We thank the Ministry of Education for the opportunity to provide input into Ontario's plan to reopen schools and summer educational programs for students. It is estimated there are 1,500 to 2000 students in Ontario who are blind or partially sighted. For years, parents, students, educators and organizations have been advocating to improve the education system to ensure students with sight loss have opportunities to thrive developmentally and academically at every stage of their education. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted some of these historical issues as well as new challenges, but it also provides us with an opportunity to create innovative solutions that keep students with disabilities safe while providing equitable access to education.
We have outlined some specific considerations below, but we also support the AODA Alliance's broader recommendation that the Ontario government needs to develop an action plan that addresses the needs of students with disabilities as part of the plan to reopen schools. It should not be left to individual school boards to reinvent the wheel. The Ontario government should consolidate the feedback received from the disability community, as well as consult with Special Education Advisory Committees, the Minister's Advisory Council on Special Education and the Standards Development Committees for the AODA Education Standards (both K-12 and Post-Secondary) to develop a strategy that is reflective of the needs of the community.
In addition to a broader action plan, the Ministry should direct each school board to work directly with any student with a disability, their parent or guardian, and specialist experts to develop an individual return to school plan for the student, to ensure there are the appropriate processes in place to protect and accommodate the student.
As the Ministry develops a plan for the reopening of Ontario's schools, it should include the following considerations:
Access to Technology
As teaching moves to online systems such as Google Classroom and Learn at Home with TVO, it is integral that all parts of the online learning system are fully accessible, so students with sight loss have the same access to course materials as their classmates. There should be rigorous accessibility testing before any platform is adopted or promoted by the provincial government. For materials that already exist on platforms, there should be an easy-to-find feedback mechanism for teachers, students, and parents to report when systems are not fully accessible, so issues can be rectified quickly. At minimum, classroom teachers should be provided with some basic guidelines to follow to ensure their online materials are accessible.
Access to Equipment
Educating children from home has been challenging for most parents, and parents of children with disabilities have the additional challenge of helping their child navigate online learning with accessible technology. As CNIB has highlighted previously, historically, some school boards have not permitted students to take equipment home.
The provincial government should provide a directive that enables all students who receive an assistive device through their school board for their education to take their assistive device home to support with learning outside of school hours. If this is not possible due to the nature of the technology (i.e. not easily portable), funding should be provided for a second device for use within the home.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there were challenges with parents or students being able to pick up their assistive technology from school and bring it home. This has been resolved for some parents, but now that the assistive technology is at home, parents are facing new challenges. They often do not know how to use the technology, set it up, or know if it is compatible with what they have at home. Furthermore, some schools only have one device that is shared between multiple students, which is problematic. There is no consistent access to assistive technology through the Special Equipment Amount (SEA). School boards across the province have contracts with various technology vendors, which requires students to use technology that might not be the most effective or efficient.
In the longer term, the provincial government needs to create a centralized procurement process, so that student choice of assistive device is not restricted to who the school board does business with or the school board's efforts to cost save by sharing devices between students. A fragmented system creates additional red tape for each school board having to develop their own policies and does not accommodate the unique needs of each student.
The CNIB Foundation and Vision Loss Rehabilitation Ontario are working with the Ontario College of Teachers to develop and implement practical solutions to raise professional standards, such as facilitating a practicum component to the Additional Qualification. As students continue to access education materials online and technology becomes a greater focus in our education system, it is essential that training on the latest accessibility technology is offered as part of continued professional development for TVIs and EAs.
Access to Braille
Braille literacy is as crucial as ever. While listening to audio information can be very helpful, there are times when it is not an appropriate or available option. For students who are blind, being able to read and write braille is the key to literacy, successful employment, and independence. Children and youth need to be literate in order to be able to read, write, and count. These skills bring intellectual freedom, personal security, and equal opportunities as they grow up.
Under normal circumstances, Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVIs) create braille versions of the course materials that the classroom teacher is using. Currently, TVIs are unable to provide braille to their students for hygiene and safety reasons, and many students do not have a brailler at home. This restricts braille users’ access to their educational materials and puts their literacy at risk.
As an emergency measure, the provincial government should provide refreshable braille displays to students with sight loss, so they can continue to develop their literacy skills (through virtual supervision with their TVI or specialist support) and keep up with their schoolwork.
Access to Specialized Support
It's encouraging to see that the Ministry of Education is considering ongoing learning supports, including access to EAs for students with special education and mental health needs. This should also include supports from TVIs and Orientation and Mobility Specialists (O&Ms), Independent Living Specialists (ILS) and Accessible Technology Specialists (ATs). Having the correct supports in place will be crucial to helping a student navigate any physical changes to the school because of physical distancing measures and provide solutions to any potential barriers if there is a change to the way that education is being delivered. The Ontario government should also include requirements around PPE for support persons that must be in close contact with the student.
Access to specialized supports are not only integral to ensuring a student's academic success, but also the integration and inclusion within the school outside of classroom time, such as recess and lunchtime. Returning to a new normal within the school system is going to pose a challenge for all students, and particularly those with disabilities. With adequate funding for the correct supports and safety measures in place, there is no reason that students with disabilities cannot fully participate in school life.
Manager, Advocacy and Government Affairs
CNIB Foundation (Ontario & Quebec)
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