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Deaf-blind and becoming a lawyer: Educating disabled children | Marvin Zuker

Friday, September 04, 2020 @ 10:37 AM | By Marvin Zuker

Marvin Zuker %>
Marvin Zuker
I just finished reading an incredible memoir by Haben Girma, The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law. It took me back to my judging days and the first time I saw a blind lawyer — in this case, an assistant Crown attorney — walk into the courtroom with his service dog, Boris. (Boris and I became good friends, although he never budged from under the counsel table. No respect for this old judge when I would come over and say hello.)

Girma talks about the fact that our society often focuses on one kind of person and isolates those who do not come within that limited definition of personhood.

No child should have to step out of their world to reach into that of the government. Ever. Yet our schools were designed for those who can see and hear.

Not officially, of course. Ontario Ministry of Education Post-Provisioning Model No. 163, dated Sept. 9, 2019, for example, provides that all school boards in the province are required to develop, implement and maintain a policy on student use of service animals in schools. But where are they?

Girma’s story made me think of our education system today in the midst of COVID-19 and how those with disabilities attempt to navigate communities not built for them. How likely is it that there will be any opportunity for us to fulfil the dream of a young child who is deaf-blind or in a wheelchair of starting school very soon?

Ability/disability is not a fact in our world but a social construct, what philosopher Michel Foucault called a “transactional reality.” What are we told? We love the individual, be yourself, now stop being different. Arguably we are all related to one another genetically at the very least.

The time when we can all use a little more humanity is now. Maybe, just maybe, we can restart our education system in the midst of COVID-19 with this in mind. If you enter a courtroom in a wheelchair, you may need accommodation. It may require the judge to come down from the “high” bench. The same can be said for every school and every child. Children with disabilities do not give up their rights in the midst of a pandemic. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child should be our guide.

The minister of Education has the same responsibilities, now more than ever, to provide all of our children with an appropriate education in an environment that is as least restrictive as possible.

It bears constant repeating that children with disabilities should be prioritized for in-person instruction and services if their families want to send them to school. But this is not happening.

The minister of Education should ensure that full-time instruction is offered to all students, where appropriate, in self-contained special education classes.

The minister of Education should make sure that school boards hold meetings with parents to develop an independent education plan for each student with a disability before the school year starts. This has not happened.

The minister of Education should make sure that resources are available to address any backlog in special education evaluations. This has not happened.

Special education classes should never exceed 15 students. This has not happened. Children who are eligible for special education services must be provided with a program tailored to their unique needs. (See Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District, Westchester County v. Rowley, 102 S. Ct. 3034 (1982).)

On April 27, the U.S. secretary of Education submitted recommendations to the U.S. Congress. Her report was based on the following “principles”: schools can, and must, provide education to all students, including children with disabilities; the health and safety of children, students, educators and service providers must be the first consideration; the needs and best interests of the individual student, not any system, should guide decisions and expenditures; parents or recipients of services must be informed of, and involved in, decisions relating to the provision of services.

Here, it is often too easy to forget that the purpose of the Education Act of Ontario is to “provide students with the opportunity to realize their potential and develop into highly skilled, knowledgeable, caring students who contribute to society” (see Education Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.2, s.0.1 (2)). The responsibility begins and ends with the Ministry of Education pursuant to s. 8(1) of the Act to set priorities. Where do our disabled children fit in?

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two: Deaf-blind, becoming a lawyer: Education considerations during COVID-19.

Marvin Zuker was a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, where he presided over the small claims, family and criminal courts from 1978 until his retirement in 2016. He is associate professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, where he teaches education law. Zuker is the author and co-author of many books and publications, including The Law is Not for Women and The Law is (Not) for Kids.

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