NOTE: We have split our UN report on Human Rights for Autistics in Ontario into sections and are blogging them. This is our section on exclusions and segregation in Ontario schools.
Schools: Segregation and exclusions
While special education programs have made progress in many countries, in Canada there has been relatively little change in the structure, methodology and mentality of the education setting in the past 40 years. Ontario special education students are routinely segregated from mainstream students at lunch, recess and many school activities. School exclusions are also common, where children are denied the right to attend and receive an education for days, weeks or in some cases even permanently.
A report by People for Education from 2014 showed that 1/2 of principals in the Toronto District School Board had phoned parents some mornings and told them to keep their children at home in part because there were not enough support workers that day. In a 2018 study, People for Education reported that 2/3 of their survey respondents report their IDD or autistic children being excluded from field trips and extracurricular activities and 1/3 reported that their child didn’t have access to an educational assistant when they needed one.
A survey by ARCH Disability Law Centre found that many students are excluded from school, with no official tracking or due process. According to Renu Mandhane, Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, in 2017-18: “25% 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.”
These exclusions are given for a range of reasons, from “behavioural” issues to, more commonly, schools not having unionized aides available to help in the classroom that day. The union has forbidden outside workers in the classroom: so when families offer to bring in their own aide worker, the aides are kept out. As one mom put it: “In the US, my understanding is that kids can have their own support person but this private person isn’t allowed here and the board won’t provide one, so it’s a hopeless situation sometimes.”
Ontario schools do not have a uniform approach or training on AAC and other communication methods. “I want to be in school but need a facilitator,” writes a member whose aide was not allowed in the classroom in Toronto. The government also doesn’t support continued education beyond age 21. Yet continued education is key for many autistics, speaking and non-speaking, in Ontario.
Under Ontario’s new $500 million autism plan (OAP, 2017), only ABA-trained support workers are allowed in schools. Some families are pulling their children from Ontario public schools and paying out-of-pocket for evidence-based non-ABA services – services that are funded without issue in other jurisdictions. A father shared: “We are forced to homeschool our son because they won’t let us use a non-ABA support worker. [The PSW] is absolutely wonderful and knows him well but they wouldn’t let her into the school.” A member who has worked in schools notes: “There are professionals working in schools who don’t support ABA, but aren’t free to say so if they want to keep their jobs.”
Much like the bureaucrats in the era of residential institutions, the architects of the current provincial “autism plan” made a massive investment without consulting the people it claims to serve. When autistic individuals, parents and therapists brought this concern up at a March 2018 Tele-town hall with the Ministry of Children and Youth, the visibly irritated Minister cut their questions off. We wondered where this one-sided approach came from. We looked a bit and learned that the market dominance of ABA/IBI is rooted in ABA/IBI investments in the provincial budget in the early 2000s and picked up strength in 2017, when the Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis hired Pathway Group to lobby eight Ministries at Queen’s Park and effectively shut out most stakeholders from the funding discussion.
Within the special education classroom, lack of access to the outdoors, free play and physical activity is a problem that is not being addressed by districts or the province. As one mom of a 6-year old autistic boy in the GTA reports: “I found out at the end of the semester the teachers had kept my son and his class indoors for recess every day since January, because they didn’t want to do recess monitoring. They gave the kids iPads to play with and never went outside once.”
Oftentimes, it comes down to who is watching and whether a parent has the strength to go against a Board and try to take action. A child in the York Region School District was denied the right to use the toilet and forced to wear a diaper, as well as restrained in her wheelchair by Grade 2 teachers who didn’t “have time” to take her to the washroom or ensure her safety in her wheelchair. As a result, she began to hate her wheelchair, which is essential for her mobility. Her mother switched her to a new school (a common workaround when a Board won’t take action), and there the teachers made the time to offer her proper supports.
Within our school boards, IDD, autistic and/or disabled students are often lumped into a broader discussion of “diversity” when in fact their needs are unique and require distinct attention that they are not receiving. Speaking of “inclusion” and “diversity” in Ontario schools, Sheila Bennett, Education professor at Brock University states: “Those terms seem to apply to a lot of populations, just not this one.” Professor Bennett is the co-author of the excellent 2018 report If Inclusion Means Everyone, Why Not Me? which focuses on the unmet needs of disabled students in our province.