Students with ADHD Have Legal Right to Supports in School

Andrea Gordon
Family Issues Reporter

Thousands of Ontario students with ADHD who are struggling in the classroom now have the right to receive help at school, according to a statement from the Ministry of Education.

A memorandum to school boards quietly posted on the ministry’s website last month says children with conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are entitled to special education supports and services if the condition interferes with their learning.

“This is definitely a step in the right direction,” said Heidi Bernhardt, national director of the Centre for ADHD Awareness (CADDAC) Canada, which has been fighting for years for the rights of children with the attention disorder to get the same kinds of support available to those with learning disabilities and other conditions that hinder learning.

The advocacy group “congratulates the Ministry for this first step in correcting a long-standing inequity of access to special education services for students with ADHD and other neurobiological disorders,” it says on its website.

ADHD, which causes inattention, restlessness and impulsive behaviour, is a neurobiological condition believed to affect at least 5 per cent of Ontario’s 2.1 million school-aged children.

But unlike other conditions such as autism or learning disabilities, it has not been explicitly included as one that requires access to special education.

As a result, there has been “appalling inconsistency” in how students across the province are recognized and supported, said Bernhardt in a statement released Tuesday.

Bernhardt says she fields calls every day from parents who can’t get access to school interventions recommended by doctors or psychologists because of this omission.

“It has led to so much confusion and heartbreak,” says Rosemary Tannock, a leading expert on the disorder and the Canada Research Chair and professor in special education and adaptive technology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto.

No one from the Ministry of Education was available for comment on Monday.

The memorandum from Barry Finlay, the ministry’s director of special education, says “all students with demonstrable learning based needs” are entitled to special education help and classroom support.

This development is an important clarification because it means no child should be excluded from receiving support if they have a condition that affects their learning, said Tannock, who is also senior scientist in neuroscience and mental health at the Hospital for Sick Children.

The ministry also stipulates this applies but isn’t limited to children with a range of other conditions, including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Tourette Syndrome.

Tannock says the next key step is to ensure that every parent, teacher and school board is made aware of the directive so that struggling children can get the help they need.

She hopes the move will lead to better training for teachers about ADHD and how to teach students with attention problems.

In 2010, CADDAC released a national report card citing Ontario as one of three provinces that failed to meet the needs of students with attention disorders by not making them eligible for support.

Instead those students were only guaranteed support if they were also diagnosed with a second condition, like a learning disability, that qualified for support.

Six years ago, a London-area mother filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission after her son spent years languishing in a school system that refused to recognize his disability.

He was diagnosed in Grade 1 when the family lived in Alberta, which provides extensive school supports to children with ADHD. But once they moved to Southwestern Ontario, he floundered in a regular classroom and couldn’t cope.

Oakville psychiatrist Dr. Kenny Handelman, who specializes in treating children and youth with the disorder, welcomed the news.

“This is great for kids with ADHD,” said Handelman. He estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of his patients have significant problems getting appropriate help in school, so the fact that parents now have the right to get help for their children will be critical in addressing that problem.

Many kids with ADHD are very intelligent and can shine with the right supports and classroom strategies, he added.

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