An Historical Overview of Special Education in Ontario
This unit provides a short historical overview of special education in the province of Ontario. It is written in chronological order with an emphasis on specific government initiatives and resulting legislation. It is intended to provide the reader with a brief history of the changes that have taken place in special education policy and legislation, and provide some context for the establishment of Special Education Advisory Committees (SEACs). It is not meant to be a thorough analysis or a full history of special education in the province.
In 1980, SEACs were established as part of a major revision to Ontario's education system and its support for students with special needs. That year, An Act to Amend the Education Act, which is frequently referred to as Bill 82, was passed, requiring that exceptional pupils receive special education programs and services. Bill 82 was the culmination of thirty years of royal commissions, education reform, public pressure, and political will.
During the thirty years from 1950 to 1980, students with special learning needs were largely ignored. Some drifted away from school, others managed to obtain some measure of formal education through luck, individual teacher support, and family intervention. The following story demonstrates this struggle. Click on the title and read the story.
Dateline 1957 ‑ The Case of Ruthie [a]
When we think of Ruthie's experience and compare it to experiences of students in schools today, it's plain that the Ministry has moved a very long way in supporting students with special needs, although much remains to be done.
The 1950s: Beginnings
The first significant look at special education came with the Royal Commission on Education in Ontario, 1950, also known as the Hope Report.
The Hope Report was a significant Ontario milestone. Its recommendations included the following:
- compulsory school attendance from age six to age sixteen
- universal Kindergarten programs
- the abolition of Grade 13
- a significant expansion of special education programs to serve children with learning disabilities
While the report had little immediate impact on education policy, many of its recommendations were quite significant. Although it took fifty years for some of the recommendations to be implemented, it was a beginning.
The 1960s: Decade of Education Reform
The next major education reform came in 1962. The Robarts Plan completely reorganized the schools' program of studies. This educational reform initiative introduced three academic streams for students attending secondary school, including a two year course to prepare students directly for jobs, a four year course that included vocational training, and a more traditional five year program. Among the results of this significant policy change was a decrease in the dropout rate for secondary school students and an increase in the number of students who stayed in school to obtain a graduation diploma.
As a separate initiative in 1962, the Government of Ontario repealed most of its human rights laws in order to make way for the Ontario Human Rights Code, the first comprehensive human rights code in Canada. The Code affirmed the right to equal access to services, including education. However, it was not until 1982 that human rights legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of "handicap" was proclaimed. Over its forty-year history, the Ontario Human Rights Code has been a very important initiative in advancing the rights of students.
Education reform continued to come quickly in the 1960s. In 1968 the Hall-Dennis Report, Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario, was released. A key component of this report was the reinforcement of "... the right of every individual to have equal access to the learning experience best suited to his needs, and the responsibility of every school authority to provide a child centred learning continuum that invites learning by individual discovery and inquiry." This report served as a catalyst for dramatic changes in classrooms and in teaching throughout the province.
The 1970s: Implementation of Further Reforms
Through the 1970s, the major reforms initiated in the previous decade were implemented in Ontario classrooms. New program policies, credits, and diploma requirements were introduced, accompanied by new teaching techniques, often in dramatically altered classroom settings, which included the Aopen classroom@. Programs and services for students with special needs, however, were still lacking. School boards were still not required to offer special education programs and services, although some did. It was not until the end of the decade that a greater focus was directed at special education.
The 1980s: Focus on Special Education
On December 12, 1980, An Act to Amend the Education Act, often referred to as Bill 82, came into effect in Ontario. This legislation, which had a significant impact on special education in the province, was part of a world wide movement towards providing all children with the opportunity for a publicly funded education, regardless of disabilities. For example, in the United States, a landmark piece of legislation, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, was passed in 1975. This legislation has been amended over time and is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA.
The passage of Bill 82 meant that, for the first time, school boards in Ontario were required to provide special education programs and services to exceptional pupils or to purchase these services through an agreement with another publicly funded school board. Up to this time, school boards could offer such programs and services, but were under no obligation to do so, with the result that there was significant variation in the provision of special education programs and services among boards across the province. Children with disabilities were, therefore, sometimes excluded from Ontario schools entirely. Some of these children stayed at home without attending any school, while others might have been accommodated in private school settings, often run by parents or volunteers.
Other aspects of the legislation, and subsequent regulations, included such requirements as the following:
- early and ongoing identification and assessment of learning abilities and needs of students
- establishment of Identification, Placement, and Review Committees
- involvement of parents or guardians of exceptional pupils in assessment, identification, and placement processes
- involvement of parent associations in SEACs
- the right of parents to appeal decisions related to identification or placement by an Identification, Placement, and Review Committee of the board
- extension of the right to provide programs for children with developmental disabilities to Roman Catholic School Boards, thus enabling separate schools to provide special education programs and services for all of their students
Following the enactment of the Education Amendment Act of 1980 (Bill 82), school boards were given five years to establish their special education plans, in consultation with their SEACs. Today, Regulation 306 requires that each school board prepare and approve a report on their special education programs and special education services and submit it to the Ministry of Education every two years. Any amendments to the plan in the intervening year must also be reported to the ministry. Over time, numerous regulations and policy statements, including policy/program memoranda, were issued by the ministry to support the policy framework reflected in the legislation.
