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Supplementary Brief on Special Education Reform in Bc

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Since the last issue of the Canadian Blind Monitor was published, the Ministry of Education released a series of questions to stakeholders as a result of the special education reform briefs that were submitted in June, 1999. NFB:AE submitted the following brief in response to those questions.

I. Introduction

The National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality, ("NFB:AE"), submits this supplementary brief in response to the ten questions posed by the Special Education Review Team on October 26, 1999. The brief will also contain additional information concerning the initial five points on which the Special Education Review Team sought feedback prior to June 30, 1999.

NFB:AE has a number of general concerns with the type and nature of the questions posed by the Special Education Review Team. Many of the questions presuppose that all students with disabilities need and will benefit from the same kinds of educational opportunities and services irrespective of their disabilities. In addition, no allowance in the questions is made for differentiation between the amount of resources which may be necessary for a blind or vision-impaired student as compared to the resources required by a student with a mobility disability, for example. Finally, the questions assume that all specialised teaching services, whether they be provided by teachers or teacher assistants, can be provided by anyone with those qualifications. No allowance is made to ensure that teachers and teacher assistants who are asked to educate blind or vision-impaired children actually have the skills to teach or assist in the instruction of Braille, daily living skills, technology proficiency, etc. At a minimum, the Ministry of Education should take an active role in managing the teaching and teacher assistant resources in all BC school districts to ensure the following needs are met:

  1. All teachers of the visually impaired and teacher assistants providing services to blind and vision-impaired students are qualified to teach or assist in the teaching of Braille, technology-related skills, (e.g. use of Braille displays, computers, synthetic speech and large print programs), daily living skills and basic orientation and mobility;

  2. Teacher assistants should be allowed to specialise so that they can develop skills for assisting in the teaching of students with specific disabilities such as blindness, deafness and the like;

  3. School districts, when assigning particular students to teacher assistants, should take into account the specialisation of the particular teacher assistant instead of assigning the teacher assistant to a student with a disability with which the teacher assistant is not familiar; and

  4. A new resource allocation system needs to be developed to reflect the true characteristics of particular disabilities. While the current model does reflect some differentiation in the allocation of resources between students who are blind or vision-impaired versus students with other disabilities, the differences in resource allocations are not sufficient to allow blind and vision-impaired students to receive adequate Braille instruction, daily living skills teaching, and transitioning services.

While some have advocated that blind and vision-impaired students will not require a special education designation once they have learned all of the skills necessary to deal with their disability, NFB:AE does not entirely share this view. There will always be a need for a Braille-using student to have text books and other classroom assignments transcribed into Braille, especially in mathematics, physics, chemistry and foreign languages. While the blind or vision-impaired student will often require less assistance from a teacher of the visually impaired and a teacher assistant as they progress through the school system, NFB:AE submits that some assistance from these professionals may be required until the student graduates from secondary school. Additional assistance may be required in the areas of orientation and mobility and daily living skills, depending on the particular needs of the individual student.

II. How Special Education Policy is Implemented

As indicated in NFB:AE's brief submitted to the review team on June 29, 1999, NFB:AE favours a centralisation of resources to be used to the best possible advantage in providing a high quality education to blind and vision-impaired children.

Given the low incidence of this population, one school district may operate for some time with no blind students and then have several under its jurisdiction. Resources should be available to districts from a central budget on an as-needed basis. Such resources would include the finances needed to hire qualified teachers and teacher assistants if necessary. If resources were controlled centrally, orientation and mobility training and other life skills could be taught on a more regular basis. Teachers or other consultants could be sent to where they are most needed. School districts should conduct regular reviews of their resource allocations so that resources can be redistributed to reflect the needs of the students which the district is asked to serve.

III. How Resources Are Being Used and if They're Being Spent Effectively

Special education resources in British Columbia are not being managed well. Some districts have resources they don't need, and others don't have enough resources to serve their blind and vision-impaired students. At present, some districts are hiring teacher assistants where specialist teachers should be providing the service. This is due in part to the lack of resources, but is being further encumbered by inadequate service provision, particularly in rural areas. NFB:AE supports the concept of bringing children together to a residential facility for short courses and assessments to utilise resources more economically. At these facilities, professionals who are qualified to teach blind and vision-impaired students could provide recommendations to the parents, the student, the school district and the student's educators on decisions regarding the appropriate educational services for the student involved. Research has shown that throughout their schooling, children require different levels of specialised instruction. In most cases, short-term centralized placements would alleviate some of the concerns regarding either the lack of appropriate instruction or the complete absence of qualified personnel within a district.

