But how far does accommodation go before it begins to erode the academic experience for other students, including the ones who are not great readers but scrape by? And what determines who gets priority when money is tight? In one sense, there is a stronger social argument for rescuing the future of a child with dyslexia than for helping a gifted kid, who is less likely to become a problem citizen in any academic stream. But if that student, lacking stimulation, ends up an average rather than a brilliantly productive adult, is society on board with that too?
Sophia’s mother, Ms. Bell, herself points out: “I don’t want to be the person who says we’re entitled to everything, because that has to come out of someone else’s pockets.”
Just under 15 per cent of the total elementary- and secondary-school population, according to the most recent statistics in Ontario, are classified as having special needs, which range from dyslexia and attention-deficit disorders to autism, developmental delays and mental-health issues.
Learning disabilities – which can affect memory, reading ability and comprehension, and executive functions such as planning and decision-making – account for nearly half: The number varies from about 4 to 10 per cent of students.
Funding calculations vary widely by province, but school boards receive the most money for students with the most profound issues, who require educational assistants. Though they receive funds for assistive technology such as computers, the money is not tied to individual students. And boards are often required to cover the cost of classroom help for learning disabilities.
This has created a system that varies widely between classrooms and between schools. Parents often report that the level of help their child receives depend on the engagement of teachers and principals; often they begin each school year feeling they have to fight all over again.
“Some teachers are great, others could care less,” says Greg Davis, who eventually put her son, now 18 and attending college, in an Ottawa private school so that he could get special support for his dyslexia. “It was just a minefield. You could never count on some sense of stability. I wasn’t willing to take the gamble to bet on him finishing high school.”
As well, there are long delays for testing and diagnosis (which kick-starts extra board funding); a severe shortage of child psychologists means that even more money will not necessarily clear the waiting list. The more protracted the wait, the worse the likely outcomes: Until Grade 3, students “learn to read;” once they reach Grade 4, they are “reading to learn,” which explains why kids with learning disabilities who do not get good help begin to fall down in the higher grades.
Many parents like Sophia’s, who can manage to afford it, pay privately for testing, tutors or even private schools. Already, therefore, there is a two-tier system – one for children with savvy, advantaged parents (“If they don’t see you as a pain in the neck,” Ms. Davis says, “they will ignore your child”), and another for those whose parents, for a variety of reasons, are not effective advocates.
In the U.S., parents of kids with learning disabilities may already request private-school costs when the public system cannot meet their needs. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled in favour of reimbursing tuition to an Oregon family who put their son in private school after public educators refused to accept that he had attention-deficit disorder.
In some places, the principle has not been restricted to special education: An Australian court reimbursed private tuition to a family who daughter had suffered severe bullying in public school.
Of course, the tension between equal opportunity and special treatment has extended beyond the classroom: Employment discrimination cases in the United States have doubled in the past five years, The Washington Times reports; last December, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cautioned American employers that asking for a high-school diploma (when the job may not require one) may discriminate against people with learning disabilities who could not graduate from high school.
There is likewise an ongoing debate about how far SAT providers, universities and legal-bar examiners must go to accommodate special needs. In one U.S. case, a plaintiff was awarded the use of a $5,000 laptop to write his law bar exam; in another, a dental student with dyslexia was denied the right to take his final exam an indefinite number of times to pass them. In Canada, similar cases are being heard by human-rights tribunals.
“This is about a beefed-up equality of opportunity,” says Mary Eberts, a law professor at the University of Saskatchewan, who in 2006 represented (unsuccessfully) the families of children with autism seeking public funding for intensive behavioural treatment.
The Moore decision dealt with an unusually clear set of facts: An entire program was cancelled and there were no other comparable options in the public system. But in principle, Ms. Eberts says, it establishes a higher bar for school boards: “You can’t just set up 10 students at the starting line, eight of them in wheelchairs and two of them not, and say, ‘Oh well, everyone has a fair shot.’ ”