Examining the looking glass: An exploration of identity through the lens of education policy on learning disabilities

A journal by Kirandeep Randhawa

One of my first memories from elementary school consists of being taken out of my 4th-grade homeroom by an unfamiliar woman and led into an office where I was greeted by yet another stranger, who informed me she would like to talk. Apart from reading a book out loud and answering arithmetic questions disguised as games, the contents of that session remain a blur, so, the next thing I recall is being in that office a week later with my mother when those strange women told us I had a learning disability. I did not know what that meant at the time, only that from the look on my mother’s face as they bombarded her with pamphlets, it could not be good. How could it be? I would attest getting pulled out of class for secret meetings in a white office with strangers is rarely the start to a happy tale. 

The Learning Disability Association of Canada defines learning disabilities as several disorders that may affect the acquisition, retention, or understanding of information (Public Service Commission of Canada 2007). The nature of my disability, like many, entails having difficulty perceiving, thinking, remembering, and learning (Public Service Commission of Canada 2007). Learning disabilities can interfere with abilities such as oral language, reading, written language, and mathematics (ibid). My learning disability consists of troubles with my writing and language skills, as well as mathematics. I am in no way alone, as Statistics Canada reports that 1 in 10 Canadians live with a learning disability (Government of Canada 2012).  Although no one could “tell” from looking at me that I had a learning disability, it seemed like it was written on my face in permanent ink for the world to read. The issue with so-called invisible disabilities is that they feel very much visible to you.

School Policy

Like many children, my school was my whole world growing up. It is more than a building I was forced to go to five days a week. Rather, it was where I got to make friends, see my favourite teachers, and learn about things beyond my wildest imagination. My world may have been small but it became so much bigger once I entered that building. Because of my learning disability, I feared school would never love me back.

I began getting pulled out of my regular classes to do my work in a separate classroom, among other changes. I was assigned to have partial mainstream placement, meaning I would primarily remain in my regular classroom but would be moved to the special education classroom when the class would partake in individual work, tests, or class activities (DeLuca 2013). This was because according to my Independent Education Plan (IEP), I would have functioned better if I was in a special education classroom where I could get additional help. My IEP, much like all those who were deemed “exceptional” by the Identification Placement and Review Committee (IPRC), was a written plan based on my needs that were supposed to outline my course of action for my learning disability while in school (Toronto District School Board 2014). However, I did not function better after I had been singled out in front of my classmates as an “other” (ibid). This plan was about me, yet, it did not feel designed to help me thrive in my school environment.

This plan was not the doing of just my school or a few individual teachers. Rather, it was the plan informed by policy decisions as to how students with differing needs ought to be treated within the Ontario education system. One such policy is the Education Act in Ontario, which requires school boards to provide special education services for “exceptional” students whose behavioural, intellectual, or physical exceptionalities require them to be in a special education program (Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario 2018). Even the usage of the word “exceptional” in this policy makes it seem as if students with any sort of disabilities are atypical in comparison to their peers. This othering of students begins in the language of this policy, and thus translates into its implementation. Rather than designing the classroom around supporting the needs and abilities of the greatest number of students, it is centered around a static idea of what a “normal” student should be able to accomplish within a predetermined environment. Therefore, all other students that do not fit into this binary must find a way to be integrated into an education system that is not made with them in mind. If 17.3% of all students in Ontario received some special education services in the 2015-16 academic school year, why was I made to believe I was an oddity among my classmates because of my disability? (Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario 2018).

I, in no way, suggest special education services are unneeded; I believe all students should have access to a curriculum plan and support to meet their needs whether or not they identify with having a disability. Students should be able to work in smaller classrooms and have access to additional support if that will assist them in reaching their full potential. Rather, my issue is in how these services are currently delivered in a way that divides students into normal and abnormal. This conceptualization of education and the school environment is rigid and imposes the same expectations on every child - if they do not meet those expectations, they are segregated from their peers in a way that suggests they are inferior. If no two children are alike, then why do we insist they must all learn the same? In my time in school, my learning disability was treated as something that was holding me back from reaching normalcy, and that feeling caused me to work harder, not for myself or because I wanted to learn, but because I did not want to be an outcast among my peers anymore. From being moved to a different classroom on occasion to being excluded from class activities, I felt torn between wanting to get the help I needed to succeed but dismayed at the cost of feeling ostracized. I did not want to be simply integrated into a “normal” classroom, I wanted to be included from the beginning without having to fulfil a fixed standard.