It is unrealistic to expect district management personnel to have the expertise to know what resources are required and how they should use them without specific direction from qualified staff in the Ministry of Education. The Ministry should set aside funds to hire qualified personnel to provide these services to the various school districts.

IV. How Effective Existing Programs are for Students with Special Needs and How Those Programs can be Improved

The issue here is simply one of inconsistency. Some districts provide excellent programs with qualified staff and others are using unqualified staff that are providing less than adequate programs. For example, some school districts are using teacher assistants to teach students Braille without adequate supervision from a teacher of the visually impaired. It also appears that in some instances, some school districts are not providing instruction in life skills training and orientation and mobility at all. Whatever the level of resources, a child, regardless of his or her disability, should expect the same quality of education, no matter where that child resides in the province.

V. What Accountability System Exists for Special Education

Children with disabilities are graduating from our school system with inadequate skills to deal effectively and competently with their disabilities to minimise the effect of their disability on their activities of daily living. Even less time is spent on preparing blind or vision-impaired students for employment placements or higher education. Virtually no time is spent in some districts in assisting blind and vision-impaired students in the transition between pre-school and primary school. If children with disabilities are integrated in name only but their social interaction is limited, then they will have difficulty coping with life when they leave school.

School districts must ensure that blind and vision-impaired students have the same access to aptitude testing as other students. Appropriate accommodations of the student's blindness or vision impairment are essential to ensure that the test results are accurate when they are compared against the other students in the testing sample.

VI. What, If Any, Barriers to Improvements Exist?

Barriers include:

A. The lack of qualified personnel to teach blind and vision-impaired students;

B. The autonomy of districts to use whatever resources they are given for purposes other than meeting the educational needs of blind and vision-impaired students when those resources have been designated for that purpose;

C. The lack of a central pool of resources for districts to draw upon if their current resource levels are insufficient to meet the needs of their students with disabilities;

D. The lack of a central management team to provide advice and consultation services to districts regarding the administration of special education programs for particular students;

E. The lack of a seniority list according to specialist qualifications of teachers and teacher assistants;

F. Inadequate funding for Braille users; and

G. Differences in interpretation of existing policies within and between school districts.

VII: NFB:AE's Answers to the Proposed Questions:

  1. Integration and Inclusion

Q. The Ministry has policies addressing inclusion and integration which are interpreted differently across and within jurisdictions. What accounts for the variation in interpretation?

A. Both the knowledge and attitudes of the personnel within a district reflect on how a policy might be interpreted. Integration generally works well if adequate support is provided, but it can be difficult for all concerned if the knowledge and expertise to facilitate integration and ensure the provision of adequate resources does not exist within the district.

  1. Consistency in the Interpretation of Policies

Q. What steps might be taken to ensure greater consistency in the interpretation and application of policies?

A. The Ministry of Education must take an active role in controlling special education resources so that a trained management team of professionals, teachers and other consultants can provide support and specialised educational instruction as it is needed.

  1. Parental Involvement

Q. How should parents of children with special needs be involved in their education?

A. Parents should be part of the team developing the individualised education and transition plans for their children. They should have recourse to an appeal process, other than taking action before the courts or the BC Human Rights Commission if they believe that their children are not being taught the skills they will need to become contributing members of society after leaving school.

  1. Assessments

Q. Why is it that, in practice, emphasis is placed upon referrals to school-based teams and extended assessments rather than pre-referral activities? How might pre-referral efforts be strengthened and extended by making use of teacher observations?

A. As a consumer organisation, NFB:AE's comments on this question are limited. While this area is largely the domain of the educational professionals, parents and students, if appropriate, should be able to make proposals to school districts regarding the nature and content of the individualised education plan and the assessment activities that they deem appropriate. If the reference to a teacher in the question refers to the classroom teacher, then it is obvious that that person has not had specific training to determine the most appropriate program for the student.

