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Special Education Reform in British Columbia

Editor's Note: A brief prepared by The National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality and The Blind Children and Youth Parents' Association, a division of The National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality, June 29, 1999.

The National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality, (NFB: AE) and the Blind Children and Youth Parents' Association, (BCYPA) are very pleased to participate in the review of the British Columbia Special Education System. Both organisations are uniquely positioned to provide feedback to the BC Government regarding the educational needs of children who are blind or vision impaired.

The NFB: AE was founded in 1992. It is a national organisation whose members consist of blind and vision impaired adults, spouses of blind and vision impaired adults and parents of blind and vision impaired children. Some parents have also enrolled their blind and vision impaired children as supporting members. The active members of the NFB: AE range in age from 18 to 80. The goals of the NFB: AE include public education about blindness and vision impairment through advocacy and other initiatives.

The BCYPA was founded in 1997. While the vast majority of members reside in British Columbia, the BCYPA has a significant number of members in other provinces. Its membership consists largely of parents of blind and vision impaired children. One of the major objectives of the BCYPA is to increase the social and educational opportunities available to children who are blind and vision impaired.

Both organisations have a number of concerns regarding the existing special education system in British Columbia. These concerns include:

  1. the improper uses and even over-uses of classroom teacher assistants;

  2. the constant replacement of teacher assistants who work with blind and vision impaired children when it is not in the child's best interests to change, often replacing the teacher assistants with others who do not possess the necessary qualifications to work with these students;

  3. the scarcity of Braille instruction across the province;

  4. the inconsistency of the quality of Braille instruction in British Columbia;

  5. the inconsistency in qualifications among some teachers of the visually impaired who are asked to educate blind and vision impaired children generally;

  6. the lack of availability of orientation and mobility instruction to assist blind and vision impaired children to travel safely to and from school, to travel safely within the school and their home communities; and 7.the barriers to participation of blind and vision impaired children on school sports teams, in fine arts activities, in music clubs and other social, recreational and other extra-curricular activities.

In addition, both organisations have serious concerns regarding the funding of the special education system as such funding relates to the educational needs of blind and vision impaired children. These and other issues will be enlarged upon in subsequent sections of this brief.

Part II: Scope of the Review

Both organisations are concerned by the restrictions placed on this review process by the Ministry of Education. One of the primary restrictions is that any reforms to the special education system cannot result in an increase in the budget for special education services. While a student in the dependent handicapped funding category receives funding in the approximate amount of $32,500.00 annually, Braille using students are funded at a substantially lower level of approximately $12,500.00. These conditions exist even though representatives of the BCYPA have discussed these serious funding shortfalls with representatives from the Special Education Department of the Ministry of Education. The Braille using student requires funding at least at the $32,500.00 level.

The barrier imposed by the Ministry of Education's decision not to allocate additional funds to the special education system as part of this review creates additional problems. In order to enhance the quality of educational opportunities for Braille using students, both organisations are forced to take the odious position of arguing that other students with disabilities should have their funding cut. These kinds of restrictions fail to take into account that the special education system is already chronically under-funded for all students who receive special education services. Both organisations encourage the Ministry of Education through this consultation process to increase the funding for the BC special education system. This is the only way to ensure that the goals identified in the preamble to the School Act are achievable by all recipients of special education services.

Part III: Legal Framework

A. Eaton v. Brant County Board of Education

On February 7, 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada delivered its Reasons in the landmark case of Eaton v. Brant County Board of Education. This was the first case considered by the Supreme Court of Canada regarding the special needs and access rights of students with disabilities within the education system. The case also considered the effect that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has on extending or limiting such special needs and access rights.

