September 15, 2014

Ontario’s Austerity Hurts Students With Disabilities

By Sarah Jama

We all know what it feels like to sit in class with an uncontrollable urge to pee. Most of us would raise a hand, get granted a hall pass, and go relieve ourselves in the nearest bathroom or tree. For others, the process is more complicated. Picture wearing a catheter, or needing help to transfer from a wheelchair to a toilet. Not so simple in a school setting.

Educational assistants (EAs) are individuals who help students with disabilities gain access to the accommodations required in order for them to benefit from receiving an education. Simply put, EAs are meant to assist students with disabilities in closing the gap between able-bodied individuals and themselves, or to ‘even the playing field’. They scribe notes for students who can’t move their fingers, or assist in monitoring students with severe anxiety in testing situations. Yes, they even help students in the bathroom.

On March 27th 2014, Ontario’s Ministry of Education passed a budget for Special Needs Departments in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) that leaves them 7.3 million dollars under budget, with additional unspecified reductions to be made between 2015 and 2017. Not only that, but a specific fund dedicated toward the funding of Special Education Departments at the TDSB has been cut, with the reasoning that less students are enrolled in high school as a whole than in the past. While this may be true, the number of students making it to high school who have severe disabilities is at an all-time high, no doubt thanks to the support of educational assistants. There are more students who have more complicated needs and need support, making it to higher levels of education. This means that more EAs are needed, not less.

With the budget for this September being 25% less than what has been anticipated, more EAs will inevitably be laid off, despite labour contracts having been negotiated prior to this new budget. The Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) of the TDSB has issued a letter to the Ministry of Education outlining the harmful effects these cuts will have on students, and has sent out the letter to parents. These cuts are sadly affecting more boards than the TDSB. They are occurring in school boards across Ontario, since it has to do with the reduction and redistribution of a fund called the High Needs Amount (HNA), cuts specifically targeting Special Education Departments. The Ministry of Education argues that these cuts will not cause any harmful effects to the education of students in schools, blatantly ignoring the numbers and facts that say otherwise.

With these cuts, along with the 3 million that was already cut in 2012, the TDSB will have no choice but to— as voiced by SEAC—shut down special education classrooms, reduce the number of special education teaching assistant staff and educational assistants, and to reduce diagnostic services, such as in-school Psychologists. EAs have at times been forced to neglect the needs of some students, because they have been left to supervise others. This leaves some without the proper tools needed in order to learn effectively. Again, we see the education system place the vulnerable at an even greater disadvantage.  An example of this was written all over the Toronto Star, when in April of 2014, parents of students with Autism were asked to keep their children at home, because of lack of staff available in local schools. The fact is, that many students will fail at school without the presence of EAs. Not because of any fault of their own, but because our education system first and foremost caters to the able-bodied.  Independence is already more difficult for people with disabilities, and by stripping them of their ability to successfully receive an education, we have made this nearly impossible.

Ontario's Minister in charge of gutting education: Liz Sandals
The cuts to special needs education in Ontario are a part of the Liberal government’s overall austerity policies, designed to make working people pay for the economic crisis that they did not create. As can be clearly seen in this case, these policies disproportionately affect women, racialized communities, and people with disabilities, LGBTQI people and youth. As members of the student movement, we have a duty to stand up and fight against these cuts in Ontario. These cuts mean that many students with disabilities will lose the independence that is owed to them by a school system that should respect the right to education for all. Again, we see examples of the most vulnerable in our society getting swept under the rug and forgotten.

As the Toronto District School Board estimates, these cuts will affect one in five students in the coming year.  This summer, a great amount of worthy effort has gone into organizing around solidarity with people’s struggles internationally, for example in Gaza. With that being said, we should not allow ourselves to miss the injustices happening in our own backyards. This is another example of how capitalist governments promote ableist policies, and we should not let continue.

This article is published in Issue 17 of the new Rebel Youth!

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