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Legislative Enabling of Segregation in Ontario: A Call to Action

National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #16

By Luke Reid, Staff Lawyer, ARCH Disability Law Centre, Toronto, Ontario

In Ontario, inclusive education is unfortunately not the default option for many students with disabilities. Despite the Ontario Government’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy[1] very little has changed for students with disabilities when it comes to being fully included in the regular classroom. Part of this is related to the fact that the central legislative mechanism for placing children in an inclusive setting remains antiquated.

Ontario’s system for “identifying” and “placing” children was developed in the late 1970s to the early 1980s.[2] The process was called the Identification, Placement and Review Committee system or IPRC. This was a time when the segregationist model of educating students with disabilities went largely unquestioned. Ontario was emerging from an age when children with disabilities could be unilaterally denied the right to even attend school[3] and it was often left to their families to try to educate and care for them. As a result, at the time the issue of where a student was placed within a school was less important than whether they were even allowed to attend. However, our understanding of disability and the importance of inclusion has evolved significantly since then and it is time that the legislative framework itself evolve to accommodate this new progressive understanding.

To get more specific, the IPRC process is premised on the idea that there are several different types of placements; those in the regular classroom and placements in a number of other segregated environments. The task set before the Committee is to determine the most “appropriate” placement for the student.[4] This is baked directly into the Education Act. The Education Act specifies very clearly that the IPRC can only make decisions about identification and placement.[5] Only very limited leeway is given to an IPRC to make “recommendations” about the sort of supports that a child might need in these placements.

This overt focus on where different children should go instead of what they need has the effect of fracturing the learning environment. It often forces a Committee which identifies a child as needing extra support to place a child in a separate environment where the extra support is available, instead of allowing the Committee to make a decision to bring the support to the child. ARCH has had numerous calls from parents over the years who are concerned that their child is being forced into a segregated environment, through the IPRC process, simply because that is the ‘only’ place where the support a child needs is available.

A revision of the IPRC process would wholly overhaul the decision-making body and provide it with the ability to make decisions, in a fair and impartial manner, about what a child needs. It would also heavily de-emphasize the placement aspect of decisions, establishing presumption that there is only one common learning environment[6] for children and that the task of the IPRC is to ensure that a child can succeed in that environment.

This may allow for a more flexible and student-centred approach for planning for students. It may also have the added benefit of making IPRC decisions useful to educators, as it would contain a series of concrete recommendations. As it stands, most IPRC decisions provide only a cursory summary of a student’s strengths and abilities and the decision about the recommended placement.

Such a policy change, on its own, is of course not sufficient to create a fully inclusive education system in Ontario. By far the most important factor in increasing inclusion is leadership at the school board and broad based buy in from school staff about promoting inclusion. What it does illustrate though is the invidious effect of old legislative policies on our school system and how it can drive us towards a fragmented education system which excludes students with disabilities.

[1] Realizing the Promise of Diversity: Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy (2009, Queens Printer, Toronto, Ontario).
[2] See: O. Reg. 554/81 Identification and Placement of Exceptional Pupils and it’s precursor O. Reg. 704/78
[3] Education Act, 1974 SO 1974, c 109 at 34(3).
[4] Education Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.2 at s. 8(3) and O. Reg. 181/98: Identification And Placement Of Exceptional Pupils
[5] O. Reg. 181/98: Identification And Placement Of Exceptional Pupils at ss. 14(1), 16(2)& 16 (4)
[6] Although something resembling a presumption for a placement in a regular classroom currently exists in O. Reg. 181/98 under s. 17, this has largely been hollowed out by the courts see: Eaton v. Brant County Board of Education, [1997] 1 S.C.R. 241 Kozak (Litigation guardian of) v. Toronto District School Board, [2010] O.J. No. 3438.

Luke Reid is a Staff Lawyer at the ARCH Disability Law Centre, Toronto, Ontario, and a frequent collaborator with Inclusive Education Canada.