All Means All

This is the first post in my three-part Inclusive Education: 2020 and Beyond series. The series was part of my CPCO Special Education for Administrators inquiry through which I was examining barriers to inclusion, particularly unconscious bias and factors associated with ability, race, and class. I am especially interested in the way teacher beliefs about various exceptionalities affect student progress in school. 

When someone asks about my experience in Special Education, I usually answer by describing my days before becoming a teacher. When, as a student at Algonquin College, my training included a work placement at Rideau Regional Centre in Smith Falls, an institutional facility for persons with disabilities.

At the facility, the orientation I received included a tour of a once-bustling, but then-vacant schoolhouse. Its halls and classrooms emptied of students by laws favouring inclusive education. Walking through barren halls, echoes of my every footstep eerily bounced off the cracked tile floors and paint peeled walls. Stepping into classrooms, a scattering of aged desks and blackboards greeted me. This place that had been a school, every inch of it now in deep disrepair, was a haunting reminder of the deficit model and segregation practices that once defined education here (and elsewhere).

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Although the school was empty, the section of the residential facility where I spent time during my work placement would remain open for many years. I came to think of its series of long hallways—seemingly stretching on for miles—as a labyrinth of wards that housed hidden vessels of humanity. Where, human souls, long forgotten by the outside world, lived out their lives. Here, I would learn many powerful lessons.

Early on, I noticed a peculiar pattern in the placement and time-use of the residents there. The ambulatory residents were free to spend time walking the halls of their wards and engaging in activities, but their wheelchair-confined non-ambulatory counterparts were not. I use the term “confined” with intent. Left in wheelchairs, placed around the perimeter of the main room, they spent most of every day, month after month, year after year sitting in the same spot—inactive, unengaged, and ignored.

On another ward, some residents wore helmets; much-needed protection for heads too often rammed against walls. Sometimes rammed so forcefully that the entire ward would shake. Here, residents were inactive, unengaged, and ignored…until frustration, boredom, and monotony let go against the Centre’s walls and restraints became necessary.

I remember thinking: Each and every resident at the Centre deserves regular physical and mental stimulation and respect and honor for being a person. Yet few residents at the Centre received such care. Instead, the internal lights of some residents burned brightly, while others dimmed. My question as to why this was the case, always elicited, “this is how we do things here”.

On the final day of my work placement, as I left the Centre, I vowed not to forget the people there and the lessons they’d taught me. To accept that all human life is precious. Remember that tiny, but bright sparks of life can exist in places that others perceive as darkness. To never extinguish anyone’s light, however small it might be. 

It was there, at that moment on the steps of the building where my time with the residents would sadly end, that my passion for equity and inclusion began. That passion is my life’s work.

From that moment on, I have unwaveringly honored my vow to protect life and advocate for those who are voiceless. Viewing both as a moral imperative, I have afforded all people the opportunity of engagement. Tended to the lights of the vulnerable. Believing that in the abilities of each, no matter how small, resides a capacity for independence, dignity, and accomplishment. Not doing for any person, what they can do for themselves. Realizing behind a disability and label is a person who deserves to feel worthy, valued, and be an integral, contributing member of a community.

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The long, sordid history of denying individuals with exceptionalities basic human rights—including the right to an appropriate education—ended in 1968. The release of the Hall-Dennis Report, Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario gave birth to Special Education in the province. It called for “the right of every individual to have equal access to the learning experience best suited to his/her needs, and the responsibility of every school authority to provide.” 

In 1980, the Amendments to the Education Act with Bill 82 codified equal access to education for all students. It set forth five principles for accessibility governing universal access, funding policy, appeals processes, and the right to ongoing assessment, IPRC designation and specific programming. People in various segregated school programs, including those at the Centre, entered the school system. Bringing an inglorious end to the segregated educational system.

It’s my passionate belief that universal access to quality education goes beyond Bill 82 and rests on the implicit basic human rights of all people. That policies and instructional decisions should be educationally and morally sound. That each of us has a duty to educate students in ways that preserve dignity, foster independence, and build upon the inherent capacity of each student. Period—no ifs, ands, or buts.

That’s why, when asked about my experience in Special Education, I share the above narrative. I remember how things were, the deficit model, and the unengaged residents at the Centre. I came to love those residents. They helped me understand why inclusion matters. To be grateful that inclusion is a mainstay practice in schools throughout Canada. That exceptional students attend neighbourhood schools with same-age peers, rather than in facilities like the schoolhouse at the Centre. 

Although inclusion is a mainstay practice, I do wonder about the extent to which it is a lived reality. As I consider the pandemic and subsequent assignment of some students to virtual learning at home, questions arise. What issues of true inclusivity do such moves raise? Does virtual learning at home create new and unanticipated barriers for exceptional students? How do these mimic the barriers in our system itself?  I wonder, and so should you.

Our OCSB system, after much hard work by its educators, mostly met the initial challenge posed by the pandemic of getting technology into the hands of at-home learners. That much-heralded accomplishment, however, gave rise to a new challenge. How do we now enable the learning of all students? Meeting that challenge forced my colleagues and I to deeply explore new and better ways of meeting the unique needs of diverse learners in traditional and virtual settings.

