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All children deserve quality education, Op/Ed in the Vancouver Sun

Opinion: Special needs kids in B.C. aren’t always getting the chances to succeed by Faith Bodnar and Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Special to the Vancouver Sun

All children deserve quality education

The following letter by Inclusion BC Executive Director Faith Bodnar and the Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond was printed in the Vancouver Sun on October 2.  You can see the letter online on the Vancouver Sun website or read below. 

Thankfully, B.C. schools are open again after a difficult period for parents and caregivers. Despite this, big questions still loom — What will be done to ensure that supports for children with special needs foster real inclusion in classrooms, and that these children reach their full potential academically, socially and with the support of their peers? What will be done so that families do not have to search for support for their children outside the system?

While some details have been released about the labour settlement, students with special needs and their parents have yet to see how — or even if — learning conditions will improve. And without some fundamental and evidence-based changes, the likelihood of improvement for these students is small. Unless there are clear assurances that all students are valued, we risk the continuing decline of our entire education system.

We have seen many instances in recent years where students with learning disabilities, such as significant reading delays, have not had their needs met, and parents have scrambled to find private tutors and supports to ensure that their child learns and achieves. Of deeper concern are those students who have behavioural issues requiring more intensive support so that they can be included in the classroom instead of being streamed out of class or into “soft rooms” or other exclusionary measures. Driving these children out of the classroom, and even sometimes out of the school, ignores their needs, and creates a cascading range of social problems that will follow these children into adulthood, at a far greater economic cost than appropriate school and community-based support.

Education policy and practice must acknowledge the fundamental right of every child to receive a quality, inclusive education. It is the responsibility of government, educators and each one of us to ensure that all students’ needs are met. An estimated 60,000 students with special needs attend public schools in B.C., representing 10 per cent of the total student population. These students range from those with sensory disabilities to severe behavioural problems, developmental disabilities, the autism spectrum, learning disabilities, and the gifted.

As prescribed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, each of these students has the right to a quality education and to attain the highest level possible. Further, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states children students should “receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education.”

Despite Canada being a signatory to both conventions, we know that many children with special needs in B.C. do not fully realize these rights. It is time for the provincial government to make good on the commitments made on an international stage, to the citizens of B.C., especially our children and youth.

Inclusion doesn’t mean parking children in a class without needed supports and expecting the teacher to meet their needs. It means providing nurturing classrooms that support every learner and offering specialist behavioural supports to assist teachers in making this work. Inclusion is not only a legal and moral obligation — it is best practice. Extensive research, including a recent study done at Simon Fraser University, demonstrates that all students benefit from inclusive classrooms.

Still, despite this knowledge, it has come to our attention through numerous cases that many schools continue with outdated, harmful and exclusionary practices. Physical restraints and isolation are widespread and continue to be seen as acceptable. Once again, we call for legislation and a ministerial order prohibiting these practices. Students with special needs in B.C. are routinely segregated, isolated and subjected to aversive treatment by a system set up to support them. Is it any wonder they experience bullying by their peers?

The system needs to address the root causes of these practices — there are not enough appropriate, positive supports in schools, not enough trained and experienced individuals working with children with special needs, accountable to them and their caregivers. Regular auditing and reporting on completion of Individual Education Plans, outcomes and measures of achievement needs to be implemented to demonstrate what supports B.C. children are actually receiving.

October is Community Inclusion Month in B.C. It is a fitting time to move the discussion away from who should or should not be included in our schools, and on to the fundamental question of what must be done to provide all B.C.’s students with a quality, inclusive education and a system of supports that works for children, families and communities.

Faith Bodnar is the executive director of Inclusion BC. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth.