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Recogntion of ADHD in Ontario SchoolsThis first document below was an e-mail that I sent to John Wilhelm, who sits on the Ministers Advisory Council for Special Education,on February the 12th, 2008.
I had contacted the secretary to the Advisory Council asking who represented students with ADHD on the council and she gave me John's e-mail address. John kindly edited my e-mail to include all major points and included it in the MACSE correspondence folder. I will be also be following up with John in the near future.
Thank you very much for your e-mail.
When looking at the positions in the committee I was interested in who might
deal with the children that we advocate for and the parents we support. I do
not know who in this committee in fact represents ADHD students.
It seems that ADHD is again falling through the cracks into no man's land and has
no true representation on this committee. Please do not take this as personal statement.
I am sure that you are doing a wonderful job, however ADHD always seems to be
shoved into a category where it does not belong or truly fit. This only further
perpetuates the misunderstanding and misinformation that is already out there about
ADHD, which ultimately leads to these students not receiving the understanding and
services they require in order to succeed at school and ultimately in life.
Our major concern at this time is the lack or recognition of ADHD in the school system.
We are inundated with calls from parents who are frustrated beyond belief with the
refusal of boards to recognize that their child has a disability and service them
accordingly. As I am sure you are aware an ADHD diagnosis does not qualify a child to
receive an exceptional status. By now I should know the quote the Ministry gives out
on this issue by heart, about a student with ADHD being able to be recognized under
the LD or Behaviour category. While it sounds good, in reality this rarely happens and
if it does there are major concerns with both categories.
For some reason the calls we are dealing with are increasing greatly, which may indeed
be due to our profile increasing, but in fact the scenarios seem to be getting
progressively worse month by month. Many of these children are frequently
misunderstood and treated miserably, belittled in front of classmates, missing half
their days in the classroom sitting outside the principals office, principals and teachers
playing psychologist and attempting to recondition their medical diagnosis, all
resulting in students who are totally miserable at school.
No wonder more than 30% drop out as soon as they can. Can you tell that as an
organization we are totally frustrated with how these children are treated and educated
in our school systems and the lack of concern of the Ministry of Education?
It seem even stranger that with the huge socioeconomic costs of untreated ADHD
to our governments and society and the significant drop out rate of these adolescents
that there is not more interest in actually helping these children in the school system.
Sorry, I do not mean to rant, but I have again just finished a call with a parent who is
totally beside herself and has been treated terribly by her son's school staff. Last year
when we held an information sessions for parents in Ottawa, a mother stood up and
said that with all the frustrations and heartaches that they have to deal with, with this
disability including medications, doctor's visits, long waiting lists, lack of any resources,
behaviours and cognitive deficits, dealing with the school system, year after year,
is the most frustrating of all. I believe that says it all.
If at any time the committee might be interested in hearing what is happening to these
students on a daily basis both in the special education system, and being locked out of
the special education system, we would be more than happy to put together a
presentation for you.
National Director, CADDAC"
Kathleen Wynne was included in the e-mail to John and on 19th of March I received the letter seen below. (This was originally a two page letter scanned and copied to fit onto one page, without any text being omitted.)
Continue to scroll down to see my letter in responseALSO
, please access the page found under this page on the side bar entitled "Follow-up Letter From Barry Finlay" to read the letter from the Ministry of Education that followed this letter from Minister Wynn and my response to Barry Finlay. My letter in response to Kathleen Wynne:
"March 24, 2008
The Hon. Kathleen Wynne
Dear Ms Wynne,
Thank you very much for your letter in response to my e-mail expressing CADDAC's concerns about students with ADHD being recognized and serviced in our Ontario school system. I am grateful for the opportunity to have a dialog on this complicated issue. Due to my work with parents who are dealing with this issue over the past fifteen years and past meetings with the Ministry I am very familiar with the five categories of exceptionalities. I am also aware that the Ministry of Education feels that the broadness of these categories is sufficient to include ADHD, and also that the Ministry feels that ADHD can be placed under the category of Behaviour or Communication, under the sub category of Learning Disability. I was delighted to learn that the Ministry feels that a student's “NEED” for a special education program or service should be the determining factor for an identification as an exceptional student and that you share our concerns for families struggling with ADHD.
