Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New Brunswick Human Rights Commission Guidelines Discriminate Against Autistic Students

The New Brunswick Human Rights Commision has adopted new guidelines to accommodating students with a disability in New Brunswick schools - New Brunswick Human Rights Commission, Guideline on Accommodating Students with a Disability. Unfortunately for some New Brunswick students with Autism Disorder the guidelines themselves fail to accommodate their disability and in doing so discriminate against some students with profound Autism Disorder. The guidelines fail to accommodate by creating a "norm" or presumption in favor of mainstream classroom placement even though, for some autistic students, the mainstream classroom in not an appropriate place of learning, can be overwhelming to environmentally sensitive autistic children and can be result in dangerous, self injurious behavior.

When the NB Human Rights Commission says that mainstream classroom placement is the norm education officials will quite understandably feel that it is necessary to place all children in the classroom. Essentially this "norm" will push students into the classroom who should be in a different, quieter, less busy location within the school in order for them to learn, and to not be overwhelmed. For those school districts who do not want to spend the money from their budget to accommodate more individualized instruction necessary for some autistic students placing them in the classroom without individualized instruction by autism specific trained Teacher Aides will be a cheap solution, as it has been in the past. And the presumption or norm created by the HRC will assist them in justifying their decision.

New Brunswick schools have, over the past 30 years, been dominated by an extreme inclusion model which saw all children dumped in the mainstream classroom without proper support and without regard for the individual conditions of some children with disabilities such as some severely autistic children. The result has been disruption in the classroom, failure to learn by some children, and in some cases, including my profoundly autistic son, dangerously self injurious behavior. Fortunately, over the past several years, the rigid ideological approach of the classroom inclusion for all philosophy has given way in some instances to an evidence based approach which requires examination of what actually works for each child. Educate the child in the way he or she learns best, in the environment in which he or she learns best. An evidence based approach is consistent with human rights policies by requiring an examination of the disability issues presented by the individual student. This evidence based approach was promised by the Province of New Brunswick Inter-Departmental Committee that examined autism services in New Brunswick between 1999 and 2001.

The IDC Report issued in November 2001, disclosed the already known fact that there were at that time very few autism specific services available in New Brunswick. The most significant accomplishment of the IDC Report was that it recommended an evidence based approach to provision of autism services. The three departments that sat on the IDC were Health, Family Services and .... Education. In fact, since that time there have been some to an evidence based approach being adopted in some New Brunswick schools.

My own son, profoundly autistic, was removed from the mainstream classroom, at our request, after he repeatedly came home from school with self inflicted bite marks on his hands and wrists. He was overwhelmed by the classroom. To the full credit of school, district, and Department officials they looked at the evidence and agreed to place Conor in a separate room for his instruction for most of the day. The education officials accommodated my son's disability by looking at his actual condition and educating him in an environment suitable for him in light of the realities of his autism disorder.

During the MacKay Review of Inclusive Education Autism Society NB presented a position paper for educating autistic students which called for an evidence based approach. Teaching children how and where they learn best in light of their actual condition. As one of the autism representatives I spoke on numerous occasions about the need for an evidence based approach for autistic students. For some autistic students the mainstream classroom is the appropriate learning environment. For others, including my son, it is not. This evidence based approach is supported by research including Mesibov and Shea (1996):

The concept of full inclusion is that students with special needs can and should be educated in the same settings as their normally developing peers with appropriate support services, rather than being placed in special education classrooms or schools. According to advocates the benefits of full inclusion are increased expectations by teachers, behavioral modeling of normally developing peers, more learning, and greater selfesteem. Although the notion of full inclusion has appeal, especially for parents concerned about their children's rights, there is very little empirical evidence for this approach, especially as it relates to children with autism. This manuscript addresses the literature on full inclusion and its applicability for students with autism. Although the goals and values underlying full inclusion are laudable, neither the research literature nor thoughtful analysis of the nature of autism supports elimination of smaller, highly structured learning environments for some students with autism.

This information was present throughout the Mackay Inclusion review process. In one session I attempted, along with ASNB Education Rep Dawn Bowie, to speak specifically about autism issues and the need for an evidence based approach by which autistic students are educated in a location, whether it be in the mainstream classroom or elsewhere, according to the realities of their individual conditions. My comments were met dismissively by a New Maryland school official who asserted that we were not there to talk about autism. They were also met with angry opposition by New Brunswick Human Rights Commission Chair Gordon Porter who was present and who told me and Mrs. Bowie that "you people should be thankful for what you have ". Mr. Porter then proceeded to talk about how bad it was in the Special Education system in New Brunswick many years ago and how the inclusion model was a very substantial improvement.

Given Mr. Porter's prominent role in putting the inclusion model in place in New Brunswick, and given his strong personal views, it is not surprising that the Human Rights Commission which he chairs has issued Guidelines which create a presumption in favor of classroom inclusion for all students. It is also not surprising in that the New Brunswick Association for Community Living was tasked by the Department of Education with holding professional development days for New Brunswick teachers to explain the recommendations of the MacKay Inclusion Review. The NBACL is a fierce advocate for the total inclusion model. The NBACL has paid staff who persistently lobby for the full inclusion model. An example are the awards they hand out to teachers in New Brunswick who best demonstrate inclusion practices in New Brunswick schools. The NBACL, in hosting the inclusion professional development days for teachers asked Gordon Porter to be the keynote speaker at the event. A request by ASNB to speak at the event, to speak with the teachers about autism, and the need for an evidence based approach, was rejected by the NBACL.