In addition, appropriate assessments must be performed to ensure that the blind and vision-impaired student receives the appropriate resources when they enter the school system. The assessment must also address any issues regarding the upgrading of the student's skills to ensure they are ready to participate actively in all aspects of their education along with their classmates.

Assessments are recommended for two distinct reasons. The first is when the student's vision level changes. The second kind of assessment, known as a learning media assessment, is used to determine whether or not a student should learn to read and write Braille. Both the parents and the student should have a role to play in both of these kinds of assessments so that they are fully involved in the child's education.

  1. Individualised Education Plans

Q. What might be done to ensure consistent development and use of effective Individual Educational Plans for the students for whom they are intended?

A. As a consumer organisation, NFB:AE's comments on this question are limited. While this area is largely the domain of the educational professionals, parents and students, if appropriate, should be able to make proposals to school districts regarding the nature and content of the Individualised Education Plan for their child or themselves.

  1. Evaluation

Q. Which goals established for students are different from the expected learning outcomes for their age or grade? How can we ensure that they consistently work toward high but attainable standards for their achievement?

A. The answer to this question will differ according to the individual student and her or his abilities. However, blind and vision-impaired students must have adequate blindness-related skills such as Braille reading, competency in the use of adaptive technology, orientation and mobility skills and the like in order to perform up to the standard achieved by peers in the same grade and at the same age.

  1. Transitions

Q. What steps should be taken to ensure consistent implementation of transition planning guidelines?

A. Again this will vary according to the ability of the individual student and the resources available in the district. The Ministry of Education should ensure that sufficient resources are available in all school districts to ensure that transition planning is available at a high level in all districts. Transition resources should be available to assist students when they move from pre-school to primary school and from secondary school into either the workforce or to higher education facilities.

  1. Employees Who Work With Students With Special Needs

Q. What specialised knowledge and skills should these different staff members have in order to work with students with special needs? What preparation should such personnel receive? How might such preparation be obtained?

A. It is a general practice in most districts for the teacher of the visually impaired to provide in-service workshops for staff who will be working with blind or vision-impaired students. Most disability agencies and organisations also have staff and volunteers who have the required expertise to provide in-service training. At the very least, brochures providing helpful information about interacting with people with disabilities are available for school staff to read. While the above principles should apply to classroom teachers and other school staff, teacher assistants who are asked to assist in the instruction of a blind or vision-impaired student must have the skills essential to do the job, e.g. Braille literacy, basic orientation and mobility teaching skills, daily living skills teaching experience and such other skills as may be required to permit the student to enjoy all aspects of their education and other extra-curricular activities available to other students at the school.

  1. Funding

Q. What, if any, alternatives exist to categorical funding of special education that will ensure that children who are in need of a particular educational support service receive the service? What are the advantages and disadvantages of changing the present model?

A. Many of the inconsistencies would be addressed if the Ministry itself were to manage the funding and put in place a specialised team to take responsibility for decision-making regarding the provision of educational support and instruction of blind students. Funding needs that still need to be considered are: A. Increased funding for Braille users; B. More funding for orientation and mobility training; and C. Funding for life skills training.

  1. Collective Agreements

Q. What, if any, impact do collective agreements have on students with special needs? What modifications should be made to such agreements?

A. Teachers and teacher assistants with qualifications to work with blind students should be protected from being bumped out of districts when transfers are made due to seniority. It has often happened that a teacher assistant providing Braille support has been transferred elsewhere, and the new teacher assistant has no knowledge of Braille. This kind of situation has an immediate impact on the support required for the student or students involved. Teachers with specialised training are also sometimes forced to work as regular classroom teachers when their expertise would be used more effectively working with students with disabilities. Barriers like this should not be created by the system seeking to provide quality education for students with disabilities.

  1. Measuring Success

Q. How can we ensure that the public is satisfied that students with special needs are receiving the full benefit of the resources devoted to their education?

A. Skills inventories exist that can measure the extent to which students are successful academically, socially, etc. Such instruments can also measure the extent to which the student has learned to cope with her or his disability. In addition, the system that tracks the success of secondary school graduates could also track students with disabilities to determine if they are continuing to study at the post- secondary level and/or if they become employed.