While the Supreme Court of Canada granted the Brant County Board of Education's appeal because the Eaton family failed to serve the Attorney-General of Ontario with a Notice of Constitutional Question in relation to certain provisions of the Ontario Education Act, the court made a number of important legal findings regarding the requirements that governments must satisfy and school boards to ensure that the needs of students with disabilities are met in the special education system. The court accepted the following fundamental propositions:

  1. In order to avoid claims of discrimination brought by students with disabilities, governments and school boards must consider the actual personal characteristics of individual students with disabilities;

  2. The accommodation of differences within society constitutes the true essence of equality. As Justice Sopinka wrote in Eaton, supra:

However, with respect to disability, this ground means vastly different things depending upon the individual and the context. This produces, among other things, the "difference dilemma" referred to by the Interveners whereby segregation can be both protective of equality and violative of equality depending upon the person and the state of disability. ... While integration should be recognised as the norm of general application because of the benefits it generally provides, a presumption in favour of integrated schooling would work to the disadvantage of pupils who require special education in order to achieve equality.... Integration can be either a benefit or a burden depending on whether the individual can profit from the advantages that integration provides;

  1. Exclusion from the education system and from society generally results from the construction of a society based solely on "mainstream" attributes to which disabled persons will never be able to gain access. Whether it is the impossibility of success at a written test for a blind person, or the need for ramp access to a library, the discrimination does not lie in the attribution of untrue characteristics to the disabled individual. The blind person cannot see and the person in a wheelchair needs a ramp .
  2. "It is the failure to make reasonable accommodation, to fine-tune society so that its structures and assumptions do not result in the relegation and banishment of disabled persons from participation, which results in discrimination against them. The discrimination inquiry which uses "the attribution of stereotypical characteristics" reasoning as commonly understood is simply inappropriate here. It may be seen rather as a case of reverse stereotyping which, by not allowing for the condition of a disabled individual, ignores his or her disability and forces the individual to sink or swim within the mainstream environment. It is recognition of the actual characteristics, and reasonable accommodation of these characteristics which is the central purpose of s. 15(1) in relation to disability."

B. BC School Act

The preamble to the School Act, R.S.B.C. 1996 c. 412 provides: WHEREAS it is the goal of a democratic society to ensure that all its members receive an education that enables them to become personally fulfilled and publicly useful, thereby increasing the strength and contributions to the health and stability of that society;

AND WHEREAS the purpose of the British Columbia school system is to enable all learners to develop their individual potential and to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to a healthy, democratic and pluralistic society and a prosperous and sustainable economy;

The preamble to the School Act indicates that all children, including those who are blind or vision impaired, are entitled to receive personal fulfilment from their education. Their education provide them with the skills to allow them to contribute to society like any other students. While this goal is important and laudable, the existing special education system in British Columbia does not fulfil these objectives for children who are blind or vision impaired. Instead of allowing for full inclusion of blind and vision impaired children in the education system, the current special education program has erected barriers to prevent these children from full participation. Vision teaching services are under-funded, Braille is not always consistently taught to blind students according to proper competency standards, blind and vision impaired students are prevented from participating in physical education and music classes, and school teachers generally are poorly educated about the educational needs of blind and vision impaired children generally.

The Supreme Court of Canada's reasoning in Eaton, supra, recognises that there is not a one size fits all type of accommodation that will benefit all students with disabilities in British Columbia in spite of the general language of the preamble to the School Act. Blind and vision impaired students require different accommodations which are not required by other students with disabilities. The specific educational needs of blind and vision impaired students and the failure of the existing special education system to address them will be discussed in the following sections of this brief. Suggestions for reform will be provided where appropriate.

Part IV: Early Learning Opportunities

As stated above, the education needs of blind and vision impaired students are very different from all other students in the education system. These unique needs require different solutions than those which are traditionally applied to other students. These needs require equally unique solutions to ensure that blind and vision impaired children are fully included as successful participants in the education system.

Approximately 80 percent of all learning is visually based. Sighted children are visually engaged in their day to day activities of daily living while a child who is blind requires meaningful opportunities for meaningful tactile and auditory stimulation to remain engaged. If educational staff are not specifically trained to recognise qualitative differences in the organisation and integration of information that a blind student requires to make sense of the world, that child's handicap will remain a handicap forever. This is so even though the child could be taught the necessary skills so that tactile and auditory queues could form part of a well-guided compensatory mode of learning. The failure to provide tactile and auditory stimulation to blind and vision impaired students can translate into extreme and unnecessary difficulties for a child who is already "working overtime" in a highly visual world. These difficulties, if not recognised, can in turn lead to mislabelling and misdiagnosis of resultant behaviours. In addition, "the child-centred perspective" must be encouraged at all times, particularly when a child with unique needs fails to fit into the homogeneous mold of the education system generally.

