Celebrating Seventy Years of Community Living Part Two: Establishing the Right for an Inclusive Education

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by Gord Kyle

When Donald Frisby sat down to write a letter to Ontario Premier, George Drew, in February 1947, he likely was not sure what to expect. What he knew was that something had to be done to help the children in his small northern community of Kirkland Lake. His concern was for those children who had an intellectual disability and had been identified as having an IQ of less than fifty. As a result of that diagnosis, it was illegal for the local schoolboard to provide them an education — a law that applied in all parts of the province. The only school available to these children was a placement in the government run institution in Orillia, known at the time as the Ontario Hospital School. Donald Frisby thought that was wrong. His letter to the Premier outlined the materials that would be needed to begin a class for these neglected children.

Donald was impatient. Action was needed quickly, and he was not about to wait for a reply from the Premier before he acted. On March 11, he convened the first meeting of a steering committee known as the Joint Committee for Special Elementary Education. The committee was comprised of representatives from local service clubs, the town council, the school board, along with other interested community members. Donald’s impatience rubbed off on the other members of the committee. Just a month later, they had rented a room at the Trinity United church for $30 a month, hired a teacher named Mrs. Goldie Macdonald for $100 a month, and opened a class for six students on April 14, 1947. Funding for the class came from the local service clubs and a grant of $2500 a year from the province — this being the Premier’s commitment in response to Donald’s February letter. (Note: in last month’s 70th anniversary article, I wrongly described this grant as coming from the federal government.) The Kirkland Lake Joint Committee reorganized itself in 1953, forming a local association and becoming the 9th charter member of the newly formed provincial association known today as Community Living Ontario.

Last month’s anniversary article traced the work of families in Toronto who formed the first local association in 1948. That association established the first segregated school for students who had an intellectual disability in 1952 with backing from the Kinsmen Club. In the following years, many other local associations across Ontario and Canada followed the example and raised funds to build their own segregated classes and schools. Kirkland Lake opened its first full school, Alpha School, in 1961.

For many groups, that might be how the story ended. After all, the creation of a network of schools, where none had existed before, was a huge achievement. The founding parents had worked tirelessly and were rightfully proud of what they had accomplished for their son’s and daughters. But these families had a more ambitious agenda. In last month’s article on the founding of Community Living, we heard of the letter sent by Victory Glover to the Toronto Star — the letter that sparked the formation of the first family group. In her short letter, Mrs. Glover used one phrase two time, “a normal life.” This was what she desired for her grandson for whom she was advocating. It was what all the parents who came together in communities across the province over the coming decades wanted for their own children. A normal life. But what did that mean? The segregated schools that parents built in those early years looked like other school in town, but they were not normal. While these parent-built schools were far better than the alternatives — being sent to an institution or languishing at home — they did not provide a normal education.

The parent groups worked hard to ensure that the teachers received training in the latest special education techniques. In 1954, for instance, the provincial association convened the first one-day teacher training workshop in London and offered to pay transportation plus $14 to allow each local association to send one teacher. The teachers were committed and determined to provide the best education possible. By 1958, the number of teachers within the segregated system had increased substantially, and teachers organized into a segregated teachers association to help them better communicate and learn from one another.

But nobody could pretend that this was normal. After all, the government took no responsibility for funding the schools aside from a small monthly grant of $25 per month for each student (a fund announced in 1953 in response to the family groups establishment of the provincial association, known today as Community Living Ontario). Further, the schools were strictly segregated. A child who had an intellectual disability had no opportunity to go to the same school as his or her siblings and other children in their neighbourhood who did not have a disability. They went off each day in their own separate bus, to their own separate school. They socialize only with other children who shared their disability and often had few opportunities to create friendships that would carry on outside of the time they spent in class. As well, the education led to nothing that would be recognized later. There were no diplomas — nothing that marked one’s achievements and contributed to finding a job or undertaking further education. The segregated schools led only to segregated work options. As their children surpassed school age, the founding parents created sheltered workshops to which students could transition as no normal employment options followed from the segregated education.

By establishing a network of segregated school across Ontario and creating a system for training teachers, parents had demonstrated that education was possible for students who had an intellectual disability. But, still, the schools operated largely through fundraised dollars and contributions from local service clubs. For years, the only contribution by government was the modest $25 grant established in 1953. Parents advocacy was now focused on changing this and making sure that the government took responsibility for educating their sons and daughters as they did all other children in the province.

In 1960, at the urging of the parent association, the government of Ontario sponsored a conference on children with disabilities at Niagara Falls. A speaker at the conference, Dr. Sam Laycock from the University of Saskatchewan, stated that “education is the right of every child,” and called for children who had an intellectual disability to be included in public education. Dr. Laycock’s call for acknowledgement of a right to education for all was echoed by others and pressure grew for the government to respond with real systemic change.

