Special education in Ontario has evolved in the context of a broad social movement advocating the closure of residential institutions, which had housed many persons with special needs, and the inclusion of these persons, with appropriate support services, as fully as possible, in the life of the community.
The legal requirement that schools serve all children with special needs is fairly recent. Until the early 1950s, parents and caregivers were expected to take responsibility for the provision of education for children with special needs. During the thirty years from 1950 to 1980, students with special learning needs were inconsistently served. Many were placed in regular schools, but accommodations were usually not provided. Some drifted away from school, while others managed to obtain some measure of formal education through luck, individual teacher support, and family intervention. For many children with severe difficulties, the provision of education remained a parental or community responsibility until 1980. Although the Hope Commission recommended expansion of special education programs in 1950, educational reforms did not get under way until the 1960s and into the 1970s.
In 1962, the Government of Ontario repealed most of its human rights laws in order to make way for the Ontario Human Rights Code, the first comprehensive human rights code in Canada.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 the Code was amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of handicap.
Through the 1970s, major reforms initiated in the previous decade, such as the Robarts Plan and the Hall-Dennis Report, were implemented in Ontario classrooms. 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 1980 that Ontario’s Education Amendment Act, also known as Bill 82, required Ontario school boards to provide special education programs and services for all students with special education needs.
In most jurisdictions it became standard practice to place students with special education needs in regular schools but in self-contained classes according to their particular needs. This practice was generally known as “mainstreaming” or “integration (in a regular school)”. A series of landmark reports published in the 1970s, including One Million Children: A National Study of Canadian Children with Emotional and Learning Disorders (Roberts & Lazure, 1970) and Standards for Education of Exceptional Children in Canada (Hardy, McLeod, Minto, Perkins, & Quance, 1971), encouraged parents and educators alike to begin questioning the value of special education programs that isolated students from regular education programs. Public support grew for the inclusion of children with exceptionalities into the regular classroom.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which came into effect in 1982, created concerns that a school board’s decision to place a student in a separate, special class might be a violation of his or her equality rights under the Charter. The 1997 Supreme Court decision in the Eaton case made it clear that placement of children with special education needs should be decided on a case-by-case basis, with the key determinant being the student’s best interests.
Regulation 181, enacted in 1998, legislated the requirement that the first consideration regarding placement for an “exceptional pupil” be placement in a regular class with appropriate supports, when such placement meets the student’s needs and is in accordance with parents’ wishes. Ministry policy requires that a range of options continue to be available for students whose needs cannot be met within the regular classroom…
…Regular classroom teachers in Ontario serve a growing number of students with diverse abilities. According to school board statistics, most students with special needs spend at least 50 per cent of their instructional day in a regular classroom, being taught by regular classroom teachers. It is imperative that inclusion means not only the practice of placing students with special needs in the regular classroom but ensuring that teachers assist every student to prepare for the highest degree of independence possible.
Ontario’s Education Act specifically defines “exceptional pupil” and recognizes categories of behavioural, communicational, intellectual, physical, and multiple exceptionalities. For the purposes of identification of “exceptional pupils”, there are currently twelve exceptionality definitions. Many Ontario students have not been formally identified as “exceptional”, but still exhibit abilities that indicate that they are in need of special education programs and/or services.
In any given classroom, students may demonstrate an extensive range of learning needs. Some may, for instance, have difficulties with reading, writing, or mathematics. Others may be new to our languages and culture, or speak another language with more fluency than the language of the classroom. Still others may read complex books or understand advanced mathematical concepts. Some may appear to lack motivation or be underachievers relative to their abilities. Whatever the reasons for the student’s needs, teachers must be prepared to respond effectively and ensure that each student is learning to his or her potential.