August 8, 2016 Toronto: the Wynne Government’s announcement today on education for students with disabilities in Ontario, while welcomed by families who fought to keep open all Ontario provincial and demonstration schools, falls miles short of what is needed by 334,000 students with special education needs, says the Ontario Disability coalition that campaigned for reforms in this area for years. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, which spearheads the grassroots campaign to make Ontario fully accessible to over 1.8 million people with disabilities, has pressed the Ontario Government for over half a decade to agree to far more extensive action.
“Ontario’s publicly-funded school system was designed and built for students without disabilities, even though fully one of every six students has special education needs. Ontario’s school system is still full of far too many barriers that impede 334,000 students with special education needs who seek a publicly-funded education in this province,” said David Lepofsky, chair of the AODA Alliance. “We’ve pressed the Ontario Government for over half a decade to develop an Education Accessibility Standard under Ontario’s 2005 accessibility law, but the Wynne Government still hasn’t said “yes.” We’re stuck laboring under outdated special education laws, enacted over a third of a century ago, that don’t serve our kids or families well.”
The AODA requires the Ontario Government to lead Ontario to full accessibility for 1.8 million people with a physical, mental, sensory, intellectual, or learning disability by 2025. It aims to ensure that people with disabilities can fully take part in schools, universities, jobs, housing, goods, services, restaurants and stores. Under the AODA, the Government must enact and effectively enforce all the accessibility standards needed to public and private sector organizations what disability barriers they must tear down, and by when.
Back in 2003, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released a ground-breaking report that reveals a school system full of too many barriers impeding students with a physical, mental, sensory, intellectual or other disability. See The opportunity to succeed: Achieving barrier-free education for students with disabilities. Yet 13 long years later, Ontario still has no comprehensive regulations and plan in place to ensure that these barriers are removed, and that no new ones are created. That is what an Education Accessibility Standard could do.
Key front-line educators in our schools endorse the AODA Alliance’s call for the Government to enact an Education Accessibility Standard, including the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association.
In 2014, a government-appointed Independent Review of Ontario’s Disabilities Act supported the need for an Education Accessibility Standard. Premier Wynne promised in the 2014 election to consider our proposal that one be created. Yet to date, the Government has still not agreed.
Recurring barriers in Ontario’s publicly-funded schools include such things as:
* Far too many physically inaccessible school buildings (Of the Toronto District School Board’s 550 schools, only a meager 85 are physically accessible),
* Insufficient efforts to ensure that educational technology in the classroom is accessible to and usable by all students regardless of their disabilities.
* Not ensuring that curriculum taught in the classroom facilitates the full inclusion of students of all abilities.
* Inconsistent practices from school board to school board on whether a child with autism can bring a service animal to school.
* The lack of a modernized, fair, expeditious process for parents to ensure that their child’s disability-related needs in the classroom will be effectively accommodated, without having to resort to suing a school board under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Parents are left to have to fight these barriers one at a time, school board by school board. Each publicly-funded school board’s Special Education Advisory Committee must also try to convince each school board to re-invent the same accessibility wheel, in the absence of provincial leadership on this issue. See for example reform proposals that the Toronto District School Board’s Special Education Advisory Committee has had to craft for Toronto public schools, in the absence of the needed Education Accessibility Standard.
Today’s Ontario Government announcement commits to keep open Ontario provincial and demonstration schools for children with learning disabilities, or who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing. The Government did not have the future of Ontario’s school for blind children under review. Today’s Government’s announcement also commendably commits to:
“Pilot intensive reading intervention projects in school boards to increase the availability and responsiveness of supports for students with severe learning disabilities in their local communities”
“Establish a reference group to provide guidance and input on strengthening supports for students who are Deaf or hard of hearing.”
The Government makes no commitment to comparable action for improving supports for students who are blind or low vision in publicly-funded schools across Ontario. This is so even though the Government announcement began with these promising words:
“Today Ontario is announcing next steps to strengthen supports for students who are Deaf or hard of hearing, blind or have low vision, deafblind, or have severe learning disabilities.” (Emphasis added)
This shows how piecemeal efforts are not enough to fix a system that needs a major review. School boards need and would benefit from clear, comprehensive provincial standards on how to effectively serve Ontario’s 334,000 students with special education needs.
“We call on the Wynne Government to stop deliberating and to now commit to develop an Education Accessibility Standard, to build on today’s Government announcement and to give 334,000 kids with special education needs a fighting chance to get a good job in Ontario when they get older,” said Lepofsky. “Ontario’s education system and its laws for these students need to be brought into the 21st century.”