While many children with special education needs, like myself, are integrated into “regular” mainstream classes, they should be included in the classroom from the beginning. To do the contrary is to make them an afterthought in the education policy-making process. The key difference between the two is, integration focuses on compensating for a student's “cognitive, physical, or behavioural abilities by providing additional and specialized accommodations and modifications” (DeLuca 2013, 310). The drawbacks of this approach are they result in limited social interactions and participation in activities because the student is routinely pulled out of their classroom for different educational programming and delivery (DeLuca 2013). Additionally, this approach also aims to bring students with learning disabilities on par with “regular” students through the use of technical interventions, such as changing educational material (ibid). In contrast, the objective of the inclusion approach is to create social acceptance amongst all students in the classroom by providing informal support through mainstream teachers (ibid). This inclusive approach to special needs education aims to benefit all students without separating them by ability (ibid). The latter approach redefines how disabilities are viewed in the school environment by, rather than regarding disabilities as a deficiency that needs to be corrected through interventions, acknowledging that all students will benefit from additional help (ibid). 

Both approaches reveal how school policies set the tone for how students will be treated, contingent on their abilities before their academic journey can even begin. As a child, I needed encouragement and patience, just like every child, rather than isolation. Through inclusion, students are not labelled as others before they even enter the doors of their classrooms, and thus, do not view themselves as any less capable than their fellow students for reasons beyond their control. If we want to change how learning disabilities are viewed by society, then policies that socialize children from the moment they enter schools must be enacted to reflect that change and become truly impactful.

Government Policy and Learning Disabilities

Inadequate education policies are not solely the doing of school boards, as provincial governments also have a role in how students with disabilities are supported through the funding or lack thereof, they provide. As government policy is meant to shape lives, it is only appropriate to analyze how the policies regarding special education reflect society’s views and treatment of individuals with special needs. To build efficient special education programs that can meet the needs of a wide range of students, in a way that is both effective and provides students with disabilities a sense of humanity, schools must have the financial capabilities to support such programs. However, this has long not been possible as, in 1998, the Ontario government implemented a new funding formula for its publicly-funded schools that made school boards primarily dependent on government grants for funding (Ontario Human Rights Commission 2018). Because of this limited capability to raise funds, and thus, relying instead on the whims of the provincial governments, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has found the current funding levels provided by the Ministry of Education for special education to be insufficient (ibid). I was very fortunate during my time within the public school system to attend institutions, located in the upper-middle-class suburbs of Toronto, which allowed me to meet with therapists and special education teachers within the school, rather than requiring my parents to pay out of pocket for such opportunities. However, this privilege is not afforded to all students with learning disabilities, similar to mine, across Ontario. The Commission found this lack of funding has resulted in delays in students and families receiving assistance within the special education system and the misidentification of student needs; meaning, students are not receiving the correct accommodations (ibid). If the government sets the agenda of what is worthy of our time, attention, and notably, our money, what does that tell us as a society if those in charge pay no mind to the needs of students with learning disabilities? Diminished special education services reflect a lack of concern for those who require those services. This is a troubling conclusion as inaction toward resolving these issues within the education system normalizes the belief that those with disabilities are not worthy of receiving the support they are entitled to receive. Discrepancies in funding allocation are not by chance - a conscious decision is made to not provide for all students equally. If the needs of students are not funded equally, then it is no stretch of the imagination to come to the conclusion they will not be treated equally within schools.

If funding for special education services is not a routine feature of education policy, then it is not viewed as an essential, or “normal” part of society. Once again, a binary is created of normal and abnormal functions within education and once again, those with learning disabilities are cast outside normalcy and receive less than they deserve. What we value, as Canadians, is reflected in the policies and laws put in place by our governments and thereby entrenched with the fabric of our society. We can do better than this, as evident by the fact that amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 led to Canada being the first country to codify rights for people with disabilities within its constitution (DeLuca 2013). If we are a country that truly values the rights of students with disabilities, this should be reflected in the government policy passed, as made precedent by the Charter.

