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The State of Special Needs Education in Canada

Pandemic-era budget cuts, labour shortages continue to hurt students

The COVID-19 pandemic was not kind to Canada’s education systems. As university students, each one of us has had personal experience with the hasty scramble to keep schools open, or at least operational, in the midst of a global health cårisis. Now, almost three years since the start of the pandemic, we continue to face its ripple effects in virtually every aspect of our academic lives. If the pandemic has been this devastating to Canadian institutions as well-known and as well-funded as McGill University, how have special needs education programs across Canada been affected?

According to a 2023 report from Observatoire des tout-petits, an organization focused on the welfare of children aged one to five, young students in Quebec who have a developmental disorder or disability are not receiving adequate medical and academic services. This systemic failure becomes all the more alarming when we take into account the promises of programs such as Agir tôt, a 2019 initiative developed by the Quebec government that aimed to treat and diagnose developmental delays in pre-kindergarten children. Social Services Minister Lionel Carment, a former pediatric neurologist, explained that prior to this program, special needs children in Quebec typically only received diagnoses and treatment after enrolling in school: “Before Agir tôt there were just no services for [kids] zero to five.”

However, according to parents and special education activists like Sharon McCarry, Agir tôt being the first and only program to fill this neglected area of research did not ensure its success. McCarry told CBC that Agir tôt caters mainly to children with language delays and does not adequately support those on the autism spectrum or with other developmental delays. McCarry claimed: “It’s not working fast enough or well enough. It’s an absolute failure to parents.”

The pandemic has only exacerbated existing barriers to special needs services for young students. Long wait times and high price points routinely deter parents and children from getting the resources they need. McCarry spoke to CBC about her own experience as the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, stating: “[If] you have to go privately […] the cost of getting a diagnosis is now inflated to around $3,000 to $3,200, and you can be on a waiting list for well over a year, even in private clinics.”

Even if children do obtain a diagnosis, according to the Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux (MSSS), they are unlikely to receive the resources they need in school – even less so in the years following the pandemic. MSSS found that between 2020 and 2021, 21.3 per cent of children five and younger who “presented a significant developmental delay had not received services through programs for physical disability, intellectual disability, or autism spectrum disorder within the prescribed time frame.” The report from Observatoire claims that the number of children deprived of these special needs services is likely much higher, as the MSSS statistic only includes those who have received an official diagnosis.

One of the major contributing factors to the decline of Quebec’s special education services in the past years was the government’s decision to reassign both professionals and volunteers working in special needs programs to “sectors more extensively affected by the pandemic.” Labour shortages, budget cuts, and high staff turnover rates were extremely disruptive to special needs organizations across Canada, and many of them have yet to fully recover.

Just this past June, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), the largest school board in Ottawa, made headlines when it threatened to cut its special needs summer learning program as a response to estimated budget cuts for the 2023–24 school year. Parents and children have relied on this program, which provides 17 days of tailored instruction to disabled students, for over ten years. Although the summer learning program was eventually saved, the days leading up to the OCDSB’s final decision caused considerable stress for parents. Margaret Sambol, one of the many parents who lobbied trustees at a board meeting in June, expressed her distress at having to fight for her seven-year-old son’s status in the summer program: “It’s sad to have to be advocating for something that I think should be a no-brainer.”

Unfortunately, other special needs programs in Canada have not been so lucky. This current school year will see a $47 million decrease in funding for special needs students under the Calgary Board of Education (CBE). This decision was made despite the most recent data from Alberta Education, which found that the number of students with learning and physical disabilities enrolled under the CBE had increased by over 10,000 from 2016 to 2019 alone. Brad Grundy, the chief financial officer for the CBE, is just one among many school board trustees across Canada who, in the face of pandemic-era budget cuts, have targeted special education programs first.

It is unconscionable that the burden of both obtaining and maintaining special needs services has fallen on this country’s most vulnerable students and their parents. Canada must do more to prioritize the wellbeing of children with disabilities, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19. If you know a parent or child looking for special needs resources in Montreal, the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) offers both self-contained programs and specialized services, information about which can be found on the board’s website. L’Accompagnateur offers similar resources in French. You can also reach out to local non-profit organizations like the early learning centre for children with autism founded by Sharon McCarry, La Fondation Place Coco. Additionally, if you are able to, consider volunteering with services like the Montreal Centre for Learning Disabilities to help combat ongoing labour shortages.