Why integration isn’t working for special needs kids—or their classmates
Toronto parents are suing the school board for failing to protect their daughters from a schoolmate with special needs. Theirs is a familiar story: I’m the mother of a kid other parents complain about.
BY RACHEL GIESE | JUN 20, 2016
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 ..."
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.
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.