Monday, November 22, 2010

Dark clouds clearing

I wrote a while ago about my concerns about Ben's school placement. Thursday was our teacher/parent meeting and I left in tears understanding that Ben's program was 100 per cent life skills. In the morning Ben has gym and art, and in the afternoon he has 'math' -- which is working on a box that might contain flashlights to be put together, or beads to be sequenced on a string in a certain way -- and then social skills, which is a cooking class where they make things like bologna sandwiches. I was told the math boxes were to teach skills that might be needed in a day program where adults do 'piecemeal' work. I was also told that Ben has many defiant "behaviours" at school when he simply doesn't want to do what is asked of him.

I couldn't track exactly how we had arrived at this point. Three years ago he was at a school for the deaf in a mixed-grade class with other students who didn't have the complexity of his special needs (in other words, they were typical kids who were hard-of-hearing or deaf). The day was spent doing academics modified to his level. When it was time for Ben to move to a high school, we were given two options: a self-contained class for students with developmental disabilities in a windowless basement of a high school that was accessed through the janitor's workshop (I kid you not!), or the current school Ben is in, which was described as a school for students with mild intellectual disability.

Even though it was mentioned at the orientation, it didn't sink in that in choosing this second school Ben would not get a high-school diploma. I felt we were against a rock and a hard place: this school or the windowless basement.

Ben is able to read -- probably at a Grade 2 or 3 level -- but there is no literacy program in his current schedule. He is able to hear with hearing aids and needs phonics to improve his reading skills -- but the other kids in the class don't hear so they don't do phonics.

I met with the vice-principal and teacher today because I don't think the program is best meeting his needs. There are two distinct issues. The first, which has nothing to do with the school but with our education ministry, is that the standardized literacy and math tests in high school preclude most (many?) students with intellectual disabilities here from getting a high school diploma. I'm all for standards, but I'm also for adapting the curriculum so that every student can be successful, regardless of disability. To me, this is a rights issue. And the second is that Ben's current curriculum doesn't promote and develop his academic skills.

When I met with the school today, I was shown a graph that showed that the students in Ben's class are in the first percentile for cognitive function. I was also reminded that in a psychological assessment a couple of years ago, Ben tested in the first percentile. I shared my concerns with how this assessment was done (it lasted about 15 minutes, whereas we've had other assessments that were done over a number of days and yielded different results) and no one who knew Ben was present during the testing (important when your child uses modified signs that may not be self-evident to a person who knows ASL).

I was told that students at this level are not able to meet the requirements of the high school degree. While I thought my son was entering a school for students with mild intellectual disability, I learned that the composition of the school has changed greatly in the last two years, and that his class is actually a developmental disability class for students who are deaf or hard of hearing and have other special needs.

Apparently "DD" students don't ever receive high school diplomas.

And it's rare for students with "MID" to get high school diplomas.

There's something about the pigeon-holing of students into these categories that I find very disturbing.

I need to do more digging to understand how it is that students with developmental disabilities never get high school diplomas -- as I can think of some instances where my understanding was that they did, with a modified program.

And I need to make sure that Ben is in a program where he is improving academically -- at whatever level -- because in my mind that's why he's in school. I don't mind a small focus on life-skills, but in my opinion the scale is out of wack.

The school staff were very open to my concerns and we will have a larger meeting to look at what is best for Ben as well as consider more psychological testing.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear about school programs for students with intellectual disability in your jurisdiction. Do any of these jurisdictions grant high school diplomas? I posted an article many months ago about how there was variation between states in the U.S. on this issue. How is it equitable that a student with intellectual disability in one state can earn a high school diploma, but not in another?


UGH! I am so sorry Louise.
Ben should be in a program that allows him to work to his full potential.

I believe the change in diploma status came around with the new curriculum around '99. I started teaching that year and I remember my friend teaching in our life skills program telling me this.
I find it so disturbing that students cannot work towards a diploma.

No point me adding what goes on here, we may as well be on Mars.

