Students with special needs aged 18 and older falling between the cracks


School boards and parents are grappling with a gap in services for children with special needs between the ages of 18 and 21, says Windsor education law lawyer Sheila MacKinnon.

MacKinnon, who is managing partner at Shibley Righton LLP’s Windsor office, says school boards are seeing more human rights complaints from parents who are struggling with how to find adequate services for their children.

After the age of 18, children with autism and other disabilities are no longer funded to attend certain treatment centres. But since they are entitled to attend public school until the age of 21, the individuals go to school, only to find their challenges supercede the school’s ability to serve them.

“They try to transition into school and sometimes the child becomes violent or encounters other obstacles,” MacKinnon tells Even if treatment providers warn that the school setting is not appropriate, working parents are often left with no other option, she says.

“So they bring them in and then educators often have to exclude them within a few days because their behaviours are so extreme it becomes a safety issue or other children and staff.”

The situation raises questions of whether school boards or other levels of government should be responsible for serving young adults with severe disabilities who can’t cope in a school setting, she says.

“Educators are trained professionals and the children are their whole worlds,” MacKinnon says. “They feel awful when these children with special needs are sent home."

The human rights complaints allege the school boards are failing to accommodate the children's special needs, she says. But the school systems are often not appropriate setting for these children as their needs require medical care beyond what a school board can provide.

“The test of the human rights tribunal is quite a high one. You must accommodate to the point of undue hardship and for these cases, it’s about safety.

The situation is not unique to southern Ontario.

The Supreme Court of Canada will hear an appeal from the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) regarding classroom sizes, composition of students and the ratio of specialist teachers in their contract with the Ministry of Education, the Globe and Mail reports.

The legal battle could have broader implications for inclusion, described in the article as a principle championed by disability advocates “that all children are entitled to equitable access to education in regular public-school classrooms. While provincial school systems across the country have long committed to inclusion, financially strapped systems are forced to compromise.”

A 2014 report by the People for Education found that about half of elementary principals have told students with special needs to stay home because there was not enough support for them, the article notes.

It's a familiar refrain to MacKinnon.

“The parents say, ‘My God, I’m not getting any services paid for by the government and I need to go to work. Who is going to look after this child, because he has been in a treatment centre all this time?’

“But public schools in these extreme cases don’t have the funding and/or ability to service the child's needs even with accommodations.”

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