For children with disabilities, school can be a nightmare. Triggers abound, particularly for kids with conditions like autism, ADHD and anxiety. Bright lights, crowded hallways, taking turns, lining up, keeping a desk organized and navigating friendships—all the basic stuff of school life—are confusing, agitating and overwhelming for kids with special needs. School doesn’t feel safe for them. And they in turn can make school feel unsafe for their classmates.
This seems to be what led parents of two girls who attend John Wanless Junior Public School in north Toronto to sue the Toronto District School Board for failing to protect them. According to the suit, the children, who are grades one and three, have been threatened and physically harmed by a schoolmate with special needs. The parents say that their daughters were shoved, kicked, hit with a hockey stick and pinched on the buttocks.
The family’s lawyer told the Globe and Mail that the parents’ problem isn’t really with the child with special needs, referred to in the suit as “Student L.” Their concern is that the school integrated Student L into a regular classroom without proper care and resources. “Special-needs children should be accommodated,” said the family’s lawyer. “They should be given a place. They should be taken care of. They should be integrated as much as possible. But where the needs cannot be safely accommodated, the school board should make other accommodations.” (The school board denies the allegations, which have not been proven in court.)
I don’t know the family involved in the lawsuit, or the school named in the case. But the story is familiar. I’m the mother of a child who other parents complain about, a child who doesn’t always understand social cues, who can’t consistently regulate his emotions, who is impulsive and easily distracted. My son, who’s now 13, was diagnosed with multiple learning disabilities when he was quite young, among them ADHD and a profound speech disorder. And pretty much since he started junior kindergarten we’ve been lobbying the Toronto school board for the accommodations guaranteed to him through human rights legislation and the provincial Education Act.
The current protocol in Toronto, and most other school districts in Canada, is to integrate children with disabilities into mainstream classrooms. Separating kids based on ability—the old model of the special-ed classroom—is now seen as discriminatory and stigmatizing. Advocates for integration say it helps children with special needs build social skills and it develops compassion among non-disabled ones. But like so many ideas that are terrific in theory, integration is often disastrous in practice.
Here’s the problem: Teachers in mainstream classrooms rarely have the education or expertise to work with complex disabilities that include difficulties with behaviour. Rates of diagnoses of autism, for instance, are growing exponentially, and kids with conditions like this require very particular accommodation, including high teacher-to-student ratios, educators with extensive and specialized training, additional therapists and mental health workers, and environments designed to reduce stress.
Typically, though, integration involves simply sticking children with special needs in a regular classroom and providing them with limited and inconsistent support. Managing a busy classroom with ever-dwindling resources is demanding, and teachers are already overextended. Now imagine adding a child (or several children) who are hyper-sensitive to sound and touch, or who require one-on-one attention to decode a paragraph of text, or who are prone to explosive fits. How is this fair to anyone?
What’s more, research indicates that a teacher’s attitude toward integration is a huge factor in whether it will succeed or fail. Not surprisingly, a lot of teachers begrudge being assigned children with special needs—especially when they know they won’t get the resources to support those kids properly. All of this results in the exact opposite of what integration is supposed to achieve. Instead of making children with special needs feel included, they wind up feeling unwelcome and resented by both their teachers and their classmates. And instead of non-disabled children learning compassion, they end up afraid or disdainful of disabled kids.
In my son’s case, we spent years stubbornly fighting for extra support. He was lost in a regular classroom, struggling academically and socially, and prone to cursing, kicking and scratching when he was angry or scared. Even the accommodations he was offered, like extra supervision on the playground, were mostly ignored. Sessions with speech therapists and behaviour specialists were abruptly cancelled. He had some gifted teachers and wonderful administrators along the way, but those were the exceptions. We could never count on the support he received one year to continue on to the next. Sending our son to school each day was miserable. He was unhappy, his teachers were frustrated and we were helpless. We were also judged and blamed for his disability. One teacher told me that our son’s problems would be all cleared up if I simply removed sugar from his diet.
Like many children with disabilities who don’t get adequate support, our son was punished and regularly suspended. In fact, children with disabilities are far, far more likely to be harshly punished with suspension and expulsion than non-disabled kids. I suspect my son’s race—he’s Indigenous—was also a factor. Black and aboriginal children are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than children of other races. Children’s rights advocates call this the “school-to-prison pipeline”—a series of discriminatory policies that disenfranchises particular kids, shoving them out of school and straight into the criminal justice system.
I’ve spoken with and interviewed a number of parents of children with disabilities and they’ve had similar experiences to ours—and many that are much, much worse. Lacking funds to keep class sizes small and unable to manage the complicated needs of children with disabilities, police are called in to mediate. At several Canadian schools, autistic kids, some as young as nine, have been handcuffed. A mother in Mississauga, Ont., recently sued her local school board, alleging her autistic 12-year-old son was placed in a solitary isolation room and denied food and bathroom breaks. In Ontario, principals can use a loophole called “exclusions” to toss out disabled kids for indefinite periods of time, if they feel their school can’t accommodate them. This way, some children have been denied access to education for months on end.
The overuse of suspensions, expulsions and exclusions suggests that schools don’t have the funding or proficiency to meet their obligations to children with special needs. Integration—however noble the original intent—is failing both children with disabilities and their non-disabled classmates.
Toward the end of the last school year, our son’s terrific principal helped get him a spot in a specialized classroom with about eight other kids. The room has a full-time teacher and a full-time social worker, both well-trained and committed to working with children with special needs and behaviour issues. Everything in the class—from the seating plan and the wall decorations to the daily routine and the curriculum—has been designed and adapted to each student’s strengths and challenges. Several times a week, my son is integrated into a regular classroom for music, gym and art lessons, allowing him an opportunity to mix with other kids. His grades have shot up, he’s happy and confident, and he’s matured enormously. He misbehaves far less often, and when he does, his teachers have the skills to help him work it through. Twice this year, he’s won the school’s student of the month award.
This is what intelligent accommodation looks like—it’s thoughtful, effective and keeps all children safe. I hope that Student L will one day find a space where he or she can thrive and be happy, too.