Since learning is so visually based, blind and vision impaired students require more intervention than other students during the early years of their education to ensure that they are ready to learn how to read and write when they enter into the school system at five years of age. The government and school districts can meet this need by providing funding for pre-school programs for blind and vision impaired children. These programs should include the teaching of spatial concepts, basic orientation and mobility skills, gross motor skills, daily living skills, sensory development, pre-Braille, basic Braille instruction if the child is expected to be a Braille user, other instruction required by vision impaired students, and the adaptation of other activities commonly performed by other school aged children. All of these skills should be taught in a fashion which meets the specific learning needs of blind and vision impaired students. Parents of blind children must also be included in this process. Parents want to participate in the education of their own children in partnership with the educational professionals who run the pre-school program. The parents of the child and the professionals responsible for running the pre-school program should work together to ensure that each child receives pre-school educational programs in accordance with the basic philosophy that blind and vision impaired children should be equally prepared to absorb and learn the content of the material presented in the educational curriculum as other students entering the school system. The BC Government does not provide specific funding for direct pre-school education of blind and vision impaired students. However, some pre-school programs are run by individual school districts. Both organisations recommend that pre-school funding should be provided for blind and vision impaired students commencing once the child has had his or her third birthday. This would give each blind and vision impaired student at least two years of pre-school education before they enter the school system. The government could accomplish this objective by providing funding to ensure that each blind or vision impaired child receives personal instruction from a teacher of the visually impaired during their pre-school years. This kind of instruction should be standardised provincially to ensure that each blind and vision impaired student receives a high quality education. The current regime is unworkable since the school districts now have the final say in deciding whether teachers of the visually impaired can provide instruction to blind and vision impaired students in pre-school programs.

School district must create pre-school programs for blind and vision impaired students if they are not already in existence. Each school districts should hire additional teachers of the visually impaired to supervise the pre-school programs since many teachers of the visually impaired currently in the system are already over-extended. These additional teachers of the visually impaired could serve several school districts and travel to each pre-school to ensure that the needs of the blind and vision impaired students are met.

Part V: Direct Teaching Services

Many teachers of the visually impaired in British Columbia have very large caseloads. Many caseloads encompass several school districts because of the chronic shortage of teachers of the visually impaired. There are instances where some Braille using students only receive a few Braille lessons per year from a teacher of the visually impaired. In at least one other case, the parents of a Braille using student had to use their own funds to hire consultants from other provinces to develop a child-specific program to provide quality Braille instruction to their child. Both of these problems are unacceptable and need to be resolved if blind and vision impaired children are to receive the high quality education that other students in BC receive.

While these kinds of deficiencies exist in some parts of the province, other Braille using students in larger centres do receive at least one Braille lesson per week. Although Braille using students in larger centres do receive more Braille instruction than other students, one lesson per week is still not sufficient. This is especially so since most children entering the school system spend time with their teacher each day on reading lessons.

Currently, teacher assistants who are typically without specific and comprehensive training, are hired by school districts to take on a role which can only be fulfilled by a teacher of the visually impaired because of the specialised skills that must be taught to the student. Teacher assistants are prohibited by collective agreement from teaching Braille skills to students. This problem is further aggravated by union bumping provisions which frequently result in a teacher assistant being reassigned annually just as he or she is beginning to become familiar with the child and blindness generally. In effect, children who are visually impaired and blind in this province, have become perpetual guinea pigs.

For sighted students, literacy is a daily, ongoing experience. What then are the implications for a non-visual learner who is without benefit of regular instruction from a teacher of the visually impaired, and who in addition, may have a teacher assistant not qualified to teach Braille?

Literacy is essential to every student who receives educational services in BC Students must be taught how to read and write effectively. If students are blind, Braille is the only medium for effective communication between themselves and their teachers which promotes literacy for the student.

