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The History Of Inclusive Education In Canada

A diverse group of friends embracing each other
Young man with a disability wearing a graduation outfit

1800-1950s: From institutions to the dumping grounds

The story of inclusive education in Canada unfortunately begins with dark years.

During the 1800s, young persons with special needs were simply excluded from the education system and deemed burdens, often confined to institutions where they festered away in isolation. Though some arguments were made about this being for their own good, the most prominent rational was that exclusion and institutionalization would prevent persons with special needs from tainting the general population.

While exclusion and institutionalization continued throughout the 19th century, the tide gradually shifted due to changing views about equity, and by the 1920s special education classes were being incorporated into the general education system, primarily in urban settings.

Although this was an improvement over institutionalization, students considered to have special needs tended to be pooled indiscriminately into segregated classes, with little, if any, consideration given to individual differences. Moreover, despite some increase in public tolerance, disability was still linked with deviance and a belief that educating special needs students alongside those without special needs would harm the general student population.

1960 : Starting to see individuals

After a few more decades of segregation as the status quo, the 1950s and 1960s saw a community-based push for improvement within the special education framework. This period included the rise of parent groups, community living organizations, and professional associations such as the Canadian Association for Community Living and the Canadian Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities. Organizations like these gave teachers, parents, and related professionals new opportunities to voice concerns, pool resources, and develop concerted advocacy strategies.

With this new advocacy network in place, greater change began to occur in public schools. To combat the segregated dumping ground nature of special education, school boards began reviewing and expanding assessment and placement criteria, as well as the documentation needed to make placements, with formalized testing for special needs becoming more frequent as a result.

Special needs students were no longer indiscriminately dumped into classrooms without consideration of differences and unique needs, and the students were now treated as if they had least had a trace of an individual in them. Yet, classes remained largely segregated between special needs students and the general student population, with the former being very much disadvantaged by the arrangement.

1970s-1980s: New research

Well aware of this, community organizations and parent groups continued to press for greater equality, and in the 70s and 80s they would be able to draw upon a new strand of support: a growing body of scholarly research was starting to back their cause and complement their advocacy.

In a seminal work on special needs education, Dunn called into question the efficacy of segregating intellectually disabled students. This triggered numerous studies and system assessments, with the results overwhelmingly showing that special needs students would benefit from integration, and that the fears of the general student population suffering were unfounded.

In response to this wave of evidence and advocacy, throughout the 80s and 90s several provinces introduced new school acts for students with special needs, and the walls between special needs classes and the general student population began crumbling. Integration replaced segregation as the norm in practice, with demands rising for fully inclusive education, and the classroom supports needed to make that reality.

1990s-2000s: Rights affirmed

Today, inclusive education is the normative status quo in Canada and is codified as a right in numerous acts and conventions. For example, Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by Canada in 2010, states that it is a right for disabled students to receive the support they require within the general education system, and to be educated on an equal basis to other students within their communities.

The BC School Act and numerous other provincial acts similarly call for measures to ensure that special needs students within mainstream classrooms have all the support they need to thrive.  The body of evidence that started forming in the 70s has also continued to build throughout the 2000s in support of inclusion, making the empirical foundation stronger now than ever before. 

Today: Better, but still not full inclusion

Yet, while evidence, ethos, and many formalized commitments weigh on the side of inclusion, it remains elusive as a widespread practice in classrooms. Cases of exclusion have been reported in all 60 BC school districts, studies show that inclusive education is not a system-wide reality across the province, and the progress from integration to inclusion cannot yet be regarded as complete.

What will it take for full inclusion? Click here to learn more about the barriers and how the situation can be changed!

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