Published On Tue Jan 24 2012
By Carol Goar
Unless you have a child with a disability in your family, you probably don’t realize how lonely these youngsters are. Some of them struggle harder with social isolation than their physical and intellectual limitations.
According to a study just released by Dr. Anne Snowden of the University of Western of Ontario, 53 per cent of these kids have no close friends or just one. Three-quarters don’t participate in any community programs (sports, recreation, arts, cooking, computers, music). Fifty-four per cent of their parents struggle with constant stress to meet their needs.
Snowden headed a team of researchers from the Kids Health Foundation, the Special Olympics, Community Living Ontario and the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. What it found was that preschool children are generally well-served by community agencies and elementary schools do their best to include children with disabilities in classroom activities. But around Grade 5 or 6, these kids fall by wayside as their peers compete to be cool and join the “in” group.
Boys, who have a much higher incidence of developmental delays than girls, have a harder time fitting in.
Those who manage to finish high school have enormous difficulty getting the training they need to qualify for a job. Many never get a chance to use the skills they have.
Part of the problem, Snowden said, is that smaller communities don’t have resources for these children with disabilities. But even in major cities parents don’t know what services exist, they lack transportation to get their kids to suitable programs or they can’t afford the enrolment fees.
“We have some terrific community programs, but organizations don’t collaborate,” she said. “Parents are sent from pillar to post looking for all the information they need.”
There are solutions to these problems, but they require money and leadership.
The Kids Health Foundation is willing to supply the leadership. It is looking to Ottawa to provide some of the financing.
The Department of Human Resources did pay for the study. But whether it will go further — given Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s austerity directive and his reluctance to fund social programs — is an open question.
The “Sandbox Project,” as it is called, has three things working in its favour:
- It was launched by Dr. Kellie Leitch before she became MP for Simcoe-Grey and parliamentary secretary to the minister of human resources last spring. As one of Canada’s top pediatric orthopedic surgeons, she understood how important it was to improve the quality of life of children with disabilities.
- It has strong corporate support. Last week’s study was released in a well-appointed conference room at the Telus Centre in Toronto’s business hub. Other sponsors included Coca Cola, McDonalds, Johnson and Johnson, Talisman Energy, AstraZeneca and Navigator Communication.
- Disability support is one of the few areas of health care in which Ottawa can act without intruding on provincial turf. It has done so in the past. Two years ago, it launched a national strategy to prevent childhood injury. Five years ago, it established the Mental Health Commission. Twelve years ago, it created a network of Canada Health Research Chairs at universities across the country.
For the next six weeks, the Sandbox Project will attempt to convert Snowden’s findings into a draft plan that would strengthen Canadian communities to give children with disabilities a chance to participate and become productive citizens.
What its proponents need now is a champion in government.
Leitch is the logical candidate; she’s a pediatrician, professor and Conservative MP. But it will be up to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley to decide whether she finishes the job she began.
Carol Goar’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Fri