The Supreme Court of Canada in Eldridge v. British Columbia Medical Services Commission has accepted the effective communication standard insofar as the provision of sign language interpretation services is concerned. There is no reason why the logic of the Eldridge decision should not apply equally to the need to provide comprehensive Braille instruction to blind and vision impaired students in BC.

The use of Braille should not be dependent on the amount of vision a person has. The decision to teach Braille to a particular student should be an educational decision based on whether the student can read Braille or large print most efficiently. The decision should be made by the child, the family and the teacher of the visually impaired working jointly together.

Both organisations propose the following recommendations to resolve the deficiencies in Braille instruction and the lack of other teaching services for blind and vision impaired students:

(a) The Ministry of Education and the school boards should hire more teachers of the visually impaired;

(b) Minimum standards for Braille teaching, the teaching of orientation and mobility skills and other skills required by blind and vision impaired students in all aspects of their education must be set and implemented;

(c) Those teachers of the visually impaired who do provide services to blind and vision impaired students must have a Master of Education degree in the education of students with visual impairments from a recognised academic institution. This program must include courses on the teaching of Braille to school-aged students, early intervention and basic life skills. Such training is available at the University of British Columbia. Both organisations regard the Teacher of the Visually Impaired Program at UBC as an excellent program;

(d) The teacher of the visually impaired should be involved in teaching pre-Braille skills to blind and vision impaired students both at the pre-school level or at such other time as the blind or vision impaired student needs to learn Braille because of a deterioration in functional vision or a change in the student's educational needs;

(e) The school boards should spend more resources on teachers of the visually impaired and less resources on teacher assistants. Teacher assistants often do not have the training or the skills to properly assist blind and vision impaired students in learning Braille and completing other assignments;

(f) A concerted effort should be made to hire blind and vision impaired teachers as teachers of the visually impaired. These individuals could act as positive role models for blind and vision impaired students. Many of these students have routinely been denied access to such positive role models during their education;

(g) Comprehensive training programs for teacher assistants to address the needs of blind and vision impaired students should be designed and taught regularly to teacher assistants. This is especially so where school districts do not currently receive an adequate frequency or level of service from teachers of the visually impaired;

(h) A greater onus should be placed on the home room teacher to provide their course materials to the teacher of the visually impaired or the teacher assistant well in advance so that materials can be transcribed and used by the student at the same time as the material is being taught to the rest of the class. This is especially so in higher grades where the student receives less support from a teacher of the visually impaired and a teacher assistant. This will eliminate some of the need of having the teacher assistant present in class to read materials to blind and vision impaired students which are provided for the first time at the commencement of the class. There is a chronic problem in BC when home room teachers either deliver their assignments and reading materials to blind and vision impaired students at the same time as the rest of the class receives them. The blind and vision impaired student will often fall behind in these circumstances since the work has to be transcribed into Braille before the student can complete the assignment;

(i) Home room teachers should be asked to assume a greater role in teaching blind and vision impaired students. This will enhance the probability that the blind student will be better integrated into the class and receive greater acceptance from other students in the class;

(j) Efforts should be made to create smaller classes where one or more students in the class are blind or vision impaired. It is clear that smaller class sizes benefit all students as well as teachers;

(k) Greater financial incentives should be provided to encourage new teachers to train as teachers of the visually impaired. There are few incentives to encourage classroom teachers to take on these added responsibilities;

(l) The teacher of the visually impaired should work with other professionals to conduct a functional vision assessment of each blind and vision impaired student to determine what classroom adaptations such as adaptive technology, presentation of material to the student, etc. which may be required;

(m) Large print textbooks and other course materials should be made readily available for those vision impaired students who require it. The print should be large enough so that a student is not required to use a magnifying device to read the material; and

(n) Modifications should be made to the bumping provisions in collective agreements which govern teacher assistants such that if a teacher assistant who is qualified to teach blind and vision impaired students is removed from the classroom, they must be replaced by someone with identical or better expertise to the teacher assistant that has been bumped. Bumping should generally not occur if it is not in the child's best interests. Bumping should also not occur if the student and the teacher assistant are working well together and the incumbent teacher assistant has the required qualifications. Too often, the student's best interests, own wishes, education and respect are ignored in favour of strict compliance with the terms of the collective agreement by school boards and labour unions. While budget control and staffing needs of particular school boards are important factors to assess in determining the number of teacher assistants who are employed in any given year, these factors should be subordinate to the best interests of the blind or vision impaired child to receive a high quality education.

