Special education is the practice of teaching students in ways that accommodate their learning differences and needs. This involves planning for each student and ensuring that the arrangement of teaching procedures, adapted equipment and materials, and settings are accessible to all students within a class. Students today are familiar with a system where all students are entitled to an education, regardless of their exceptionalities, but this codified assurance of accommodation is a newer addition to the Ontario education system. While some schools independently created programs for exceptional students, these programs were not protected and students were often segregated from mainstream schooling.

Students in larger cities were more likely to be accommodated through more organized or regulated systems; Toronto and Vancouver had the first two Canadian systems dedicated to Special Education – known as ‘auxiliary education’ at the time – with approximately 340 individuals who were offered these programs between 1910-1945. Normal Schools screened disabled applicants from acceptance, requiring a certificate of health to attend and the province of Ontario banned deaf people from training as teachers in 1919. This could be a lonely existence for students, not seeing any staff who could relate to their struggles on anything beyond a theoretical basis. Toronto had schools for the hard of hearing and deaf students, those with speech problems, English language learners, and had open-air rooms for chronically ill children. 

The teaching of auxiliary education was highly feminized, with women outnumbering men 25:1, and even this is an overrepresentation of the average. A significant portion of the men included in this statistic were principals at the forest schools that Toronto had for the chronically ill, where principals aided in the delivery of lessons. This gendered disparity is harmful to the women, who are expected to have a motherly nature and provide for these unique pupils while being underrepresented in the creation of the materials teachers use in the classroom. The lack of male teachers is also harmful to the boys in special education, who will have few male teachers to look up to as role models who provide alternative ways to the stereotypical model of patriarchal ‘masculinity’. 

The 1950 Report of the Royal Commission on Education in Ontario (also known as the Hope Report) was the first acknowledgement of special education and the need to expand special education to meet the needs of those with learning disabilities. There were also suggestions of placing exceptional students into the same class as their peers. 

The 1960’s were a landmark decade for Ontario regarding equal rights. The Ontario Human Rights Code was passed in 1962 affirming the right to equal access to services, including education. While this was an important step towards a more equitable system of education, it was not until 1982 that the Code was amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of handicap. This meant that areas like sex, age, and creed were protected while disability was not included. 

The One Million Children report of the 1970’s called for Canadian society to stop segregating children with disabilities from their peers and families, among the 144 recommendations. This report was the culmination of more than a three-year study of the Commission set up by the Canadian Mental Health Association, The Canadian Welfare Council, The Canadian Education Association, The Canadian Conference on Children and Youth, The Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded, and The Canadian Council for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled. The name of the report comes from the estimate at the time that between 10-12% of Canadian children required an accommodation of some kind, which equated to roughly one million children. It was not until an Amendment to the Education Act in 1980, sometimes referred to as Bill 82, that school boards were required to “implement procedures for the early and ongoing identification of the learning abilities and needs of students, define exceptionalities of pupils and prescribe classes, groups or categories of exceptionalities”.  All publicly funded schools from that point onwards were required by law to accept responsibility for the education of all children, regardless of ability. In 1982 the Charter of Rights and Freedoms created protections from discrimination based on mental or physical disability, and the Human Rights Code was updated to include those who were Disabled

Disability is an area of Canadian history that is often uncomfortable, forcing us to acknowledge the biases and prejudices of our society, both in the past and present. Knowing how recently many students gained the right to an education in any form in Ontario can be disheartening, but also shows how much can be accomplished towards equal rights within just a few generations. This momentum is continuing into the present, and the future of special education looks bright. 


Sydney Spillner