In 1962, then Minister of Education, William Davis, invited the provincial association to appoint a select committee to plan future developments in education for children who had an intellectual disability. A year later, in 1963, Minister Davis announced in the Legislature that his department would institute a long-range plan to relieve local associations of the responsibility for raising funds for the operation of schools. That work took until 1967, but, finally, the Ministry established education authorities to administer local schools for children who had an intellectual disability. This began the shift of responsibility for operation of the schools away from local associations. In 1969, the Education Act was amended, transferring responsibility for funding of segregated schools from local associations to school boards. At last, the education of students who had an intellectual disability was seen as a responsibility of the education system, even though it was not yet viewed as part of the regular education stream.

In 1974, The Education Act was again amended to replace the words “child” and “children” in reference to students who had an intellectual disability with the term “pupil” or “pupils”. This change was done to ensure that students who had an intellectual disability had the same right as other pupils to remain in school until 21 years of age.

The province finally acknowledged the right of all children to be part of the education system when in 1980, Bill 82 received royal assent. The bill, which came into effect in 1982 with a three-year phase-in, required school boards to take responsibility for all children including children who had an intellectual disability by September 1, 1985.

After thirty-five years of work by parent associations across the province, Bill 82 represented a monumental milestone. The advocacy of the community living movement created education opportunities where none existed before and then convinced the province to take over responsibility for all the children who had been previously sitting at home while other children in their family and neighbourhood went to school. This significant step forward did not, however, end the association’s work on education. In fact, the introduction of Bill 82 marked the beginning of a new phase of the association’s education advocacy. With the government accepting responsibility for the education of all children, it was now time to focus on finally achieving a normal education for children who had and intellectual disability. The association called for the right of all children to be assured inclusive education. This meant attending a school that children who did not have disabilities attended and being included and supported in the regular classes with like-aged children.

The battle for inclusive education was slow and difficult. While public attitudes continued to shift in favour of the vision put forward by Community Living, government policy did not. Frustrated with the lack of government action over the years, many families took their fight to court and other public platforms.

In 1987, the family of Becky Till undertook a human rights challenge against the York Region Board of Education, arguing for Becky’s right to be included in a regular classroom. That process proved to be extremely slow with hearings not being scheduled until 1992. The Till family settled their case out of court.

In 1992, the parents of Emily Eaton undertook court action against the Brant County Board of Education in an attempt to have Emily included in regular classes. In 1995, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in Emily’s favour. It found that Emily’s rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been violated. The ruling stated that segregating children with disabilities in special classes against their parents’ wishes violates their equality rights under section 15(1). The Brant County Board appealed the finding to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled against Emily, restoring the finding of a lower Divisional Court that had ruled in favour of the right of the Board to segregate Emily.

In 1994, Marcia Marcaccio presented her story to the Royal Commission on Learning. Marcia described to the Commission how the education system had blocked her efforts to read. Despite this, Marcia did later learn to read after leaving school and was employed as a teaching assistant by the very school board that had failed to teach her.

Finally, in 1998, the breakthrough in government policy that had been hoped for seemed to occur when the Ministry of Education introduced Regulation, 181/98 — Identification and Placement of Exceptional Pupils. Clause 17 of the regulation looked particularly promising. The clause addressed decisions by Educational Placement Review Committees in placing students in special education. It stated that, if the committee was satisfied that a student could be supported in a regular class, consistent with parental preferences, the committee must decide in favour of such a placement. Given that schools had the legal responsibility to accommodate student’s needs, this clause should have almost always ensure placement into regular classrooms when parents desired it — and at the time a growing number of parents did.

Community Living hoped that this regulation would provide the tool that was needed for families to finally achieve inclusion in regular classes for their sons and daughters. Unfortunately, the regulation did not have a significant impact. The Ministry of Education failed to enforce the regulation, leaving it to each school board to interpret the clause. Within many school boards, parents have been repeatedly discouraged from pressing for the inclusion promised by this regulation; often, parents are told that support for their son or daughter would be limited if they were to choose an inclusive education option. Regulation 181/98 taught us that nothing in our fight for education would ever come easily. Even when the law is on the side of parents, the education system can manipulate things to create road blocks to achieving a normal, inclusive, education.

And so, the battle continues 76 years after Donald Frisby sat down to write the Premier calling for government action. The community living movement has never given up its hope that people who have an intellectual disability can live a normal life, as envisioned by Victoria Glover in her letter to the Toronto Star. But we have not yet achieved what parent set out to achieve all those years ago.

In 2018, Community Living Ontario released a report on the current state of inclusive education in Ontario in collaboration with other academic, legal, and advocacy groups. The report is titled “If Inclusion Means Everyone, Why Not Me?”. It identified several significant barriers that students who have an intellectual disability continue to experience when accessing education. These include academic and social barriers that block access to curriculum and school activities; exclusion from school and classrooms; conflict with schools; stagnant planning and communication and, inconsistent leadership within the school system.

The report concludes that, overall, students who have an intellectual disability continue to experience overwhelming barriers when it comes to accessing their education. The authors of the study stated that they are optimistic that improvements to the education system are possible, despite the daunting barriers that continue to exist. However, as parents throughout the study repeatedly emphasized, real leadership is necessary to address these barriers. This leadership needs to begin within schools and school boards and at the provincial government level. Without this sort of leadership, we are doomed to perpetuate the type of systemic disadvantage that has plagued students who have an intellectual disability since the inception of our education system.