Sunday, May 31, 2009

Canadian families suing Ontario government, asking for funding of services at private religious schools for disabled children

From CBC:

The mother of an Ontario boy denied disability funding because he attends a Jewish school had her day in court May 27, two years after a lawsuit was launched claiming the province discriminates against disabled children who attend private religious schools.

Max Greenberg, 13, has a non-verbal learning disorder, but does not receive funding from the government for special computer resources, said his mother, Missy Hecker.

"What bothers me is my son sees the discrimination and how unfair it is and how unjust it is," Hecker said outside court.

Hecker and Max are among eight families taking the Ontario government to court because it does not fund services at private religious schools for blind, deaf and learning-disabled children.

Parents are instead forced to pay for the programs or move their children to a public or Catholic school — both of which are publicly funded in Ontario — where students with similar disabilities do receive support.

Yet children with other disabilities, such as speech impairments, can still receive government-funded therapy and services at private religious schools.

In 2000, the province began funding students in faith-based schools who required nursing, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech and language therapy.

That list left out children with other disabilities, Raj Anand, one of the lawyers representing the families, told the court.

"You're left with under-inclusiveness," Anand said. "We are talking about people who are equally disadvantaged."

Anand used the example of a 10-year-old student who is non-verbal, has a neurological impairment, and is attending a private Jewish school.

While the student was approved for funding for a speech therapist, Anand said the boy could not get help for his language delay problems, even though the therapist was capable of helping him in both areas.

2 different ministries provide funding
The issue of funding support is further complicated by the fact that two government ministries provide funding for disabled children.

The Health Ministry delivers services for children medically diagnosed with a disability, while the Education Ministry provides services for kids who have undergone an educational assessment.

This means children who come into the publicly funded educational system will have their educational needs met if they are blind, deaf or have a learning disability.

"How can being deaf or blind be an educational matter rather than a health matter?" Anand said.

Court also heard the government has a $14.4-million annual budget to assist students with a disability, but only uses about $4.5 million of that amount.

Anand said that shows it's not a matter of cost and there is no rational basis for refusing the funding.

"These are not experimental or untested therapies," he said, describing the support that many children need, such as computers to print out large print items if they are visually impaired.

The lawsuit was launched in June 2007, a few months before the issue of religious schools funding became a political hot potato during the provincial election campaign.

Former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory put his party in jeopardy during the campaign after he promised to extend funding to faith-based schools, upsetting voters and costing him the election.

The case continued May 28 with arguments from government lawyers.