Education

Battling the system

Parents of the learning disabled fight for rights

ROBERT SHEPPARD June 22 1998
Education

Battling the system

Parents of the learning disabled fight for rights

ROBERT SHEPPARD June 22 1998

Battling the system

Parents of the learning disabled fight for rights

Education

ROBERT SHEPPARD

The Midnight Bingos belied their name: by the time the last enthusiast had left and the mopping up was done, the events usually ran until 2 a.m., often on a weeknight. But for five years, a handful of parents in Prince Albert, Sask., organized themselves into a charity and ran the bingo evenings—each family donating five nights a month, calling on friends and relatives to help—in order to pay for specialized teaching assistants at their children’s public school. They were not ordinary families or ordinary children. For reasons that science is only now beginning to understand, these children were unable to read or, in some cases, process numbers the way other kids could. Bright enough in other respects, they had a learning block that prevented them from remembering and understanding often basic words. By the mid-1990s, the bingo families had expanded to 12, to 26 and then to 45. Last month, six of them gained the dubious distinction of being the first in Canada to ask a judge to declare that their children are not being taught in a way they can learn. “We are asking the court to declare that their right to an education is being breached,” says Saska-

toon lawyer Robert Kennedy, acting on behalf of the families who cannot be named. “If it won’t tell the school boards exactly what to do, at least tell them they have to do something.”

In going to court, these families join the growing ranks of parents seeking to get more specialized education for their children in public schools, demands that have sparked a wave of litigation in the United States, and also a backlash. About to decide whether the case should proceed to full trial, Judge G. A. Smith of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench is being asked to

determine whether learning disabilities are indeed a legally identifiable disorder. Is there a particular program for conditions that can range from a pronounced inability to read to attention deficits and hyperactivity? And, indeed, do the courts have the right to meddle in what may be a matter of educational philosophy?

Back up to 1992. The Concerned Parents for Children with Learning Disabilities, a group that now represents about 100 families in the Prince Albert area, felt they had found the answer in Calgary’s Foothills Academy, an innovative private school specializing in intensive, small-class instruction for those with severe reading and organizational disorders. Having raised the money to fly provincial school officials to Calgary, the parents convinced the local boards to start a pilot project in Prince Albert that fall using many of the Foothills techniques. At first, local authorities were keen on the project, called the Carlton Connection after the Prince Albert school it is housed in. “It is the Saskatchewan way,” says Shirley Gange, director of education for the area’s nowamalgamated Saskatchewan Rivers School District, the fifth largest in the province. ‘We like to help each other.” The boards offered the classroom space and two special education teachers. The $50,000 the parents raised each year through bingos and donations subsidized two teaching assistants who helped with the individualized lessons for as many as 28 students in Grades 7, 8 and 9.

But last fall, when the parents said they could not maintain their financial commitment and requested that the program be expanded to other grades and more students, the boards took over the project and, the parents claim, scaled it back, leading to the lawsuit in September against the province and the four local school boards. According to LaVonne Beriault, director of legal services for the Saskatchewan School Trustees Association and the lawyer acting for the school boards, this fight is over more than resources. In order to meet the parents’ wishes and establish more segregated programs for the learning disabled, Beriault says, “we would have to be quite convinced that was the right thing to do. Our whole system is based on inclusion, not exclusion.”

The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, an Ottawa-based lobby group, estimates that 10 per cent of the Canadian population have a lifelong learning disorder, and another approximately five per cent can have related attention-deficit problems. The conditions have been broadly identified by educators for 30

The terms of a disability

What is a learning disability? The parents’ case in Prince Albert, borrowing from current academic literature, explains: “Such disorders may be manifested by delays in early development and/or difficulties in any of the following areas: attention, memory, reasoning, co-ordination, communicating, reading, writing, spelling, calculation, social competence and emotional maturation. Learning disabilities may arise from genetic variations, biochemical factors, events in the pre-to-perinatal period, or any other subsequent events resulting in neurological impairment.” Descriptions of the most common disabilities:

Dyslexia: Extreme difficulty in understanding the sounds of words and confusing those that are similar.

Dyscalculia: Problems with understanding shapes and mathematical symbols.

Dysgraphia: Extreme difficulty with the act of writing.

Attention deficit disorder/Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,

commonly known as ADD or ADHD: Extreme distractibility and inability to follow through with simple tasks.

years. But even today, the association says, most public-school boards tend to diagnose and deal with only about three per cent of the school population as learning disabled. In the United States, where so-called LD students are protected by a federal law, a larger proportion—closer to five per cent by some accounts—have been placed in customized, publicly funded courses. Critics complain that fast-track parents are angling for learning disability designations to give their children the best in individualized instruction, as well as a leg up—extra time and help on entrance tests—when competing for prestigious spots in professional schools.

To date, the Canadian scene has been much different. But that may change as parents grow increasingly frustrated with the inability of many schools to deal adequately with problem learners. Last December, three Yukon families with learning disabled children withdrew a complaint before the Human Rights Commission after the territorial government agreed to reimburse them for sending their children to Calgary’s Foothills Academy. In doing so, the territorial government tacitly acknowledged that it could not provide the special education that the children required.

And in Wolfville, N.S., last month, the Annapolis Valley regional school board was ordered to pay $26,000 in tuition for Justin Farquhar to attend the private Landmark East School, one of two residential schools in the province serving the learning disabled. Fourteen-year-old Farquhar, who is hyperactive and has attention deficit disorder, had been attending the school with the help of bursaries and donations from friends and neighbors. The Annapolis Valley board had said it could not use public funds to pay private-school tuition—although it was within its discretion to do so—largely because it was using the money to develop its own special-needs program. But Darlene Farquhar, Justin’s mother, won a rare reprieve from a newly established ministerial review panel.

Yude Henteleff, a prominent Winnipeg lawyer who has been a tireless advocate for the learning disabled, says there have been a handful of Supreme Court rulings that appear to advance the cause. Last year, for example, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the Ontario parents of Emily Eaton, a severely disabled girl with cerebral palsy, who wanted their daughter placed in a mainstream classroom. But as the late Justice John Sopinka noted in passing: “Special education for students with learning disabilities indicates the positive aspects of segregated education placement. Integration can be either a benefit or a burden depending on whether the individual can profit from the advantages that integration provides.”

But budget realities have left cashstrapped school boards retrenching, spreading scarce special-education resources more thinly across a wider group of needy

students. Henteleff says he has been increasingly called upon to mediate disputes between parents of special-needs children and those of extremely bright or “gifted” children. An unforgiving critic of special education programs, Henteleff says it is timeconsuming and costly to agitate for more help in the public system. “There is a whole process of deception which goes on,” says Henteleff. “And the system wears you out.” In Prince Albert, the Carlton School still offers middle-school education for up to 28 severely learning disabled kids—a tiny fraction of the approximately 8,400 students in

the Rivers School District, and a fraction of those who apply. And it continues to use many of the Foothills techniques, according to education director Gange. At the same time, the board is offering instruction in other schools for students with emotional, behavioral or second-language problems. Still, Gange says the school board cannot afford a separate multi-grade school for the learning disabled, which is what she believes the Concerned Parents were asking for. And although that is not the parents’ current legal position, there is no doubt that it is still their dream. □