Inclusive education in Canada: Steps taken and the long road ahead, by Dr. Sherri Brown

We are already fully into the snow and cold of winter here in Ottawa, Canada, and the snow is blowing outside as I apply layer onto layer of clothing onto my wiggling 8-year-old son. As I drop him off at school, his educational assistant takes in a gasp of cold air as she removes him from my vehicle. I do the same, too. Not from the cold, but from the aching anxiety I feel every day as I leave my child with severe disabilities at his inclusive public school. I wonder if I will receive a phone call to tell me that his behaviours are mounting, that he is not eating, or that his body is betraying him with symptoms and illnesses. I am anxious at the thought of children who ignore him, or worse, are unkind to him. The latter worry is usually the least significant because I have found that children who live and breathe inclusive environments are some of his best allies. Indeed, the research on inclusive educational environments has repeatedly demonstrated significant educational and socio-emotional benefits for children with and without disabilities. In essence, quality inclusion makes children better friends and citizens, it provides an academic “pull-up” effect to children with disabilities through peer modelling and supports, and builds prosocial skills (caring, empathy, maturity, and collaboration) among all children.

I understand the research very well, and I find myself referring to it often, usually in a justificatory manner: “my son is good for your child; he does not interfere with their learning, I assure you.” The reality is, however, that my child, or any other child like mine, should not have to justify their inclusion in any public school. Human rights do not work that way. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, provincial and territorial Human Rights Codes in Canada, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (particularly Article 24), afford and protect the rights of children and adults with disabilities to equality in public education.

These human rights protections and historical milestones on the long road to inclusion have been significant, but not sufficient. In Canada, we have moved away from practices where children with disabilities formally had one, perhaps two, options: homeschooling or institutionally segregated educational or residential facilities. In many provinces and territories in Canada, it was not until the late 1970s to late 1980s that educational policies began to shift to allow for “mainstreaming” of students with disabilities into general education environments. Until that point, policies were either silent or permitted the exclusion of students with disabilities from general education environments. Students with disabilities primarily accessed an education through “special education” and segregated classrooms or schools. While the policy language has shifted, or, in some provinces such as New Brunswick, through Policy 322, has mandated that all students should be educated in a common learning environment, practices and supports for inclusive education are severely lacking.

The findings of the Education International [EI] Survey on Inclusive Education, presented in a report launched today on the occasion of the international day of persons with disabilities, demonstrates that the gaps between philosophy and practice of inclusive education are pronounced and troubling. Students with disabilities, globally (including Canada) continue to face significant barriers to accessing quality and meaningful inclusive education. Many schools continue to lack required supports, infrastructure, and specialized training and services to meet the needs of students with disabilities. In the EI survey, over half of unions surveyed expressed concerns that fear of discrimination and bullying are major barriers to sending children to school. Further, many schools lack accessible infrastructure, and a significant majority of respondents (78% to 95%) identified a dearth of appropriately trained education support personnel to support students with disabilities. Union respondents emphasized the need for increased access to pedagogical supports, teacher training, ethical support, and education support personnel in order to deliver and enhance quality inclusive education. 

At the July 2018 Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation [CTF-FCE], delegates from 17 Member organizations voted on a list of key advocacy priorities, including adequate resourcing to support quality inclusive education. Teachers and teacher organizations across Canada have told us, repeatedly and emphatically, that while they philosophically support inclusive education, delivering quality and meaningful inclusive education requires substantially new and additional public funding, specialist services, pre- and in-service training for teachers and education support personnel, materials, community and health services, and so forth. While governments in Canada are increasingly moving in positive normative and policy directions on inclusive education, practices and funding have failed to adapt and align to these changes. The result, therefore, has been to download the expectations and workload of inclusive education onto educators without providing them with the requisite tools, resources, and supports. The CTF-FCE will be studying these issues in a newly launched Pan-Canadian Research Taskforce on Inclusive Education. This Taskforce, conducted over three years, with teacher organizations, non-profit organizations, and academics will publish insights, promising practices, and recommendations on public education funding models, classroom models, pedagogical approaches, and related issues. The CTF-FCE and its Member Organizations will also continue to advocate for properly resourced and meaningful inclusive education. 

It is close to the end of my workday and I have received no phone calls from my son’s school. My son attends an outstanding inclusive public school; he receives a wide array of specialized supports, and benefits from an inclusive classroom teacher and a highly supportive administration. He is thriving because everyone believes in his right to be there and to access a quality education. His inclusive education is properly resourced, but it may be the exception rather than the rule. Parents and teachers regularly relay to me their experiences of exclusion, of discrimination, and of the impossible expectations of teaching overcrowded classes with multiple children with disabilities without appropriate supports. It’s a recipe for failure, and it is why I cannot permanently shed my anxieties for my child’s education. Because until all governments and schools align philosophy with practice and funding, the long road ahead remains complex and anxious for all.


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Sherri Brown

Dr. Sherri Brown is a political economist with interest and experience in labour and social justice issues. Currently, as Director of Research and Professional Learning with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF-FCE), and previously as Senior Research Analyst with the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, she has used and developed expertise in quantitative and qualitative research methods to highlight the voices, needs, and priorities of teachers across Canada. Dr. Brown is passionate about public education, and as the parent of a Grade 3 student with severe disabilities, has extensive interests and activist engagement working with teachers and parents to promote and support the values of public education and inclusion.

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