I'm surprised and appalled about the lack of a literacy program. Literacy and math are both life skills in the world we live in, at the very least recognizing common signs is a great benefit for students. Building on the skills and knowledge that each student has would seem logical so why not improve Ben's literacy skills? And is there not any kind of "functional literacy" program for the students?

While I understand the focus on life skills, I'm always disappointed at the narrow way in which that is interpreted (sorting, packaging etc), if the aim is "meaningful work" it should be acknowledged that what is meaningful for teachers and parents and the general population or whatever, may not be meaningful to the student. There needs to be more flexibility and imagination. And yes, for students who can improve academically, why not include this in the program.

What kind of accreditation is there at the end of school?

(these are UK examples of accreditation - Accreditation for Life and Living, ASDAN Towards Independence and Transition Challenge and also OCR National Skills Profile. These run alongside the new Foundation Learning Diploma)

Hi Lisa and Emma -- thanks for your messages. I recall hearing about the change re diploma status but at the time it had no meaning for me as Ben was so young.

The students in Ben's school receive a certificate of achievement. I'm not sure how that compares to the ones in the UK Emma.

And Emma -- I agree about imagination. Unless a child has internal motivation to do something because it fascinates them, we don't really know what they're capable of.


Very sorry to hear this.... are you in Toronto?

Although I graduated from Monarch Park Collegiate, I must profess that I am largely self-taught, as my diploma wasn't worth the paper is was printed on. Therefore, may I be so bold as to ask one question: What is the point of inclusion without education?

Moreover,I also wish that you tell Ben's teacher, "What he or she views as piecemeal work, can also be described as 'menial labour.' Absolutely, no different from Bantu Education Act of 1952, administered in accordance with former South African regime of Apartheid."

Matt Kamaratakis

So sorry to read this, Louise. I don't know much about the diploma thing (and being in California, not sure how useful my info would be) other than some kids I know with disabilities have been able to pass the test to earn the diploma and others get a completion certificate and that this is controversial. But to me, what seems most important, is that Ben's education program meet him where HE is and challenge him at his level. I'm sorry that he's been pigeon-holed based on one 15 minute assessment with no accommodations for his specific needs. I am heartened to hear that the meeting went well and the team is reconsidering. Good luck to you!!

Hi everyone,

Louise blogged about my film Including Samuel in an earlier post, and I thought I’d share some information about the educational path towards a diploma for kids here in NH.

My colleague at the UNH Institute on Disability, Michael McSheehan, is a national expert on this topic. Michael is a coordinator of the newly funded National Inclusive Education Initiative for Students with Autism and Related Disabilities. He has worked on a variety of state and federally funded initiatives to advance research, policy, and practice in inclusive education, alternate assessment, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), autism spectrum disorders, collaborative teaming, and Response to Intervention (RTI).

Michael is working closely with the NH Department of Education and other groups to strengthen the assessment process for students with disabilities here in New Hampshire (NH). NH is seen as a national leader in this area.
This NH group sees K-12 education for kids with disabilities in the same way as we see it for all kids: the ultimate goal is to teach ALL kids the components needed for graduation. Any individual student should have access to any class/coursework that is required for graduation.

Many students with disabilities can demonstrate their knowledge of that curriculum through standardized assessments. These assessments should incorporate multiple modes of communication -- as long as student’s intent and authorship is preserved. These multiple modes of communication could include AAC devices any other form of assistive technology, and/or low-tech communication such as pictures boards, objects, and photographs. These approaches are commonly referred to as “Universal Design for Learning” or UDL. See more about UDL at and universally designed assessments at:

But some students with disabilities need an alternate assessment to demonstrate that they have learned the curriculum necessary to receive a high school diploma. This NH group is in the process of redesigning the alternate assessment. The learning expectations from the alternate assessment are built directly from the general education standards. The ‘alternate’ approach is that students demonstrate their knowledge through an individualized portfolio approach.

All the assessments in NH are aligned with the ‘common core’ educational standards established at the state and federal level– the educational standards that demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing, math and science.

For more information about New Hampshire’s assessment approach, go to:

For more information about the National Inclusive Education Initiative at the Institute on Disability at UNH, go to:

-Dan Habib
Filmmaker in Residence
Institute on Disability at UNH