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Ableism is Alive and Well and Living in Ontario

This blog post is provided by Dr. Jacqueline Specht from the Lead to Include research team.


I have been struggling this week with the aspect of students identified with a “high level of special education need” in the province of Ontario being sent back to school while the other students have been told to stay home because it is not safe. The notion that school is not safe should be all that is needed to keep all students at home. It is another example of othering students with disabilities in our schools. The thinking is that there are certain students who cannot learn online. This thinking that students with disabilities cannot do something is not new and has been shared by parents in interviews about inclusion for students with intellectual disabilities. In our report, parents often suggested that low expectations for students who have intellectual disabilities and stereotypical beliefs about their abilities limited their success. Creating a blanket statement about what a group of students with a particular label can or cannot do is ableism and has no place in our school system.

What has struck me most is the calls that I have received from principals and teachers who are concerned with the wide-spread notion that students with disabilities cannot do certain things. I have spoken with teachers who have been teaching students with intellectual disabilities virtually since September. In Ontario, parents were given the option to send their children to school or have them learn virtually. Some parents, fearing the possibility of infection, chose virtual. These teachers have worked tirelessly to create engaging and meaningful lessons for their students with great success. The parents of their students have shared how beneficial the lessons have been and while all feel that in the best of circumstances, face to face school would be better, in these times of the pandemic, the online learning is working well. They are learning and have social interactions with peers; something that was missing for many when the first lockdown was imposed on Spring 2020. For teachers to hear that certain students cannot be taught causes them to question their work and wonder if leaders question the validity of the teaching in which they are engaging. Principals are asking what they can do to support their students who have been attending. They are worried about the underlying messages when only certain students are in the building. Are they condoning the belief that some students cannot learn virtually; are they supporting their staff that are in person; are they supporting the families who have made the choice to send their students to school. Research shows us that one of the main experiences shared by principals to developing inclusive schools is to be accessible to staff and students. I think the best answer for our leaders is to continue supporting your teachers, your students, and your families wherever they may be. By maintaining the relationships, they continue to value the work that their staff are doing. All students can learn; in-person or virtually. Just as with in-person learning, some students require different supports. What these supports look like will vary across age and ability, but we need to stop the thinking that certain students cannot learn in a certain way. As long as we continue to provide separate spaces because of a label, inclusive education will continue to suffer.


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