Policy/Program Memorandum No. 81 (PPM 81) is one example. PPM 81 addresses interministerial responsibilities for the provision of health support services in school settings for pupils who require them in order to attend school. This policy memorandum, issued in 1984, describes how health support services such as speech language services; the provision of medication, catheterization, and lifting and positioning; and other services were to be shared among three ministries. The school boards would share responsibility for the direct provision of these services at the local level with the Home Care Program of the Ministry of Health and with agencies operating under the Ministry of Community and Social Services. The present names of the pertinent ministries are the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care (MOHLTC) and the Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS). The health support services formerly provided by the Home Care Program of MOHLTC are now provided by MOHLTC Community Care Access Centres (CCACs).
Regulations 554/81 and 305, which were later replaced by Regulation181/98, are further examples. These regulations required every school board to establish at least one Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC) to determine if a pupil should be identified as exceptional, and, if so, what the determination of placement should be. Subsection1(1) of the Education Act defines an exceptional pupil as one Awhose behavioural, communicational, intellectual, physical or multiple exceptionalities are such that he or she is considered to need placement in a special education program by a committee ... of the board@. The regulation also requires principals to ensure that an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is developed for each student who has been identified as exceptional by an IPRC within thirty school days of the placement of the pupil in a special education program.
Regulation 181/98 also includes requirements concerning the following matters:
- the IPRC's description of a student's strengths and needs and its decision regarding whether the student should be identified as an exceptional pupil
- consideration of placement in a regular class with appropriate supports, when it meets the student's needs and is in accordance with parents' wishes
- communication to parents about IPRC procedures
- appeal procedures if parents disagree with IPRC decisions related to identification and/or placement
Bill 82 had a significant impact on parents, teachers, and other professionals associated with providing special education support to students. Active participation on SEACs meant parents and advocates became more informed about school board requirements for the provision of programs. As a result, they began to influence the range of special education programs and services provided by their boards. Many teachers had to develop new skills and take additional training in order to respond to the program needs of pupils they were not used to having in their classes.
Human rights legislation, both federal and provincial, has had a significant impact on the rights of students with disabilities and their access to special education programs and services in schools. Other initiatives, including government commissions on education, general education reform, and the publication by the Ministry of Education of policy documents and resource guides related to special education, have added to the impact of these rights on the delivery of programs and services.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which came into effect in 1982, stipulates that every individual is equal before and under the law, and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.
Ontario's Human Rights Code also supports equal treatment for all individuals. In 1989, the Human Rights Commission, which administers the Code, published its Guidelines on Assessing Accommodation Requirements for Persons with Disabilities, and, in 2000, it approved a revised version of its Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate. This document sets out a broad definition of disability, from a human rights perspective, along with key policy positions on the duty to accommodate and the undue hardship standard. In 2004, the Commission published Guidelines on Accessible Education that are intended to provide guidance to support education providers and students with disabilities in the fulfilment of their duties and rights under the Code.
The Last Decade: Meeting Special Education Needs
Through legislation, regulations, and policy statements, the Ministry of Education continues to make special education a high priority. In 1991, the Minister of Education said:
"The integration of exceptional pupils into local community classrooms should be the norm in Ontario, wherever possible, when such a placement meets the pupil's needs, and when it is according to parental choice."
A June 9, 1994, memorandum from an assistant deputy minister reinforced the ministry's commitment to integration as a first choice of placement for students. It stated:
"The Ministry of Education and Training remains committed to the principle that the integration of exceptional pupils should be the normal practice in Ontario, when such a placement meets the pupil's needs and is in accordance with parental wishes. A range of options including placement in a special class or provincial or demonstration school will continue to be available for pupils whose needs cannot be met within the regular classroom."
The 1995 Report of the Royal Commission on Learning, For the Love of Learning, recommended the integration of students with special needs into regular classrooms, with classroom support when necessary, while acknowledging the appropriateness of other placements, including acceleration for gifted students.
The ministry's Special Education: A Guide for Educators, 2001, which replaced the Special Education Information Handbook, 1984, reflects the many changes that have taken place with regard to legislation, regulations, policy, and educational practice since the publication of the earlier document. The guide explains pertinent legislation and policy, funding for special education, program planning, programs and services, and the roles of and resources provided by other ministries. The guide will be updated periodically to reflect new legislation, policies, programs, and practices.
Special Education in Ontario Today
All students require support from teachers, classmates, family, and friends in order to benefit fully from their school experience. Some students have special needs that require additional supports beyond those ordinarily received in the school setting. In Ontario, children who have behavioural, communication, intellectual, physical, or multiple disabilities or disorders, or who are gifted, may require special education services or special education programs to enable them to attend school and to benefit fully from their school experience. Such students may be formally identified as exceptional pupils. Subsection 8(3) of the Education Act requires the Minister of Education to prescribe categories of exceptionalities, to define the exceptionalities, and to require school boards to use the definitions. The categories and definitions can be found in the ministry policy document Special Education: A Guide for Educators.
