Geoff Johnson: Education is falling behind for children with special needs

In the 1950s, I rode my bike three miles to my all-boys high school and three miles back every day. I always enjoyed the freedom those rides provided, except that twice a day, I would pass by a building with a 10-foot mesh fence around it.

The sign outside the fence read “Greenacres School for Sub-Normal Children.”

I would pedal a little faster as I passed by, because while I never saw anybody playing inside the fence, my youthful imagination wondered what kind of strange children occupied the building and what went on in there. I wondered if that ominous fence was there to protect the children from me — or was it the other way around?

Seventy years later, we are, fortunately, getting past the assumptions that created that awful place.

Significant progress has been made in understanding that our words define our thinking, and when we change our language, we change our thinking.

As educators, we are moving away from the notion that children with additional needs are “disabled.” We are finally recognizing children and adults by their abilities, not their “disabilities.”

Most importantly, public education is catching up with what business has known all along: that diversity, equity and inclusion are not just buzz words. In 2022, they are the defining characteristics of a successful business.

Carolyn Byer, head of human resources at Microsoft Canada, puts it this way: “For employees with disabilities, it’s imperative employers ensure these workers have everything they need to succeed — or risk losing top talent in an increasingly competitive job market.”

Byer adds that “people with disabilities represent one of the world’s largest untapped talent pools ….”

In July 2012, the federal government appointed a panel to consult with private-sector employers, as well as other organizations and individuals, on the labor-market participation of people with disabilities.

The panel members were asked to identify successes and best practices in the employment of people with disabilities, as well as the barriers faced by employers, and to report on their findings.

The panel found that hiring people with disabilities is good for business — based on the opinions of senior and experienced business leaders who recognized the value of an inclusive work environment.

Their views were supported by data on employee retention and productivity.

As one CEO explained: “We need to have people in our workforce who can do the job best, and we have found that sometimes that person just happens to have a disability.”

Secondly, a DuPont study showed that 90 percent of people with disabilities rated average or better on job performance. Another study compared workers with and without disabilities in the hospitality, health-care and retail sectors, and found job performance and supervision were similar for both groups.

Overall, the panel concluded that Canada’s diverse culture and strong commitment to human rights provides a unique opportunity to play a global leadership role in creating fully inclusive workplaces.

When it comes to inclusivity practices that small and big businesses are finding so advantageous, however, public education in BC has some serious catching up to do.

According to a 2019 research report by the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, “for years, British Columbia has been allocating far less money for special education to school districts than districts have been spending on special education.”

The report says “meaningful inclusion” for all students requires a broad array of supports, including specialist teachers, educational assistants, learning resources and specialized equipment, all of which require adequate financial resources.

The same report identifies a large gap between funding allocations and the costs of providing adequate programs for children with additional needs: “In 2016-17, the last school year for which we have audited spending data, the funding flowing from the Ministry of Education to school districts for special education covered just 58 percent of what school districts ultimately spent.”

There is a cost to implementing a philosophy of inclusion, but unfortunately the BC School Act, as of April 4, 2022, is inconclusive, to the point of ambiguity, on the topic: “A board must provide a student with special needs with an educational program in a classroom where that student is integrated with other students who do not have special needs, unless the educational needs of the student with special needs or other students indicate that the educational program for the student with special needs should be provided otherwise.”

As Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid put it: “There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.”

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools

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