Over the years, I have recounted many personal stories in my columns: stories of my education; stories of my professional journey and educational philosophy; stories of my personal life; and stories of my children’s education.
Throughout all of this, I haven’t shared stories of my own special education needs. Perhaps I haven’t shared these stories because outing oneself as having special needs is too often considered taboo, or perhaps because the topic of special needs in day schools gets buried. Both reasons are inadequate. We should be telling the stories of students with special needs, along with the stories of the schools and families that support them.
I needed extra support throughout elementary and high school career. In my early years, a speech pathologist helped me with pronunciation and articulation. Later, I was pulled out of class to receive extra help with writing and grammar. By high school, an individual education plan was developed for me, which detailed the supports I needed to succeed in multiple subjects – from English, to Hebrew, to math. A special support teacher gave me extra coaching in writing during school hours – coaching that has hopefully paid dividends in these columns – while after school, I received support with my math homework. Likewise, resources were invested into accommodations in testing and evaluation. These provisions were essential to my learning and growth.
Special needs come in many forms. Mine related specifically to learning style. With the right modifications to instruction and evaluation, I was able to succeed in school and beyond. Other special needs include behavioural, communication, as well as physical and mental health needs. They include anxiety, depression, ADHD, dyslexia, blindness, deafness, autism, diabetes and many others.
Our schools take special needs and disabilities seriously. Nearly 30 per cent of students in our day schools have some form of identified need. Schools hire specially trained educators and invest in targeted professional development.
On Sept. 17, over 200 educators will gather – on their own time – for a Mental Health Empowerment Day, facilitated by United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and a dedicated group of volunteers, to learn from the experts in the field. The day is a profound demonstration of the commitment of our community’s educators and volunteers.
Both my schools and my family invested heavily – way above the regular cost of day school education – in addressing my special needs. While as a child, I didn’t understand these costs, or who paid for them, today I fully appreciate the burden placed on the schools and parents that provide these supports. UJA invests in special education from its annual campaign and organizes a golf tournament that raises nearly $600,000 annually for special needs education. But it’s not enough.
In aggregate, our schools dedicate more than $6 million to special needs supports, to ensure that every child can succeed. In addition to this investment, families pay out-of-pocket to provide these essential services to their children. This is because the government of Ontario does not provide equal special needs supports to children who attend independent schools.
This inequality harms students with special needs and forces many parents to forfeit a Jewish education because the additional financial burden is too great.
A grassroots campaign called Every Kid Counts is urging the provincial government to support all children with special needs – no matter what school they attend. It’s a campaign dedicated to helping parents of all backgrounds engage with the government on an issue that affects so many individuals and communities.
For too long, special needs have been treated as taboo, even though the commitment of our community, schools, educators and parents to assist these students runs deep. It’s time to talk openly about the need to assist these students, and encourage the government to ensure that every kid counts in Ontario. That’s why I support the Every Kid Counts campaign, and I urge everyone to sign the petition at everykidcounts.ca.