All students formally identified as exceptional by an Identification, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC) must have access to an education that will enable them to develop the knowledge and skills they need in order to participate in the life of Ontario's communities. The Education Act and regulations made under the Act require school boards to provide exceptional pupils with special education programs and special education services that are appropriate for their needs. Specific procedures for the identification and placement of exceptional pupils are set out in Regulation 181/98. This regulation also provides for the regular review of the identification and placement of a student and for the appeal of identification and/or placement decisions with which parents/guardians disagree.
When the IPRC identifies a student as exceptional, the principal must ensure that an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is developed and maintained for that pupil in accordance with the ministry document: Individual Education Plans: Standards for Development, Program Planning, and Implementation, 2000. Input from parents or guardians must be included in the development of the IEP. Students sixteen years or older must also be consulted. The IEP identifies the student's particular learning expectations and outlines how the school will address these expectations through appropriate special education programs and services. It also identifies how the student's progress will be reviewed. The IEP will be modified on the basis of continuous evaluation and assessment.
To assist teachers and other support professionals in developing an IEP for exceptional students, the ministry has included a section on IEPs in its resource document Special Education: A Guide for Educators, 2001.
To assist school board officials, principals, teachers, students and their families and health care workers, community workers, and others who support students before and after they leave school, the ministry has developed Transition Planning: A Resource Guide, 2002. This guide provides detailed examples of steps for implementing policy set out in Regulation 181/98 and elaborated in the ministry's policy document Individual Education Plans: Standards for Development, Program Planning, and Implementation, 2000, in order to assist all those involved in the transition-planning process.
To assist teachers and school board staff in developing IEPs, the ministry developed the IEP Resource Guide, 2004. This guide is intended to help teachers and others working with students with special needs to develop, implement, and monitor high-quality IEPs. A five-step process is recommended. Suggestions and examples are provided, but IEPs, by their very nature, will be individualized on the basis of the particular requirements of the student.
In order to assist school boards to work with parents and community partners as they plan students' entry to school, the ministry developed Planning Entry to School- A Resource Guide, 2005. This resource guide represents an effort to identify and build on existing effective practices and translates evidence-based research into practical ideas and processes.
In 2005, the ministry established the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students with Special Education Needs to recommend practices, based on research, that would allow Ontario's teachers to improve and reinforce effective instruction of reading, writing, oral communication, and mathematics to students from Kindergarten to Grade 6 who have special education needs. The result was the publication Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students with Special Education Needs.
The Council of Ontario Directors of Education (CODE), with financial support from the Ministry of Education, has overseen the implementation of school based projects aimed at implementing the concepts and approaches recommended in Education for All.
The Working Table on Special Education was established in May 2005 to reform how students with special needs receive support in school. The Working Table brought together representatives from the education community including educators, administrators, parents, special education support staff and students. This work and recommendations are contained are within the report Special Education Transformation: The Report of the Co-chairs with the Recommendations of the Working Table on Special Education. The Ministry's commitment is to implement the recommendations in the report. As this report provides the current framework for special education.
Additional information can be found in the section on Special Education in Ontario in the Ministry of Education's website.
Ontario's schools have come a long way in the years since Ruthie was a student.
a. Dateline 1957 B The Case of Ruthie
It was not until she was almost eight years old that Ruthie began attending school. To begin with, her parents knew she was, in her father's words, "something behind other young ones". Then there was the long walk down the concession and across the side road to the one room school. She'd have to do it alone and well, everybody knew Ruthie had this habit of wandering off.
Even at age eight, Ruthie's future as a student was uncertain at best.
"We don't have to take this child in if you don't want," the chairman of S.S.#12 school board had said to the brand new teacher in August. "It's going to be hard enough in your first year without having a child (with special needs) to look after. The regulations are clear. We don't have to take her. It's up to you."
But the teacher welcomed Ruthie and made her feel part of the tiny student body. Two girls in grade eight readily agreed to take her outside to the toilet every day just before recess. One of the older boys built her an extended desktop so she could more easily enjoy her favourite activity: colouring big murals on the back of discarded rolls of wallpaper. The younger children, a bit perplexed at first because Ruthie didn't speak, soon learned to ignore her strange noises. And every day after lunch, Ruthie crawled happily into the teacher's lap for the reading of the next sequence in 'the afternoon story'. By the end of the school year, Ruthie could recognize her own name in print; she understood and followed routines; could count up to ten blocks, and, most important in the teacher's view, she no longer wandered at will.
The next year of her schooling might have shown even more development, but Ruthie got caught in a swirl of events that even her parents didn't quite follow. S.S.#12 was closed in June, along with all the other one room schools in the township. Students were now to be bused to a brand new central school. Ruthie's teacher got married that summer and moved to the other end of the province. At 'Central', the school inspector told the staff in primary/junior that no one was obligated to take in Ruthie but if anyone volunteered, she would be admitted. There were no takers. Ruthie never went to school again.
From K. Weber and S. Bennett, Special Education in Ontario Schools, 5 th ed. (Palgrave, ON: Highland Press, 2004).