Students with intellectual disabilities still face barriers in school

By: Gerry Rucchin
May 4, 2018

Report highlights

  • 53% reported child didn’t receive proper academic accommodations
  • 67% reported child excluded from the appropriate curriculum
  • 62.7% reported child excluded from extracurricular activities
  • 74% of parents reported conflict with schools
  • 56% of parents reported conflict with school boards

Many students with an intellectual disability continue to face academic and social barriers in Ontario’s public school system. That’s according to a study based on in-depth surveys and interviews with students’ parents as part of a research project titled, If Inclusion Means Everyone, Why Not me?

“There are still so many barriers that kids with intellectual disabilities are facing regardless of whether they are in a more inclusive setting or more segregated setting,” said the study’s co-author, Western Education professor and Director of the Canadian Centre on Inclusive Education, Dr. Jacqueline Specht. “They’re still not getting their academics at the same level that their parents would be expecting for them. They’re still excluded so much from school.”

The study found instances where students with intellectual disabilities were excluded from the academic curriculum and extracurricular activities. It also found parents have battled staff and school boards to provide inclusive opportunities for their children. Finally, inclusion was also hampered due to poor planning and communication as well as a lack of leadership throughout the school system.

“When we think about attitudes, it’s really about the understanding of where people fit. ‘How do I feel about people with disabilities? Do I think they have the right to belong? Do they have the right to participate in the same ways that people who do not have disabilities?’” said Specht.

The study was a partnership between Western University, Community Living Ontario, ARCH Disability Law Centre, Brock University, Brockville and District Association for Community Involvement and Inclusive Education Canada.

What’s more, inclusion in the education system is important because students form friendships at school. However, friendships aren’t based on academic interests, such as reading and writing. Instead, friendships are formed on the basis of how we think as well as being socially interactive, said Specht. For example, the love of a sport, such as hockey, can create a friendship.

“In our school systems, especially with kids who have intellectual disabilities, maybe they are not going to achieve the very same outcomes as kids without intellectual disabilities but they still have that right to be involved in that socialness,” said Specht. “In schools, we have to think about how we bring all people together with those same values and beliefs and ideas that make us who we are,” she added.

Students with an intellectual disability aren’t the only ones who have endured the school system. Parents have also had to deal with the education bureaucracy.

“They have to constantly battle and parents with kids without disabilities don’t have to do that. (Parents whose children don’t have an intellectual disability) send their kids to school and things happen. They get to go on extracurricular activities; they get to go on field trips. They have their academic curriculum that they’re working towards,” said Specht.

Gordon Porter, Director of Inclusive Education Canada, suggested the findings of the report are consistent with students’ experiences in other parts of Canada.

“Our work with families and parent groups across Canada reflects what is happening to far too many children in a number of provinces. This report will be useful to parents and advocates who want change in their schools,” added Porter.

Specht hopes the study will lead schools, school boards and the Ministry of Education to reflect on what they’re doing – and not doing – for students with intellectual disabilities.

“I don’t think the schools don’t care, I think it’s that understanding of how do we do things differently and make sure everyone is included. How do we do that? I think that’s the issue,” said Specht.

While there’s still work to do, Specht said inclusion is happening in schools, but it’s not happening everywhere. She said the next step is to identify the schools that have developed inclusive practices and share them with schools that are struggling with inclusion. The challenge, in Specht’s opinion, is leadership because those who want inclusion to work, make it work while those who resist, ensure that inclusion fails.

“We need to change the way our school system is set up where it’s currently really up to the individuals in the building to make sure things work. I think we have to make a concerted effort that all should be expected to make it work.”