Your letter has given me some hope that this on-going dilemma can be tackled with your help and for this reason I am addressing this letter to you personally. After reading your letter and your expressed interest in these children and concern for their families, I can only conclude that perhaps you are unaware of the reality for many students with ADHD in our school system.
In the majority of boards in Ontario a student with ADHD is only recognized in the category of Behaviour, if the student's behaviour is very disruptive. We actually do not want students with ADHD identified in this category if at all possible. Our experience is that when this category is used the student's cognitive deficits, which are often the underlying cause of the behaviour, are rarely adequately addressed. ADHD is legitimate neurobiological disorder recognized as a disability by the Ontario Human rights Commission and should therefore be treated as such.
Although the Ministry has stated in the past that a student with a diagnosis of ADHD could be identified under the category of Communication / LD, this does not happen unless another learning disability has been diagnosed. The Learning Disability Association of Ontario (LDAO) clearly states in their current definition of a learning disability that:
“… learning disabilities are sometimes confused with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It is important to note that these are two distinct conditions, in spite of the significant level of co-morbidity. ADHD is not a specific learning disability. ... Nevertheless, the interventions that benefit people with ADHD and those who have learning disabilities are not the same. Therefore, it is important to diagnose these conditions accurately, before developing an Individual Education Plan for the student.”
During several of my previous meetings with Ministry personnel they have stated that the Ministry does not necessarily accept this definition of an LD, however to date no other definition, clarification or guidance has been offered to school boards by the Ministry. During my last meeting with the Chief Psychologist of the Ontario School Boards, he indicated to a CADDAC and CADDRA representative, in the presence of LDAO representatives, that the psychologists of the school boards of Ontario do accept LDAO's definition of an LD and therefore will not recommend that a student with ADHD be recognized as an exceptional student under this category, unless another Learning Disability can be clearly identified.
As I mentioned earlier, I was heartened to learn that you felt that a student's “NEED” should be the determining factor for identification as an exceptional student. Unfortunately this is frequently not the case.
When presenting to parents and educators I often refer to ADHD as “the hidden learning disability.” When a student has cognitive deficits in attention, working memory and executive functioning, educators who do not fully understand the disorder label the student as being unmotivated and lazy. If an educator interprets a student's lack of success in this way, how can they be expected to recognize the needs of this student?
The fact is that many of our students with ADHD are never provided with the classroom strategies the Ministry talks about developing in the document “Reach Every student, Energizing Ontario Education,” rather they suffer through years of being misunderstood and even verbally abused at the hands of educators who do not recognize their needs.
Educators may recognize the outward symptoms of the disorder (the hyperactivity and impulsivity), but often interpret behaviours such as: uncompleted assignments, forgotten homework, misinterpreted or forgotten instructions, lack of focus, inability to begin assignments, inconsistency of quality of work, and outbursts of frustration, as displays of defiance.
The student is told that they need to learn to take responsibility for their own actions. Responsibility for one's own actions, or frequently in the case of ADHD the lack of actions, is definitely a good thing as long as one has the cognitive abilities to perform the actions required. Punishing a student with memory deficits for not remembering, without providing adequate strategies and accommodations, is tantamount to asking a student with a broken leg to run a hundred yard dash and then blaming them for not taking the responsibility for doing so.
If ADHD is not fully understood in its entirety, how will a student's “NEED“ possibly be identified.
In fact, more times than not the need is not identified or if identified the school falsely believes that a child with ADHD does not qualify as an exceptional student. Schools see ADHD as a medical condition that can be fixed by taking a pill. While we know that attention and sometimes hyperactivity and impulsivity can be reduced with medication many of the cognitive deficits cannot. Also, some children with ADHD do not respond to medication or experience side effects severe enough to disqualify them from taking medication. We must also remember that not all parents are comfortable with their children taking medication for this condition.
