This mom sits outside her child’s school all day. She wants more help for students with disabilities
Michelle Cousins follows her 14-year-old daughter Colette to school every morning.
Cousins meets his bus at Marshall McLuhan Catholic High School in North Toronto. She helps Colette and her wheelchair to the ground and parks her van in a nearby street.
She stays there until the end of the school day in case she needs to help her daughter, who has arthrogryposis, which causes joint stiffness and affects her mobility, among other conditions.
“It’s been really, really difficult,” said Cousins, a single mother.
“If there had been a proper assessment, if people had done their job and done it right, I don’t think we would be here.”
For every school day since September, Cousins has been sitting in her van in case Colette needs her help going to the bathroom. It’s something teachers’ aides usually do, but it’s the best option to maintain Colette’s dignity, she says, until there’s a better solution from the school and the Toronto Catholic District School. Board (TCDSB) materializes.
Cousins says he was told there were only two teaching assistants who could get Colette out of her wheelchair when needed, with no guarantee of trained back-ups in case they weren’t there. On top of that, the support equipment the school has is either unusable or unable to fit in the toilet, Cousins says.
Colette is not the only child with a disability facing adjustment problems in schools across the province. About one in six students in Ontario has a disability, according to a prominent advocate, and it is common for them to face physical, technological and bureaucratic barriers that impede their education.
Even though the school confirmed Colette’s admission in the spring and had her housing needs assessed this summer, Cousins says she used the supporting role to give her daughter such a normal high school experience. as possible amid the bureaucratic and labor issues at stake.
Although Colette appreciates her mother’s help, she says she knows it shouldn’t be like this.
“It’s not fair that my mom has to sit in a van,” Colette said.
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The TCDSB, in an email to CBC Toronto, says it works with parents and students on a case-by-case basis to accommodate special needs under the province’s main disability rights legislation, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities (AODA).
The council stresses that it cannot speak to individual cases due to confidentiality laws. But Colette High School is said to have an elevator, accessible toilets, alternative and functional equipment and support staff “available and assigned as needed” to help students with disabilities.
However, Cousins refutes most of these arguments, and a prominent disability advocate in Ontario says these issues cannot be addressed at the council level alone.
“Bureaucracy cuffs teachers, principals and other staff who want to do the right thing,” said David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.
“It’s emblematic of a much bigger problem – one that the provincial government has known about for years.”
Lepofsky, who is also a member of the provincially appointed Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) education standards development committee, helped draft recommendations for an accessibility standard in all schools funded by the state.
“Everything that is available for our children [right now] it’s up to their parents to try to negotiate with a school board’s bureaucracy and, if that doesn’t work, to hire a lawyer at their expense,” Lepofsky said.
Work began in 2017 and the committee proposed dozens of recommendations in February to create equipment, support and staffing standards for school boards to better assist students with disabilities. The committee also called for a user-friendly process that would allow parents to obtain one-stop accommodation quickly and easily.
But the committee has not heard if or when they will be implemented, Lepofsky says.
In an email to CBC Toronto, the Ontario Ministry of Education says it is working with the Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility to review the recommendations.
Meanwhile, the ministry says it has consistently added more teaching assistants to schools every year since 2018, with more than 1,700 in special education this school year alone.
But that’s not what Cousins says she sees on the court. At this rate, she says she will be in her car near school for another four to six weeks, fighting to get the board to approve another way for Colette to attend classes independently, repair or ordering additional equipment, or getting the staff needed to support it.
“Hopefully there will be some sort of systemic change.”