Mom Fights for School Supports for Son

May 31, 2010
Andrea Gordon

A London-area mother who spent years trying to get special education support for her son with ADHD is fighting a human rights case that could change the way children with the disorder are treated in Ontario classrooms.

Michelle Davidson of Petrolia has spent eight years trying get services and accommodations for her son Peter, who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in Grade 1, which impaired his ability to learn.

Instead, she alleges in a complaint before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, he languished in a system that refused to recognize his disability or provide the special education services he needed, leaving him further behind and more distressed each year.

"It was like watching him crumble," Davidson said in an interview. "It got worse and worse."

In Ontario, students with learning disabilities, autism or a range of other "exceptionalities" listed by the Ministry of Education have the legal right to special ed services. But an ADHD diagnosis, by itself, does not give children that same right.

The case, which has dragged on for five years, challenges that.

It had been scheduled for a human rights tribunal hearing this week, but was adjourned last Friday. No new date has been set but mediation may continue this summer.

ADHD, characterized by inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive behaviour, is the most common childhood mental health condition. It affects between 5 and 12 per cent of children - or at least one or two in every classroom - which means how school supports are provided is important.

Now 14 and in Grade 9, Peter is an avid football player and golfer who struggles with reading, writing and numeracy skills that are still at elementary school level. This semester, his mother has spent hours each evening helping him with science, his only academic course. He also takes phys. ed and design technology.

Peter was diagnosed in Grade 1 when his family was living in Alberta, one of the few provinces that recognizes ADHD and offers extensive supports to students, teachers and families.

But a year later, the family moved to southwestern Ontario, where he no longer had automatic access to the special ed services he needed, says Davidson. As a result, he floundered in a regular classroom where he couldn't cope.

She filed the complaint against the Lambton Kent District School Board when he was in Grade 5. In a 2008 interim decision, the tribunal agreed to add the Ministry of Education as a respondent.

A spokesperson at the tribunal said Friday no one could comment on ongoing cases.

But the 2008 document summarized Davidson's complaint, which claimed school board officials infringed on her son's right to equal treatment by denying supports because they did not consider ADHD a disability that qualified for special ed services.

The complaint alleges that instead of getting help for his learning difficulties, Peter was isolated in the classroom, disciplined inappropriately, and advanced to Grade 5 despite failing to complete grades 2, 3 or 4.

The tribunal document also outlines a submission from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which agreed to present Davidson's case on behalf of the public interest. The commission asserted that Peter was denied appropriate services "because under Ministry guidelines he could not be identified as 'exceptional' due to the source of his disability "(his ADHD)."

Afroze Edwards, senior communications officer with the commission, declined to comment on specifics of the case.

However, she said under the human rights code, "education providers have a duty to accommodate all students with disabilities to the point of undue hardship." And based on its broad definition, it is highly likely ADHD would be considered a disability.

She noted "the code has primacy over the Education Act."

The ministry also refused to comment. However, spokesperson Gary Wheeler said in general students do not have to be formally identified to receive special ed services.

The case is being closely watched by advocates, parents and educators.

"It's a really important test case," says Janis Jaffe-White of the Toronto Family Network, which has helped hundreds of families seeking education supports for their children.

"This isn't isolated. It's been a big problem for many years and we've raised it many times."

She says the ministry needs to make it clear to school boards that providing services for kids with attention disorders is non-negotiable.

"This situation involving children with ADHD is another example of a system failing the children it is supposed to serve, and those children are falling through the cracks."

Lack of formal recognition by the ministry means there's no consistency among teachers, schools or boards on how to teach children with the disorder and little training, says Heidi Bernhardt, national director of the Centre for ADD/ADHD Advocacy Canada

"When ADHD isn't included in the definitions and can be interpreted differently across the province, there's a huge problem."

She notes the disorder can severely impair a child's ability to learn, and mounting research shows how it can impede brain development. But many kids can only access help if they are simultaneously diagnosed with a learning disability or other recognized condition.

Physicians and other experts say that with the right strategies and supports, children with ADHD can be successful in school. But without them, children who can't pay attention and learn can become frustrated and disruptive. They may be labelled as troublemakers or lazy kids by those who don't understand the disability, leading to a cycle of frustration, acting out, punishment and plummeting self-esteem.

For Davidson, who also has two daughters, trying to get help for Peter has been a full-time job. She left her administrative career to juggle meetings with physicians and teachers and periods of home-schooling her son, who couldn't grasp what was being taught in a regular classroom.

The human rights case has taken thousands of hours of research and involved four different lawyers at the human rights commission.

Then, late last month, the commission made a request to withdraw from the case. Now Davidson says she's facing a David and Goliath situation, alone against legal teams representing the ministry and school board and unable to afford the tens of thousands of dollars to hire outside counsel.

"All I am is a voice for Peter," she says. "I'm the litigation guardian, I'm not a lawyer. And he's a 14-year-old child who has been waiting for five years and falling further and further behind. He's been very patient."

Davidson says other parents facing similar situations can contact her at

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