We are blogging each section of our Report and Recommendations to the Ontario Government’s Autism Advisory Committee. Read the full report here: Ontario Recommendations- Inclusion is the New Gold Standard
Within Ontario school boards, there is a lot of discussion about diversity and inclusion but rarely is it applied to disabled students. As 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.
Ontario schools are some of the most segregated in North America for autistic children. This comes at a social cost: kids that are streamed into special ed have less opportunity to live up to their potential and are more likely to end up in segregated living and work settings in adulthood. Inclusion (when done right) creates opportunity for youth as they transition to adulthood. Ontario should follow the example of New Brunswick and break the cycle of segregation.
Problems and Challenges
Ontario’s autistic and IDD students are routinely segregated from mainstream students at lunch, recess and many school activities–and too often they are even excluded from attending school at all. Some autistic and IDD 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.”
Internal segregations—where autistic students attend classes but are excluded from recess field trips or the social environment of schools, is also endemic in Ontario schools.
When a stigmatized student “acts out,” they are often swept into the special education setting instead of administrators making simple, helpful changes to the learning environment.
Simple changes to the design of classrooms, such as a “quiet chill out” area (open to all), changing the lighting and adjusting acoustics in a room make a world of difference to many autistic students. Neurotypical students benefit from these changes as well. Sadly, as of this writing, these kind of accessible design choices are being made on an ad hoc basis by individual teachers, without any broader institutional commitment or planning.
Universal Design in Schools (the New Brunswick Model)
- For public schools, follow the model of New Brunswick, whose government led the way in 2010-2013, implementing universal design for learning, integrated services between departments, and a new policy for inclusive education along with modifications to the Education Act, through Policy 322.
- NB has also transitioned away from the remaining contained special classrooms within schools.
- This Integrated Services approach received national and international recognition as a model for transitioning to inclusion.
- In the words of former NB Education Minister Jody Carr, “Policy 322 ensures that inclusive education is not a simple program or add-on.”
- AAC access for all who need it at school, without delay. Education for all staff on AAC so they can communicate with the student, not just with their EA.
- Amend the IPRC (O. Reg. 181/98) process to require students with disabilities to be placed in a ‘common learning environment’ as envisioned in New Brunswick’s Policy 322.
- IPRC should also require school boards to adopt special education plans that are driven by an inclusive philosophy with the goal of placing disabled students in a common learning environment with other students.
- Develop an appropriate and comprehensible dispute resolution mechanism for all matters related to the education of students with disabilities, so families are heard.
- Modify the regulatory provision that allows a school board to shorten a student’s school day (O. Reg. 298 s. 3(3)) to require that it only be used when it is in the best interests of the student, with 2-month review to ensure it is still needed.
- Procedural protections for students who are excluded via s. 265(1)(m), giving families similar appeal rights as those available for suspensions and expulsions (see: Part XIII of the Education Act).
- Remove PPM 140 (2007) and allow families to use classroom support persons other than the districts’ unionized ABA providers. Industry bullying and antiquated union provisions should not be dictating whether students can attend school with the right supports for them.
- Assess learning outcome measures and think outside the box. Consider alternative measures of success, per the model of New Brunswick.
- Remedy the problem of internal exclusions. Autistic children should be included in recess and field trips, with appropriate support persons to ensure they have the same access to these developmentally-enriching activities as other children. (They currently do not).