsibilities and puts forward recommendations to create an education system that starts with real inclusion.

We call for system-wide barrier prevention and removal, and universal design. We call on all the players to put students with disabilities at the centre of decision-making and to remove barriers in the accommodation process, including persistent delays in professional assessments and ineffective dispute resolution processes. We call for training that equips educators to meet the needs of diverse students. We call for better accountability. And we call for an end to the punitive practice of excluding students with disabilities from school.

Leading community and advocacy groups support the OHRC’s recommendations. Implementing them would help address the growing number of requests for individualized accommodation, reduce the administrative burden on educators, and restore public confidence in the system. It would signal a shift away from Band-Aid solutions towards proactive responses that allow students with varying abilities and needs to succeed.

Kids going back to school shouldn’t have to worry about whether they will receive the support they need for the coming year. And families shouldn’t have to wait years for assessments and take time off work to navigate bureaucracies. All children should feel like they belong. We call on the government, school boards and educators to implement our recommendations.

Renu Mandhane is the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Article originally published in the Toronto Star (September 2, 2018).