Getting answers to these and other questions was challenging. For instance, although there’s a robust and time-proven understanding about providing meaningful support in traditional classroom settings, those practices are proving insufficient for meeting the programming and support needs of exceptional at-home-learners. Similarly, preparing teachers with the necessary knowledge for providing differentiated supports for exceptional students learning at home had few exemplars from which to draw.

This is unfortunate because many exceptional students (and their parents) now rely on the human support systems of traditional classrooms and schools to help them learn. In the years since Bill 82, classroom teachers have had a greater investment in IEP development than they previously had. Arguably, the pandemic-fueled move to virtual learning pushed many educators into uncomfortable pedagogical places. And their experiences in the uncomfortable places pushed the thinking, knowledge, and capacity of the entire OCSB system forward.

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Consider the way OCSB gives importance to equity and inclusion by engaging educators in open and enthusiastic discussions about barriers of race, class, and ability facing learners. Such was the case at a professional development session held on November 13, 2020 titled Inclusive Education in K to 12 Classrooms. In his opening remarks, the Board’s Director of Education, Tom D’Amico said that “In the year 2020, even during a pandemic, we need to celebrate each student’s uniqueness and advocate for inclusivity.” That we mustn’t lower standards due to the differences among students. During a subsequent session, my colleague Alison Kinahan, Student Success Coordinator asked participants to consider, “How inclusive is your classroom and your pedagogy?” 

The stance one takes to challenge the status quo matters. As teachers immersed in the day-to-day struggles of helping students learn and achieve, we seldom have time for considering the historical relevance of inclusion. But, in chaotic times such as these, when educational approaches that once worked, no longer do so, we must find time to consider and to take a stand. We must reconsider what inclusion means now. Reflect on where we have been. Assess where we are now and where we must go.  As we do, we must ask ourselves how can we use what we’re learning this year to improve practices in future years? By doing so we will seize this unique opportunity and the challenges it entails, to look deeply into our own assumptions and biases related to exceptional learners. 

In struggling to answer these and other questions about inclusion, you and I are not alone. Global attention is being given to the issue of inclusion. For instance, Inclusion and Education: All Means All (UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring document, June 2020) calls for greater focus on people excluded from education on the basis of background or ability. It speaks to persistent educational disparities and barriers that prohibit equity. And says that discrimination, stereotyping and stigmatization mechanisms are similar across the globe for all learners at risk of exclusion.

According to the report: “Inclusion in education is about ensuring that every learner feels valued and respected, and can enjoy a clear sense of belonging. Yet many hurdles stand in the way of that ideal. Discrimination, stereotypes and alienation do exclude many. These mechanisms of exclusion are essentially the same, regardless of gender, location, wealth, disability, ethnicity, language, migration, displacement, sexual orientation, incarceration, religion, and other beliefs and attitudes.” (p.5) The report describes specific barriers to equitable education.  They include a) divergent opinions of what “inclusion” really means, b) persistent attitudes about instruction and program delivery provided by other professionals not being the responsibility of classroom teachers, and c) true inclusion not being a program or a place, but a specific way of thinking. 

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While some people and organizations have had difficulty defining inclusion, UNESCO is quite clear—inclusion mirrors equity. Further, inclusion “is a process through which actions and practices embrace diversity and build a sense of belonging, rooted in the belief that every person has value and potential and should be respected (GEM Report p. 30).” 

Globally, the exclusionary practices of many communities in developing countries are overt. Either exceptional students cannot attend school or they must attend school in alternative settings. Elsewhere, barriers to inclusion are less overt and hidden. Some, are attitudinal barriers and assumptions held by stakeholders in our system. Other barriers are deep-seated biases towards certain exceptionality groupings.  In response to any and all barriers, GEM Report says, “The prerequisite is to see learner diversity not as a problem but as an opportunity. Inclusion cannot be achieved if it is seen as an inconvenience or if people harbour the belief that learners’ levels of ability are fixed. Education systems need to be responsive to all learners’ needs (p. 20).”

Moreover, according to the GEM report, teachers and their attitudes are instrumental to the success of inclusionary practices. And each exceptional student is every educator’s responsibility. 

This post is the first in a three-series through which I will explore the barriers that exist in education overall, and in our system in particular. In future posts, I will make a case that the most pervasive barriers to inclusion are attitudinal and involve assumptions and biases that well-meaning educators sometimes make towards exceptional and other students. Also, I will unpack some of the recommendations in the GEM report, that specifically relate to issues of bias in teacher perceptions. 

As discussed earlier in this piece, in Ontario during the 1980s the shift from a deficit model to an inclusionary one involved a dramatic transformation of the overall educational system of the Province. The transformation altered the physical layouts of classrooms and schools, funding models and pedagogical practices used by teachers. 

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As this year comes to a close, another transformation is in the offing. It necessitates that we again pause, reflect, determine and make necessary improvements in our practice. This time the transformation comes from within the system. It is more about mindsets than structures, and about quality education for all not some students. Through our own deep introspection and unbridled willingness to explore uncomfortable areas in our practice, we will seize the opportunity to build something better together. As we go forward, it will become apparent that all means all is not just about students. It’s about ALL stakeholders—educators, administrators and parents—and the capacity of all of them to put aside differences and come together for the unique opportunity to create a better, more inclusive system that benefits everyone. Are you ready to look deeper, go further and seize the moment? If so then let’s stand together.