Mr. Porter and NBACL are both strongly committed to the full inclusion model and that commitment to a philosophy of classroom inclusion for all is reflected in the norm espoused by the new Human Rights Commission guidelines. The promotion of that norm by the Human Rights Commission will put even more pressure on teachers and school officials to put all students in the classroom. The promotion of that norm is contrary to the evidence based approach promised for autistic persons in the IDC Report and it is contrary to the duty to accommodate the individual differences of students with disabilities, particularly some students with profound autism disorder.

It was precisely that failure to accommodate individuals with disabilities that led Yude Henteleff QC to describe the full inclusion model as discriminatory in a paper he presented to the Canadian Assocation for Community Living in 2004. Mr. Henteleff has represented individuals with a variety of different disabilities including autism, deaf and hard of hearing,
aspergers, Tourette's syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, developmental
disability, physical disability and the learning disabled. He has been the legal counsel for the Association of Parents of Children with Autism in Manitoba and has been associated with the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. In The Fully Inclusive Classroom Is Only One Of The Right Ways To Meet The Best Interests Of The Special Needs Child Mr. Henteleff argued that the full inclusion approach is in itself discriminatory by failing to accommodate individual disability based differences. At page 2 he states:

It should be abundantly clear, having in mind the foregoing statistics, that for children
who suffer from emotional, mental, behavioural, cognitive, sensory, physical, expressive
language, visual and auditory difficulties (and often a combination of some of the foregoing), it is simply not possible to meet their diverse needs in one environment. One shoe simply cannot fit all.

Indeed, total inclusion is a discriminatory concept because it limits the environmental
choices, which groups of children and youth with differing difficulties have the right to make in their best interests.

I am completely dedicated to the public school system. I believe it is an integral part of
whom and what we are as Canadians living in a democratic society. That means a place where all children are welcomed - regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, colour, religion, physical or mental condition. In other words, the public school system is a place where the social contract guaranteed by the Charter and Human Rights Codes is fulfilled. That social contract is that every individual is entitled to equality and to be free from discrimination.

However, schools being a welcoming place regardless of gender, ethnicity, colour,
religion, physical or mental condition, namely inclusivity, is far different from what is described as "full inclusion" in the general classroom. Full inclusion falls far short of guaranteeing equality.

Mr. Porter, the Commission, and the NBACL which all advocate for full inclusion will argue that establishing a norm does not mean that all children must be kept in the classroom at all times and that their disabilities are accommodated. Their argument fails to take into account the pressure this will put on parents and educators to place children in the classroom first and to ask questions later, contrary to an evidence based approach and contrary to an accommodation of the child's real needs. Some parents, will not have a professional background to rely upon when dealing with the education system. Many are talked down to by educators. When told that the classroom is the right option for their child they not be inclined, or able, to challenge that position. With the Human Rights Commission creating a presumptive norm in favor of the classroom inclusion option there will be no realistic choice for the parents to consider in deciding how, and where, their child, severely autistic or otherwise should be educated.

The full inclusion model limits choice as Mr. Henteleff points out. The persistent efforts by the NBACL and its inclusion lobbyists to promote the full inclusion model has in practice limited choice for some parents and their autistic children who might be better served in a quieter environment outside the mainstream classroom. Mr. Porter, who has been a significant part of that push for full inclusion, and who is now the Chair of the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission, has presided over Commission guidelines which will reinforce the presumption of full classroom inclusion - to the detriment of some autistic children.

1 comment:

Maya M said...

I am in full agreement with you on this issue. While inclusion is the best educational option for some disabled students, I think it is absurd to advocate it for all of them, regardless of the nature and degree of their disabilities. The inclusion model must coexist with a special education system for those students who learn poorly or not at all in the typical classroom. But when there are serious problems in special education, people, instead of addressing them, take the easy decision of dismantling the system altogether.
I know of two documentaries about inclusion education of a boy with Down syndrome, "Educating Peter" and "Graduating Peter". I haven't watched them but I read that Peter, after trying his best to endure the strain of the typical classroom, "graduated" secondary school with a certificate of attendance. Wouldn't he be better off placed in a classroom matched to his abilities and needs and graduating with a real diploma for, say, 8th grade? His classmate said, "We have learned more from Peter than Peter from us." I can quite believe this, especially after Peter doesn't seem to have learned very much. But the boy was in school to learn, not to teach. To me, the education system failed Peter.
The all-inclusion model also will inevitably lead to resistance against introduction of educational standards, because such standards are likely to prove that the Emperor has no clothes, i.e. that many of the "included" students learn poorly.
Even when inclusion is appropriate, school authorities seem to forget that it requires very efficient strategy against bullying, because disabled students are primary targets of abusers. I know of a 15-year-old autistic boy who was included in a typical school in my city. He was more disciplined and learned better than most typical students. A good example of inclusion, isn't it? But when some of his classmates established a record of misdemeanors and showed antisocial behaviour, nobody at the school realized the need to tighten security. One day, these teenagers brought the autistic student to the school toilet and gang-raped him.