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Ontario Educational System Failing Students With Intellectual Disabilities: Report

By Andrea Gordon, Education Reporter
Fri., May 4, 2018

Students face “daunting” academic and social barriers that can leave them excluded, vulnerable to bullying and set them up for low expectations for the future, said the report, a joint project by experts in disabilities law and education.

Dorlean Lieghfars-Rotolo, with daughter Jessica, now 19, who has Down Syndrome, says she and her husband had a constant battle to make sure Jessica received appropriate accommodations in school.

They are often excluded from classrooms, left out of field trips and they don’t get the tools or extra staff they need to help them learn.

Their parents are asked to keep them home from school, pick them up early and must fight hard to get them the supports they are legally entitled to.

This is the reality for many students with intellectual disabilities and their families in Ontario, according to a new report released Friday, which provides a rare look at how this vulnerable group is faring in school.

Despite their legal right to inclusive education, these students face “daunting” academic and social barriers that can leave them excluded, vulnerable to bullying and set them up for low expectations for the future, said the report, a joint project by experts in disabilities law and education, and advocacy groups such as Community Living Ontario.

“These results paint a stark picture of how the education system fails to serve students who have intellectual disabilities,” it said, adding that “significant measures need to be taken in order to ensure these obligations are met.”

The research is based on in-depth surveys with 280 parents and through 33 interviews and shines a light on a group that has not been closely tracked or even included in provincial graduation-rate statistics.

It shows that, despite a growing focus on inclusion, rights and diversity in education, “those terms seem to apply to lots of populations, just not this one,” Sheila Bennett, report co-author and education professor at Brock University, said in an interview.

Bennett said she hopes the report sparks a dialogue about the meaning of inclusive education and how to make it work for children and youth with intellectual disabilities.

The research reveals parents who are overwhelmed, under emotional and financial stress trying to support their children, and in constant conflict with schools and boards.

More than half reported their child was not receiving proper academic accommodations, which can range from teaching techniques to a special needs assistant or technology, and had been denied learning opportunities. Almost two out of three said their child had been excluded from extracurricular activities, and a third said their child didn’t have access to an educational assistant when needed.

Two-thirds reported conflict at the classroom level over their children’s education, three-quarters with school administrators, and 56 per cent with their school board.

Many felt the onus was on them to initiate communication about, or request meetings on, their child’s progress and accommodations.

But the report stressed that, despite “ubiquitous conflict,” many parents cited the positive impact of school principals and teachers when they receive the training and support necessary to help special needs students access the curriculum and reach their potential.

Those kind of positive relationships and leadership can “make or break a school experience” for those students, said report co-author Luke Reid, staff lawyer with Arch Disability Law Centre.

He said the research captures a lot of the problems faced across the special education system for all groups.

The findings resonate with Dorlean Lieghfars-Rotolo of Toronto, whose 19-year-old daughter Jessica has Down Syndrome and is a Toronto high school student.

Jessica was in a regular class with extra help outside the classroom for English and math at her Catholic elementary school. Lieghfars-Rotolo said it was constant struggle to make sure the right supports were in place and that Jessica would be encouraged to learn, not face low expectations. She came on field trips so that Jessica would be included and was a viligent presence at the school. But by the pre-teen years, she noticed her daughter started to be left out and was often alone.

Fearing Jessica would not get the social or academic supports she needed in a regular high school, the family enrolled her in Heydon Park Secondary School, an all-girls public school that focuses on special needs, where she says her daughter is happy and doing well.

“I would love her to be in an integrated classroom if it was with a teacher who could handle that,” said Lieghfars-Rotolo. “This was the best option.

“We saw the failings of the system for our daughter.”

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