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The Irony of Rebuilding Ontario's Education System

Editor's Note: The following was prepared for delivery at the Ontario Federation of Labour's Symposium on Rebuilding Ontario's Education System, October 30, 2004.

Good morning Sisters and Brothers:

The need to "rebuild" Ontario's education system is a subject that should be near and dear to the hearts of all Ontarians. After all, the students of today are the leaders of tomorrow.

To a disability rights and trade union activist like me, however, the title of today's symposium, "Rebuilding Ontario's Education System", is filled with irony. To "rebuild" something implies that it was built properly the first time, and when it comes to any provincial education system, we who are disabled can only say we wish it had been!!!

The task of trying to "rebuild" Ontario's education system is a large one, but to succeed we must not look at education in a vacuum; rather, it must be examined within the context of a broader social policy agenda. For example, study after study has shown that, to be truly successful at school, a young person needs a decent start in life. This involves a safe neighbourhood in which to grow up, affordable housing in which to live, nutritious food on the table, an environment that nurtures an inquisitive mind, and an affordable education system that gives all students the chance to dream, to study at the post-secondary level.

We have all heard of the legacy left on our First Nations by the system of Residential Schools. In the old days, when students with disabilities went to school at all, we were also educated in special, residential schools, where we were "out of sight" and "out of mind" from the mainstream. In fact, Canada's first residential schools for blind students were administered under the Penitentiaries and Asylums Acts of Nova Scotia and Ontario, and some of us who attended those schools are not surprised!

Over the years, education for persons with disabilities has moved from attending separate schools to mainstreaming and inclusion, and hopefully any "rebuilding" of Ontario's education system will help us to achieve our rather elusive goal of "true inclusion". And believe me, these models are profoundly different.

Being educated in a regular classroom does not necessarily achieve "true inclusion". Needed supports and a welcoming environment must also be present.

Ontario's education system must be viewed in its broadest context, from earliest kindergarten to graduate school and beyond, through life-long learning opportunities.

Let me now turn to some of the areas that must be addressed by all school boards, colleges and universities to achieve our elusive goal of true inclusion for students with a disability throughout Ontario's education system.

Too many schools have been built with steps out front, preventing students in wheelchairs from even getting in the door. These schools must be physically retrofitted, and new ones constructed based on the principles of universal design so that all students can get in and learn together.

All classes must take place in accessible locations, so all students can choose the courses they wish to pursue.

Textbooks and other curriculum materials must be available in a timely manner and in the student's preferred format--braille, large print or computer disk.

Sign language interpreters must be available for students who are deaf. Interveners must be available for students who are both deaf and blind.

Note-takers must be provided for those students who need them.

Procurement policies should only purchase technology and other equipment that is usable by all students and teachers, and classroom teachers must receive refresher training on the newest technology so they will be able to assist a student who uses adaptive equipment.

Websites must be designed with real usability in mind, so that all students can pursue distance learning.

But technology must never be seen as a substitute for teaching braille for blind students, which is our real window to literacy.

Nowadays, more and more students are receiving the classroom supports they require. However, can a student who is well accommodated in the classroom receive those same accommodations if he/she wants to attend an out of class lecture, participate in an on-campus club or join in an off-campus outing that is arranged by a campus organization? After all, these extra-curricular activities form an integral part of the student's overall learning while in the educational system, and these activities also must be fully accommodated.

Attitudes and staffing levels must change, so that students with developmental, psychiatric and learning disabilities who are now too often considered too great a burden, disruptive or dangerous, will be fully accommodated and made welcome in regular classrooms across Ontario. The "no tolerance policy" on aggressive behaviour must be administered in such a way to avoid discriminating against students with disabilities.

Stereotypic attitudes and misunderstandings about disability issues must be addressed within our education system. Encouraging persons with disabilities to more seriously consider teaching as a profession would provide students with disabilities badly needed role models, and when a current teacher begins to acquire a disability, both unions and school board officials must provide needed accommodations so the education system can retain that experienced teacher.

Students with a variety of different abilities can learn together, but we must progress far beyond so-called "mainstreaming" where a student with a disability is too often just dumped into a regular classroom, and not truly "included".

It is time Ontario's education system provided needed accommodations, and where attitudes were such that the system gave out a clear message, all are welcome, come in, and learn together.