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Follow-up Letters From Ministry of Education
CADDAC received this letter from Barry Finlay, the Director of Special Education Policy and Programs Branch on December the 27th. Please scroll down on the page to read Heidi Bernhardt's letter in respone and Mr. Finlay's follow-up letter. January 12, 2009
Mr. Barry Finlay
Director, Special Education Policy and Programs Branch
Ministry of Educational 18th Floor,
Mowat Block 900 Bay Street
Toronto, ON M7A 1L2
Dear Mr. Finlay,
Thank you for your letter clarifying the position of the Ministry of Education regarding the recognition of students with a diagnosis of ADHD as exceptional students. Upon reading your explanation, I do not feel that there has been any misunderstanding on our part. You clearly state that if a child's ability to learn has been affected by an existing disability they may be recognized under the appropriate category of exceptionalities as outlined in the Education Act. You further explain that a student with ADHD who's learning has been affected could be identified by an IPRC as exceptional under the categories of behaviour, learning disabilities or physical disabilities. Our understanding has always been that if a child 's physical, communication, or behavioural disability, or any other disability for that matter, does not affect their learning they should not be granted an exceptional category. I also believe that the vast majority of parents who are usually very reluctant to have their child “labelled” as exceptional due to the unfortunate stigma attached, would not request that their child be identified as an exceptional student unless there was a significant need to do so.
I apologize in advance for the length and wordiness of this letter. My intent is to be very clear about terms being used and statements being made. It seems that for many years now these very terms and the word play around them has been used to disallow students from being recognized as exceptional and prevented them from receiving the accommodations they deserve.
CADDAC's over whelming concern, and that of the parents and students that we represent, is that a student who is clearly struggling in school due to their learning being affected by their ADHD, is still unable to be recognized as an exceptional student even though ADHD has been recognized by the Ontario Human Rights Commission as a disability. As you most certainly know, students with ADHD are being refused recognition as an exceptional student by Ontario school boards unless their behaviour is a huge issue or if a learning disability outside of ADHD has been diagnosed separately. This student will then be recognized as exceptional for their behaviour disorder or their learning disability and not for the fact that ADHD is affecting their learning.
In your letter you indicate that the “categories of exceptionalities are designed to capture a range of conditions impairments and barriers that lead to particular types of learning difficulties, as characterized by effect, not diagnosis”. This may have been the intent when the categories were developed, however school boards routinely state that there is no category in the “five broad categories” whose definition allows them to include ADHD, even if that student is struggling in the school system due to their ADHD. Although it sounds ludicrous, and in fact is ludicrous as it stands, a student with ADHD and a learning disability, a physical disability or a behavioural disability is almost lucky in that their needs can be recognized by a school board, because the added disability is recognized, whereas a student with ADHD alone, is not recognized as exceptional and will most often be blamed for not functioning better.
From your letter it is my understanding that if a student's learning is impacted by their disability they should be recognized under one of the five categories set up by the Education act. You indicate that students with ADHD may be identified under the categories of behaviour, learning disabilities or physical disabilities. Since two of the symptoms of ADHD are hyperactivity and impulsivity it is easy to see how a student with ADHD might qualify under the category of behaviour, if their symptoms are severe enough. We totaly agree that a child with ADHD who's learning is impacted should have the ability to be recognized under the Learning Disabilty or Physical category. We have asked the Ministry of Education to consider including a medical subcategory under the physical category to assist with the recognition of these students' rights to be recognized. Could I ask for your clarification on how a student with ADHD might be identified by an IPRC as exceptional within the definitions of the learning disability or physical category as you state?
After reading the definitions of these categories, I must agree with the school boards that ADHD does not easily fit within these definitions. The definition of the learning disability category clearly states that there must be a learning disability present for the use of this category. While one of the core symptom of ADHD, the deregulation of attention greatly impacts a student's learning, ADHD is still diagnosed as a mental health disorder. ADHD is a complex disorder affecting many cognitive functions and although many educators are under the false belief that treatment with medication alone will make the student's symptoms simply disappear, scientific research over the past ten years has demonstrated that symptoms such as the impairment of executive functioning do not vanish when taking medication.
While it is true that medication can have some effect on attention regulation for some students, medication for ADHD is never considered a “magic bullet” in the treatment of ADHD. According to the Canadian ADHD Practice Guidelines and also all international guidelines, ADHD should always be treated multimodally, with one of those treatments being classroom accommodations. Some international guidelines state that school accommodations should come before a trial of medication is even considered. As Dr. Umesh Jain stated during our first meeting with George Zegaric, when schools refuse to recognize ADHD as a disability and refuse to allow these students accommodation to decrease their attentional load, they force physicians to increase the medication these student require.
Many years ago when I first met with the Ministry of Education, Alex Bezzina commented that he did not know how a student's learning could not be affected if they have a disability with regulating their attention. That statement is at the core of this issue and has stayed with me for many years. We now have the science to answer this question. In fact, inattention greatly impacts the attainment of a child's reading and math skills. They have a higher percentage of grade retentions, and school drop out rates are as high as 30 to 40 percent For detailed information on this please access the presentation entitled ADHD and Education by Rosemary Tannock, PhD, Canada Research Chair in Special Education and Adaptive Technology & Professor of Special Education Neuroscience and Mental Health Program, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto ,Professor of Psychiatry, University of Toronto and Senior Scientist, Neuroscience & Mental Health Program, Research Institute of The Hospital for Sick Children, at:
Although hyperactivity and impulsivity do not directly impact a child's learning it can greatly impact a child's learning environment if not understood properly. If a student is unable to sit still for extended periods of time, or needs to fidget and move around to help them focus, and the school staff does not adequately accommodate for this need, the student may spend much of their time in the principal's office rather than in an appropriate learning environment. Likewise, without the understanding around a student's core symptom of impulsivity a student may spend much or his/her time in detention and or on suspension rather than in the classroom.
In fact if a student is not deemed to be an “exceptional pupil” the likelihood that mitigating circumstances impacting a student's behaviour will be taken into account when discipling a student for their actions is less likely. Therefore many students who's behaviour is impacted by their ADHD may be suspended and even expelled for behaviour that has been impacted by a legitimate neurobiological disorder.
We have been in communication with the Ministry of Education for numerous years over this issue, yet we continue to go around and around on the same merry-go-round year after year. The Ministry states that the categories of exceptionality are broad enough to include students who's learning is affected by their ADHD and the school boards state that ADHD does not fit into any definition of an existing category, so they cannot recognize a student with ADHD alone as an exceptional student. We continue on this same path year after year, as students who's learning is affected by their ADHD do not receive adequate accommodations in the school system.
On behalf of students with ADHD and their parents, I would like to plead with the Ministry of Education to clearly and officially clarify under which category a student whose learning is being impacted by their ADHD, should be identified under. If they can indeed be identified under the learning disability category or the physical category could you please stipulate how this can be done since school boards are adamant that it cannot.
As always, CADDAC and the medical, psychological and educational expert clinicians and researchers in the field of ADHD that we have access to, would me more than willing to work with the Ministry and or school boards to reach an understanding on this issue.
National Director CADDAC
cc Hon. Kathleen Wynn