It’s easy to understand why schools are built with wheelchair ramps – without the ramp, a child in a wheelchair would not be able to access the same educational services as other children his or her age. (Insert – duh! – here.) Even the most curmudgeonly among us would have a hard time complaining about taxpayer money being spent to install a ramp at a school.
When a child’s disabilities are invisible, however, that’s when things start to get confusing for some people. A child with a learning disability has average to above average intelligence and, like most of us, has areas of strength but also areas of serious weakness. These challenges often require extra support, alternate programming and adaptations in order for that child to be successful. This, like anything else that steps outside the norm, costs money. And once you start talking money, human compassion starts to wane.
Recently the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favor of a family who took their child out of public school in British Columbia in grade 4 and put him in a private school when it became clear the school could not meet his special learning needs.
In the early 1990’s, Jeffrey Moore was struggling to keep up with his Grade 2 classmates. Despite extra help from his parents and teachers, Jeff could still not read. The school psychologist was brought in and it was discovered that Jeff had a learning disability – dyslexia, which meant he had great difficulty reading. She recommended that he attend the local diagnostic centre in order to receive the help he needed. Unfortunately, before Jeff had a chance to enroll, the local school board closed the centre. By this point, Jeff was suffering from low self-esteem, constant headaches, stress and was falling further and further behind his peers. His school was offering him the same services that other children with his issues were getting, but they weren’t enough. He needed specific services that his public school and school board were unable to provide.
Based on recommendations from the school psychologist, Jeff’s parents felt their only option was to enroll him in a private school for children with learning disabilities. So they did. It was expensive but it worked. Jeff’s reading improved and he was a much happier little boy. But his parents felt it wasn’t fair. They felt the government had a responsibility to provide an education to all students, even those with learning disabilities.
So, in 1997, Jeff’s father, Frederick Moore, filed a human rights complaint against the School District and the British Columbia Ministry of Education alleging that Jeff had been discriminated against because of his disability and had been denied “a service . . customarily available to the public”, contrary to s. 8 of the Human Rights Code, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 210.
Basically what Jeff’s parents were asking was for their child to be given the same chances as every other child to be successful at school. Because of his learning disability, he needed something extra in order to level the playing field. He needed a ramp upon which he could climb the hill that dyslexia had put in front of him.
This is the analogy Madam Justice Rosalie Abella used when awarding the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court in favor of Jeff and his parents.
“Adequate special education, therefore, is not a dispensable luxury. For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia.” Moore v. British Columbia (Education),2012 SCC 61.
The justices awarded Jeff’s parents $100,000 for the costs involved for his private schooling. Jeff, now 23, was awarded $10,000 for the discrimination he suffered.
Jeff’s father said he was driven to take the case as far as he could because he felt public schools had an obligation to help all children succeed. Moore’s lawyer Frances Kelly said the decision sets a national precedent and sends a message to all public schools. “This is a warning to them that they have to comply with their duties under the human rights code to ensure that students with learning disabilities have the same access to education as other students.” (http://www.vancouversun.com/news/education/North+Vancouver+school+district+discriminated+against/7524870/story.html#ixzz2CPUpXZ4v)
The Globe and Mail published an editorial immediately following the ruling strongly condemning the Supreme Court for “overstepping its authority”.
The Supreme Court of Canada has opened a Pandora’s box for public school boards by finding that a British Columbia school district discriminated against a dyslexic child when, during a financial crisis, it closed a special-education centre that provided him intensive help in learning to read. From here on, schools, school boards or provinces could be forced to bleed other programs to meet court-ordered educational standards for special-needs students. (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/editorials/supreme-court-ruling-on-special-education-opens-pandoras-box/article5169193/)
On November 16, the Vancouver Sun published an opinion piece by Derek James From, a staff lawyer with the Canadian Constitution Foundation. It reads like diatribe from a right-wing American pundit. He notes that Jeffrey is now making a good living as a plumber and therefore, no blood, no foul.
“Perhaps it’s Jeffrey, not the hard-working B.C. taxpayers, who should pay his father back.”http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Supreme+Court+ruling+rejects+equality+favour+another/7562452/story.html#ixzz2CnAp9F1R
Wow – talk about totally missing the point. Jeffrey is making a good living now thanks to the fact that he was taken from his public school and put in a private school, at his parent’s expense, where his needs were met. Who knows where he would be now if his parents had not been able to make this commitment?
But Jeffrey Moore’s individual situation is not the point of this story. The Supreme Court of Canada has said that children with learning disabilities have every right to be taught the way they learn. I will repeat: Children have a right to be taught the way they learn. We have to stop cramming our little square pegs into round holes. It’s not working. These children have a disability that requires a “ramp”. Just because it’s not visible doesn’t mean it’s not there. And yes, it’s going to cost money. Probably lots of money. But the argument that this will hurt the so-called average child is bull-puckey. Any teacher who has ever taught a class that includes a child with a learning disability (and that would be every teacher in North America, I would guess) can tell you that having no support for that child affects every other child in the room. I have had classes where, no lie, half of my class had some sort of learning difference, some very severe, and classroom support was minimal. When those children don’t have the supports they need, do you know who provides it? The classroom teacher. And who suffers when the classroom teacher’s attention is pulled in one direction and then another? All of the children, even the so-called average kids.
This ruling by the Supreme Court may change the face of education. And I hope it does. We are going to have to re-think the way we do things. There isn’t an endless pot of money at the end of the rainbow. Things will have to cut and reduced. The status quo is going to have to change in order to meet the needs of all children. And so it should.
The winds have changed. It’s time to adjust out sails.
Read the full Supreme Court ruling (ie. the legal mumbo-jumbo) here: http://scc.lexum.org/decisia-scc-csc/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/12680/index.do