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Deaf-blind, becoming a lawyer: Education considerations during COVID-19 | Marvin Zuker

Tuesday, September 08, 2020 @ 3:25 PM | By Marvin Zuker

Marvin Zuker %>
Marvin Zuker
Part one discussed Haben Girma’s memoir, The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law and what should be implemented in Ontario’s schools during the pandemic for children with disabilities. Part two will continue to discuss accommodations and considerations that must be given for disabled children returning to school and our obligations toward our young people.

Accommodations must be individualized. Mask wearing, social distancing and school changes may, for example, be particularly challenging for some children with autism spectrum disorders. Teachers and related service providers may need clear face coverings in some cases so that students with disabilities can see the mouths and facial expressions of educators and better understand them.

Our fundamental obligation is to support one another and to build the barrier free society we all know we can build. For people with disabilities, it is the body that often requires explanation in public places because these places are not made for those with disabilities. But why is a disabled person required to translate and explain their disability to the Ministry of Education?

Children with disabilities must be back in the classroom, even in small groups. Individualized learning online can never provide the quality of learning many of these children require. The child with cerebral palsy, for example, requires intensive occupational therapy and a team of people to help her. Children with autism spectrum disorder often find it hard to focus and process information. Zoom is not a substitute.

As I think about beautiful Boris, the service dog belonging to the blind Crown attorney whom I mentioned in part one, I wonder whether Boris was around during the LSAT days, if not way before that, when there was the need for literally everything to be in braille. It is interesting to note that because Harvard only admitted men at the time, Helen Keller went to Radcliffe College where she graduated in 1904.

In 2015, in the United States District Court for the District of Vermont in the case of the National Federation of the Blind, on behalf of its members and itself and Heidi Viens v. Scribd Inc. (Case No. 2:14-cv-162), the court found that the Americans with Disabilities Act, which celebrated its 30th anniversary on July 26, covers the Internet and online related business. Accessibility in the time of COVID-19 means and we must make sure that websites and apps are available for all children to use.

Girma poses the crucial question, “How do we make our services accessible; how do we make our schools accessible?” Disability is not a barrier. As Girma so eloquently says, “I was the first deaf-blind student to graduate from Harvard Law School, not because I overcame disability. I am still disabled and still deaf-blind. It was Harvard that overcame some of their ablelism.”

In R. v. Jones [1986] 2 S.C.R. 284, Justice Gérard Vincent La Forest noted that the state has an interest in the education of its citizens: “Whether one views it from an economic, social, cultural or civic point of view, the education of the young is critically important in our society.”

Justice La Forest relates further to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) at page 493 in an opinion written by then Chief Justice Earl Warren for a unanimous court. Brown construed students as constitutional stakeholders and what we must repeat 66 years later in the context of our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the constitutional deprivation that harms those, our children, in their most vulnerable years.

At the end of the day we must never make assumptions about a disabled child’s capability. Do not ask yourself when the next articling candidate enters your office, “How would this blind law student/lawyer use a computer? Or how could a deaf law student/lawyer conduct interviews?”

No child must ever be entirely excluded from a publicly supported education system consistent with his needs and ability to benefit from them. (Mills v. Bd. Of Education of District of Columbia, 348 F. Supp. 876, 886 (D.D.C. 1972)).  

The best and most beautiful
Things in the world cannot be
Seen or even touched. They must
Be felt with the heart.
                        — Helen Keller

This is part two of a two-part series. Part one: Deaf-blind and becoming a lawyer: Educating disabled children.

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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