Views on disability and normalcy are not just created by how individuals act with one another, but rather, they are forged through both school and government policy. Currently, we are underfunding and isolating students through inequitable policies that create a culture where students with disabilities are viewed as lesser than their classmates. For myself, education was a path to a more fulfilling life and although I saw my share of hardships at the hands of these outdated policies, I, fortunately, had financial privileges that helped me along the way; not everyone can be so lucky. Therefore, we mustn’t disrupt that path by allowing policies that cause more harm than they help

COVID-19 and Learning Disabilities

Amidst the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen schools take unprecedented shifts towards online learning, the lack of safety nets in place for those with disabilities, and how schools are underprepared to adequately assist those with learning disabilities. Parents of children with learning disabilities have expressed concern over the push towards e-learning, even prior to the pandemic, by the Ford provincial government at the start of 2020 and how it does not support their children (Bogdan 2020). In February of 2020, one such parent expressed that because their children with dyslexia take longer to process information and understand concepts taught in class, they are at a disadvantage if they cannot easily ask a teacher questions for classification (ibid). These issues being brought up prior to the pandemic are concerning considering they were not taken into account as schools across Ontario made a switch to online learning. A board of directors member of the International Dyslexia Association Ontario echoed these concerns back in February by saying on the matter of Ontario’s push to e-learning: “People with learning disabilities will always face challenges, with online learning at the moment; I don’t know that there is a solution to that based on the e-learning that’s available in today’s environment.” (Bogdan 2020, para 9).

These concerns became even more apparent once the COVD-19 pandemic impacted Ontario and schooling was shifted online. A report provided by the government of Ontario on barriers for students with disabilities because of COVID-19 found virtual learning is not effective for such students due to accessibility challenges with internet and computer software and individual challenges related to the sudden change in format (Ziraldo 2020). Additionally, the cancellation of Special Education Advisory Committees meetings has meant committee members cannot help students and families during this transition (ibid). Overall, the report found virtual learning was not constructed with the interests of students with disabilities in mind and thus schools would have benefited from more planning for virtual instruction that is equitable for all students (ibid). In essence, both in pre-COVID-19 times and during the pandemic, the needs of students with disabilities have gone ignored by school boards and policy-makers alike. While I have not experienced going to public school in a pandemic, I know that students with disabilities deserve better than to have to go through these unprecedented times with less than adequate support from their schools and government alike. 

 

 


 

References

 Bogdan, Sawyer. 2020. “Is e-Learning the Right Move for Ontario’s Students with Learning Disabilities?” Global News, February 13. https://globalnews.ca/news/6544647/ontario-parents-students-e-learning/.

DeLuca, Christopher. 2013 "Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Educational Inclusivity." Canadian Journal of Education / Revue Canadienne De L'éducation 36(1): 305-48.

 

Goodfellow, Athena. 2012 “Looking through the Learning Disability Lens: Inclusive Education and the Learning Disability Embodiment.” Children’s Geographies 10(1): 67–81. doi:10.1080/14733285.2011.638179.

Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. 2012. “Canadian Survey on Disability, 2012 Seeing Disabilities among Canadians Aged 15 Years and Older, 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability, 2012 Seeing Disabilities among Canadians Aged 15 Years and Older, 2012.”. Government of Canada. February 29. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-654-x/89-654-x2016001-eng.htm.

Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario. 2018. “Welcome to LDAO.” Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario. November 10. https://www.ldao.ca/.

Ontario Human Rights Commission. 2018. “Education Funding for Students with Disabilities.” Ontario Human Rights Commission. http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/education-funding-students-disabilities.

Public Service Commission of Canada. 2007. “Guide for Assessing Persons with Disabilities - How to Determine and Implement Assessment Accommodations - Learning Disabilities.” Canada.ca. Government of Canada. August 15. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-service-commission/services/public-service-hiring-guides/guide-assessing-persons-disabilities/guide-assessing-persons-disabilities/guide-assessing-persons-disabilities-determine-implement-assessment-accommodations-learning-disabilities.html.

Toronto District School Board. 2014. “Individual Education Plan.” Toronto District School Board. Toronto District School Board. https://www.tdsb.on.ca/Leadership-Learning-and-School-Improvement/Special-Education/IEP.

Ziraldo, Lynn. “COVID-19 Barriers for Students with Disabilities and Recommendations.” Ontario.ca, 2020.

      https://www.ontario.ca/page/covid-19-barriers-students-disabilities-and-recommendations.

 

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