Advocates for students with disabilities in B.C. say they’re “ashamed” after the United Nations gave the province what amounts to a failing grade for its treatment of those students.
The assessment was made during a visit to Canada in April from Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, to review the country’s progress on inclusive education.
In an open letter released Wednesday to Premier John Horgan, BCEdAccess Society chair Tracy Humphreys said Devandas-Aguilar found that B.C. joins most of Canada in not measuring up to United Nations standards and called on the premier to act.
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“We are ashamed that this is how we are being perceived by the world, as a privileged province creating and developing communities that do not consider the social and emotional impact for years to come as a result of apathy,” Humphreys wrote.
“We know this is not who we are as British Columbians and we know we can fix this together.”
The letter asks Horgan to broaden the mandate of Education Minister Rob Fleming to include more calls to action to improve access for students who require additional supports and also to raise their graduation rates.
“B.C. schools were identified as non-inclusive by the UN rapporteur,” Humphreys wrote. “The rights of children with disabilities can be upheld in our schools starting with a clear mandate to do so.”
In her end-of-mission statement released on April 12, Devandas-Aguilar said she was concerned that most provinces aren’t complying with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in ensuring students with special needs are getting equal education opportunities.
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While she didn’t single out B.C. in her main criticisms, she also made clear the province was among the majority of Canadian jurisdictions failing to make the grade.
“I am concerned that most provincial and territorial policies are yet to implement fully inclusive education systems and that students with disabilities in other parts of Canada may receive considerably different levels of support,” she wrote.
“I was informed that many children with disabilities are still being taught in segregated classrooms or in special education schools and I received worrisome reports that children with disabilities can be put on partial school days or temporarily removed from school for periods of up to six months without access to education.”
She also specifically criticized B.C.’s Mental Health Act for being “very broad” and allowing people to be involuntarily committed and treated without consent.
Devandas-Aguilar gave B.C. cautious praise of programs aimed at enabling “persons with disabilities to exercise choice and control over their own lives” but added that those programs don’t have enough support.
“While some of these practices have existed for many years, the lack of an enabling legal framework limits their impact and their possibility to scale them up,” she wrote.
In the open letter, Humphreys noted that progress has been made in improving graduation rates for Indigenous students with a steady increase over 15 years.
But she found many students with disabilities are still receiving school completion or “evergreen” certificates instead of being given resources and accommodations to obtain high school diplomas.
“We … have less to celebrate because lowered expectations skew the data, and exclusion remains an increasing challenge,” she wrote.
Global News has reached out to the Ministry of Education for comment.
In a statement, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation said it has a “comprehensive policy on inclusion of students with special needs” but added that the province and school districts need to ensure funding is made available for proper supports.
“Special education services must not be treated like dispensable luxuries by school districts facing financial pressures or staffing shortages,” the union said.
—With files from Nadia Stewart