The ugly underbelly of the teachers’ contract dispute

This morning, a 60-year-old teacher stopped into the CBC’s Sydney studio with a donation for the station’s Christmas campaign in support of Nova Scotia food banks.

Information Morning host Steve Sutherland took the occasion to quiz her about the teacher’s pending job action. In the banter that followed, the teacher made several veiled references to “working conditions.” Sutherland, who has a gift for drawing people out, pressed for details: What exactly is it about the working conditions, he asked. The teacher hemmed and hawed before blurting out, “It’s accessibility!”

She went on to complain about the inclusion of children with disabilities in regular classrooms, calling them “violent” and “disruptive.” She portrayed their presence in the classroom as a burden.

This is one teacher. Our schools have many educators who welcome all children to their classrooms, and work beautifully with everyone. But there is an ugly underbelly to the teachers’ dispute, a persistent whisper campaign against the inclusion of children with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, attention deficit disorder, and other circumstances that set them apart from so-called normal classmates.

Some teachers want a return to the days when students with special needs were delivered to school in shortbuses and segregated in isolated classrooms with nothing to inspire or challenge them. Out of sight, out of mind, hope, potential, friendship, and love.

A few weeks ago, CTV-Atlantic hinted at this undercurrent with one of those witless online polls that superficially resemble legitimate surveys but actually serve as platforms for extreme views. The poll’s short list of ways to solve “problems in the classroom,” included a “return to the model of special classes for students with special needs.”

Jenn Power, regional leader of L’Arche Canada (and, disclosure, my daughter-in-law), responded in a Facebook post that, “students with disabilities are not ‘problems in the classroom’ and segregating them at the end of the corridor will NOT fix anything.”

Diversity, when properly supported, enhances learning for ALL students. Inclusion works for students with and without disabilities.

My boys – and all folks with disabilities – have human rights, and these include the right to an education with their peers. Aside from our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees protection from discrimination based on (among other things) disability, Canada has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This document (which y’all should read) requires Canada to ensure that:

  • Persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability;
  • Persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live;
  • Reasonable accommodation of the individual’s requirements is provided;
  • Persons with disabilities receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education;
  • Effective individualized support measures are provided in environments that maximize academic and social development, consistent with the goal of full inclusion.

josh-jacob-off-to-schoolIf you know someone with a developmental handicap who attended Nova Scotia schools in the 1950s or ’60s, ask them what that experience was like. Chances are they hated school. They hated being treated as different and less valued. They hated being segregated into separate rooms with little to do and no chance to form friendships with their schoolmates.

Not so Power’s twin boys (who are also my grandsons), pictured at right waiting for the bus on the first day of school this fall. They love school, and they’re always delighted when school days return after a break.

Josh and Jacob live with Down syndrome and autism. This present challenges in the classroom, but also gifts for all concerned. When their shared birthday rolls around, a dozen classmates show up to join the party. Josh and Jacob gain the camaraderie of shared experiences and friendships; their classmates gain a lifelong lesson in diversity and human value.

A return to the antediluvian practices of the ’50s and ’60s would be a monstrous step backwards. It would also be a unconstitutional violation of the human rights of children.

The Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union must clearly and firmly disavow the whisper campaign and affirm its commitment to the equal educational rights of all Nova Scotia children. Anything less, and the union forfeits any rightful claim to public support.