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It's Time to Act on Report on Province's Neglect of Special-Needs Children

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, November 1, 2003, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

The ball is in Gerard Kennedy's court.

Just four days after Premier Dalton McGuinty's cabinet was sworn in last week, Ontario's new education minister received a copy of a hefty report on the desperate state of education for this province's kids with special needs.

Produced by the Ontario Human Rights Commission after extensive hearings, it details a long list of problems. They include inadequate funding, cumbersome and time-consuming processes, negative attitudes and stereotypes.

None of this is news to Kennedy, who has spent the past four years as opposition critic for education. Nor is it news to families who face a constant struggle trying to make sure kids with disabilities get the chance to live up to their full potential.

Given the right tools, these kids have a wealth of assets to contribute to society. The human rights commission report points the way to accomplishing this.

But unless government leads the way in translating recommendations into action, the report is little more than wasted paper.

To his credit, Kennedy is quick to acknowledge this.

"We're the ones the recommendations are directed at," he says. "I know the frustrations parents and students face. We're digging through (the report) right now. We're looking at how to respond and what can we do."

Given the $5.6 billion provincial budget deficit disclosed Wednesday by former provincial auditor Erik Peters and the new government's pledge to balance the books, competition for funding from Queen's Park will be tough in the year ahead.

But simply throwing money at special education is not going to solve anything, anyway. Families have always known that. This week's report underscores it.

More than anything, families want an end to the combat zone that has characterized the education landscape in Ontario for the past eight years. They want an education ministry that is accountable and a funding formula that ensures money earmarked for special needs is not diverted to cover shortfalls in other areas.

They want to know that the government will enforce laws protecting the rights of their children. They want an open and expeditious way of appealing decisions if they feel those rights have been violated. They want to know that their children will not be suspended or expelled because they do not have the classroom support to which they are entitled.

They want an effective, efficient system in which their children are not forced to wait months and months to have their needs assessed, an environment in which constructive ideas can be exchanged and acted upon.

"Most of us are so worn down; we've been so busy reacting to what's been shut down on us that we haven't had time to be proactive," says Janice Strickland of Family Alliance Ontario, a non-profit peer support and information group.

Like many other parents, Strickland welcomes the human rights commission report for the injustices it exposes and the measures it proposes to rectify the situation. "But we need someone with power to see that these measures have been implemented."

The report states clearly that many students with disabilities do not have equal access to education.

Accommodation of students' needs "is not always provided in a timely manner. It is often insufficient and sometimes is not provided at all," it says.

It also states that "blanket approaches to accommodation that rely on categories, labels and generalizations will not work."

And it notes that "while there are costs associated with providing certain forms of accommodation and support to students with disabilities, there are lifelong costs to not providing these supports."

Among many, many other things, the report recommends that school boards and schools:

Find ways in which accommodation can be provided in a more timely manner.

Provide interim accommodation while professional assessments are being completed.

Assess whether appropriate accommodation has been provided and, if discipline is appropriate, implement it progressively before suspending or expelling a student.

It recommends that government:

Implement ways to monitor the cost and effectiveness of special education programs and services.

Ensure that students with disabilities have access to enough funding to ensure equal access to education.

Better coordinate special education service delivery among different ministries.

Subsidize only publishers who provide access to alternate formats simultaneously with print.

"We think the report is excellent," says Margaret Spoelstra, executive director of the Ontario division of the Autism Society. "We know the commission heard what we had to say."

Like others, Spoelstra is waiting to see what Queen's Park will do with the recommendations.

"We know the new minister is well-versed in the issues," says Carol Yaworski, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario. "We hope he will hit the ground running."

Over to you, Gerard Kennedy.

Write: Helen Henderson, Life Section, Toronto Star,

One Yonge St., Toronto, Ont. M5E 1E6. Please include your telephone number. Email:hhenderson@thestar.ca