Putting the Ability in Disability
How do you define the word disability? For most people, the word holds negative connotations. It is spoken in hushed tones, with a sympathetic furrow of the brow, a gentle smile, and a supportive squeeze of the arm. The parents of children with disabilities are lauded for their strength and their selflessness, but what really sets these parents apart is not how they have handled the implied ‘burden’ of the children that they have been blessed with. It’s how they are able to see past the negative connotations surrounding disability and see to the root of the word, and a word that is often overlooked – ABILITY.
Children with a disability, whether it effects their fine motor skills or causes them to act or think in a certain way, should not be made to feel different. Children are children no matter how they are born. They have the same needs, they depend on their parents to provide for them, and they all want to feel loved and included. They are afforded the same right to education as any other child, and yet the Ontario Government seems to be spreading quite a different message. It has recently come to light that funding for children in need of extra accommodations at school is seriously lacking. So much so that 49% of elementary school principles and 41% of high school principles have requested that parents whose child requires extra support only attend a half-day of school. This issue is also just not specific to elementary and high schools, but encompasses the entirety of the Ontario Education system, which is seeping its negative connotations of disability into our post-secondary institutions.
The struggle for accommodation
This year the University of Ontario Institute of Technology’s Accessibility department saw a significant loss of funding for their invigilators. These invigilators are an essential component of the Accessibility Department as they rely on them to monitor the students who require special accommodations for their exams. The department was forced call upon the good will of staff volunteers from other departments to meet the needs of the test centre.
There are of course several issues with the way that the Ontario government has chosen to handle this funding crisis. Suggesting to parents that they should be taking their children out of school means that the schools no longer want the responsibility of providing education to children who require more support. It is also putting the parents of these children in a very difficult situation. Provincial law states that children are required to be at school for a full day, unless in the case of illness. By recommending to parents that they should be keeping their children at home for half the day, not only are they denying the child’s right to education, but they are also encouraging the parents of these students to break the law. For the post-secondary institutions, staff are being forced to scramble to find ways to give their students the what they have been promised, sometimes at the expense of their employees.
A Globe and Mail article published on April 28th 2014 shared the story of Toronto mother Irene Kassis who was forced to hire a private tutor for her 10 year old daughter who struggles to process information in the same way as her peers. This was causing her to fall farther behind in her studies and as her school consistently failed to provide the support she needed. Irene felt pressured to make alternative arrangements so that her daughter could receive the same level of education as the rest of peers who attended school full time.
Advocating on behalf of the children who are being ignored
Unfortunately, Irene Kassis is not the only mother to have felt the frustrations and lack of support from the education system. Others have cited a lack of willing administration, which do not take the time to fill out the required forms or push for the funding that they need. Those that do receive funding tend to be the pushiest. It is always the loudest and most aggressive parents who are successful in finding what they need. They are given what they ask for only when they are forced to make a scene. Clearly, protocols have been put in place that are ineffective when it is only the pushiest that are rewarded, while the rest of the children who require the same, or more support, are overlooked.
By depriving students of the classroom, we are taking away their freedom. We are telling these students that they are not good enough, and do not deserve the same opportunities as other students. What gives us that right? Who are we to define what makes someone “disabled”? Are other children more able because they were fortunate enough to be born with the ability to see when a teacher writes something on the blackboard? That they are able to read and write without assistance? Are we punishing these children based on a genetic map that they cannot control? Who is to say a child with autism who struggles to interact socially, but is able to solve a complicated math problem, is less able than the child who is unable to solve the same problem, but is popular amongst their peers? In reality there is no such thing as a disability, there are only different abilities, and it seems the Ontario education system needs to be reminded of that fact.