Another reason that a student's need may not be recognized is the way many psychoeducational reports are written. Unfortunately, we frequently see reports that lump numerous deficits into the ADHD diagnosis. Once psychologists recognize the outward symptoms of ADHD, many do record low scores in various areas of functioning, but then attribute them to being due to attentional difficulties or just part of the ADHD. A psychologist may recognize low scores in areas of: processing speed, auditory processing, working memory, writing, spelling and graphomotor functioning etc, and then negate their importance by adding “is most likely due to attention difficulties” on the report.
In all fairness to schools, we are asking them to decipher reports written this way and recognize a need other than medication for a medical disorder that they do not fully understand. Although the Ministry has intentionally kept the categories of exceptionality broad, the school boards use these categories as clear indicators of what “NEEDS” they are required to identify. These broad categories of exceptionalities are in fact so well defined that ADHD does not fit into any category and the schools are at a loss of where to place it. They therefore assume that they are not required to recognize the needs of these students.
Looking at this same issue on a larger scale, studies tell us that more than 90 per cent of students with ADHD under perform academically and 30 to 40 per cent drop out of high school before graduation. I read the document, “Reach Every Student, Energizing Ontario Education,” with great interest. I was especially struck by comments in this document indicating that the Ministry and schools are committed to all
students reaching their full potential and that there is a commitment to every
student to ensure that strategies are developed to help every student learn, no matter their personal circumstances.
This document also states that the role of schools is to help students develop into citizens who contribute to our country's strong economy and cohesive society. Did you know that ADHD costs our economy approximately $7.7 billion annually? If even a fraction of this cost can be decreased by adequately servicing these children in the school system and assisting them to graduate rather than drop out, thereby helping them become contributing members of society, would it not be worth investigating why we are failing these children in our schools?
I wish I could adequately convey the extreme frustration and heartache parents go through when they feel that their child's school does not understand their child's needs. I receive daily calls from parents so distressed and disappointed in their provincial school system they are desperately looking for other alternatives. I am also frequently asked why the Ministry of Education has not done anything to rectify this situation.
When a child with ADHD is struggling in the school system and is denied an exceptional status, they are not only denied their legal right to accommodations they are further stigmatized by a government and school system that does not understand this disorder.
Minister Wynne, although the Education Act may very well be written in a way that allows every student to be reached, in practice this is not the reality for the majority of students with ADHD in our Ontario schools. Over the CADDAC as well as other organizations have met with representatives from the Ministry of Education several times to request that ADHD be recognized under a specific category other than behaviour. As recently as last fall CADDAC and CADDRA met jointly with George Zegarac and Bruce Drewett to discuss the need to recognize ADHD under criteria deemed “ Medical,” as it is recognized in the province of Alberta (Special Education Coding Criteria 2008/2008 http://education.alberta.ca/admin/special/resources.aspx). This request was denied on the spot and during this meeting and a follow-up meeting on November 1, 2007 we listened to the same rhetoric, that ADHD can be recognized under the categories of Behaviour or Communication, a classification that has not been accessible to students with ADHD for the past fifteen years that been involved in this work.
At this point, other than a media campaign to raise greater awareness about this issue and the plight of children with ADHD in the Ontario public education system and encouraging parents to file human rights complaints, am at a loss of what to do.
The broad categories that you outlined in your letter dated March 17, 2008 are unsatisfactory and are in fact a barrier to students with ADHD being identified as exceptional. I urge you to prevent long term educational, social and economic problems for these children. Change the criteria to properly recognize ADHD as a legitimate medical condition in order to improve student outcomes.
Minister Wynne, I sincerely invite you to meet with CADDAC and parents who can tell you their story first hand about the discrimination they face every day in our schools.