|Ontario accused of shirking obligation to provide supports for children in private systems|
Globe and Mail
June 5, 2007 at 4:53 AM EDT
A group of parents is planning to launch a lawsuit against the Ontario
government, alleging it is discriminating against their children by not
funding supports for students with certain disabilities who attend
private religious schools.
The families - whose children are either blind, deaf or learning
disabled - say it is unfair that they do not receive assistance, even
though private-school pupils with different special needs, such as
speech impediments, get help.
"The government's on a slippery slope ... they have a legal obligation
not to discriminate when they're providing funding for disabled
children. And they're clearly discriminating now, and we've decided to
call them on it," said Allan Kaufman, a lawyer involved in the case.
The lawsuit, which is being launched by a multifaith coalition and
seven families and is to be filed this month, is a test case seeking a
declaration from the Ontario Superior Court that the Charter rights of
the children and their families have been violated.
The parents also believe the government is discriminating against their
children on the basis of religion, saying it is unjust to deny them
what other children receive in public or Roman Catholic schools.
"The question is, why aren't they treating all disabled children the
same?" said Norman Blustein, a pediatrician whose 12-year-old daughter
Dayna uses a cochlear implant because meningitis left her deaf.
Last fall, the family switched Dayna from her private Jewish school to
a public school, partly because she wasn't getting all the support she
Under provincial government rules, all children - no matter the type of
school they attend - are eligible for special-needs support if
considered medically necessary, such as speech therapy, physiotherapy
or occupational therapy.
But students who require what the province deems learning tools to help
with visual impairments, hearing difficulties or learning disabilities
get assistance only in the publicly funded system.
"It's really a matter of making sure that we have public dollars to the
greatest degree possible, supporting our public system," said David
Spencer, a spokesman for Health Minister George Smitherman.
In 2000, Mike Harris's Progressive Conservative government - which was
more popular among voters who send their children to private school
than is Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberal administration - extended
medically required services to students who were private- and
home-schooled and set aside money to cover the aid. While the fund
totals $14.4-million a year, an average of just $4.5-million is spent,
Mr. Spencer said.
Ira Walfish, chairman of the coalition, which also wants equal funding
for private faith-based schools, likened the province's distinctions
between disabilities to "balancing on the end of a pin" and urged it to
spend the allocated money. "There's a real injustice here. These kids
really need these services," Walfish said.
Parents involved in the lawsuit say the issue is more about fairness
than money. Suzanne and Arthur Birenbaum's 12-year-old son, Lewis, who
attends a private Jewish school for children with learning
disabilities, has a non-verbal learning disability and a sensory
Although tested as gifted, he can't grasp non-verbal cues, has trouble with handwriting and with focusing.
To help with organizing his thoughts, he uses a laptop computer that
his parents bought for about $2,500 - which could have been funded if
he went to a public school.
"We're just asking for what we feel is fair," said Mr. Birenbaum, a
public-school teacher. "... We just want a wrong to be righted."