Part VI: Students who Lose Vision During their Elementary or Secondary School Education

Students who become blind or vision impaired part way through their involvement with the education system face very different barriers than children who were blind or vision impaired when they began their education. In addition to requiring assistance from a teacher of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility services, these students may face difficulties in adjusting to their new situations. In such circumstances, school boards should be required to offer counselling services to the student along with such other services as the student may require to allow them to continue their education along with their peers.

Part VII: Presentation of Information in the Classroom

Teachers routinely present material to their students using blackboards, overhead projectors, videos and other visual media. Procedures must be implemented to ensure that blind and vision impaired students have access to this material at the same time as other students. This can be accomplished by providing Braille or large print copies of overhead transparencies to each blind or vision impaired student in accordance with their specific needs. Classroom teachers could be required to read information out loud as they write it onto the blackboards if a teacher assistant is not present in the classroom.

As students progress through the education system and computers are used more and more in the classroom, blind and vision impaired students fall further behind since there are insufficient monies to ensure that Braille displays, speech synthesisers and large print computer programs are available to assist these students in accessing the material presented to them on the computer.

Part VIII: Orientation and Mobility Services

Like all other children, blind and vision impaired students must travel to school to receive their education. These children should be able to receive the same benefit of walking to school as others since the walk to and from school often gives students the opportunity to socialise with classmates and other friends. Orientation and mobility training is essential to a blind or vision impaired student to allow them to travel independently along with their sighted peers. Blind and vision impaired students should be taught how to travel with a white cane as early as possible and certainly before they have to travel to school daily.

Both organisations recommend that each school board be required to hire orientation and mobility instructors to provide orientation and mobility services to blind and vision impaired students to a minimum set of standards. All blind and vision impaired students, based on the results of their functional vision assessments, must have the benefit of regular, frequent and comprehensive orientation and mobility services. The students should be taught the route from their home to their school on every occasion when the student either commences school for the first time or changes to a new school. In addition, the student should be taught the layout of the school, the school grounds and about any diversions that may interest them on the way to and from school such as the location of variety stores, fast food restaurants, etc; bus travel, other forms of public transportation and other routes within the community should also be taught to the student.

There are some schools of thought which suggest that orientation and mobility skills should be taught by the teacher of the visually impaired. These instructors should only teach orientation and mobility if they have been certified to teach these skills by a recognised orientation and mobility program in Canada, the United States or the Commonwealth. Orientation and mobility teachers take special courses in teaching white cane travel and other skills to the blind and vision impaired. There are masters programs and other training courses specifically geared to teaching orientation and mobility.

Part IX: Vision Assessments and Individual Education Plans

Assessments and follow-up should occur on a regular basis to assess a student's mobility skills, functional vision, development, behaviour, posture, speech, etc. Funding should be provided such that blind and vision impaired students have access to the relevant professional assistance in these areas when required.

The contents of individual education plans are of great concern to many parents of blind and vision impaired children. The contents of the individual education plans are often vague and incomplete. In addition, some plans do not contain any quantitative standards by which the teacher of the visually impaired and the classroom teacher can assess the performance of the student. Specific standards should be set to ensure that the student and the teachers involved are accountable for the utilisation of resources provided to the student under the plan and to achieve the goals and other objectives of the individual education plan.

Part X: Co-Operation Between School Boards

A. Establishment of a Central Body to Manage the Educational Programs for Blind and Vision Impaired Students

No single Governmental ministry or agency co-ordinates or delivers the specific, unique, primary and direct services required by blind and vision impaired children from birth until they leave the secondary school system. Program co-ordination and gaps in service are not addressed. Services are not delivered in the same frequency and at the same level of competency to blind and vision impaired children throughout British Columbi