As the school support workers strike that has kept hundreds of students with disabilities out of Halifax-area classrooms marks four weeks, Inclusion Nova Scotia is calling it a human rights violation and demanding an immediate remedy.
“We’ve been watching this with mounting frustration. We see an incredible human rights violation occurring and really feel that there needs to be a solution,” Inclusion NS board president Stephanie Carver said in an interview.
“If the strike is going to continue, if there’s any kind of work stoppage because of a labour dispute, the burden of that cannot be borne by one sector of the students inequitably. This is what is happening.”
On Tuesday, Inclusion Nova Scotia sent out a media release calling the exclusion of students with disabilities from school on the grounds of their support needs both discriminatory and a human rights violation.
“Our schools and our government are sending a message that some students don’t matter. Which students? Students with disabilities,” the release said.
In April, the province of Nova Scotia reached an interim agreement to end the discriminatory treatment for people with disabilities. Inclusion NS said the acceptance of a “discriminatory approach” during the strike is “inconsistent” with their commitment to building a human rights remedy.
“You have an inclusive education policy. There is a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Every single student has a human right to be in school,” Carver said.
“We are forcing the students in our public school system to witness human rights violations on a daily basis, and we are making them complicit to it. What are we teaching them?”
‘The most vulnerable walk the gangplank’
Two weeks ago the Examiner shared the story of the Scarff family. Their 10-year-old son Cohen has autism and desperately misses his school routine.
“The fact that he’s disappeared means that he’s out of sight, out of mind. It’s easy for a politician to say, ‘No, no, we care.’ But that’s just words and it’s the actions that matter,” his father Mick said.
Carver is the parent of a student with an intellectual disability. While her son is able to continue attending high school, she’s devastated that he’s not receiving the same level of education he had before the strike began.
“It shatters me that every single day there are families whose kids don’t get to go to school,” she said,
If the province and HRCE can’t end the strike action, Carver said they’re responsible for ensuring the burden of its impact isn’t solely shouldered by students with disabilities.
“Not to put words into anybody’s mouths, but it feels like the message that we’re giving families of kids with disabilities and the students who are in class is that when the going gets tough, we make the most vulnerable walk the gangplank,” Carver said.
“They’re gone. We sweep them out. They don’t matter. They’re the first ones to go. That’s the message I’m getting, that’s the message I think families are getting.”
Exactly four weeks ago, 1,800 HRCE educational program assistants (EPAs), support workers, and pre-primary teachers went on strike. This meant 600 students were no longer able to attend school.
‘Nobody is talking about it’
On May 23, HRCE shared with the Examiner that there were 567 students unable to attend classes because the EPA support they require is not available.
In an email Wednesday afternoon, HRCE spokesperson Lindsey Bunin said the latest data provided by its schools indicates that of the 1,796 students who require EPA support, 1,143 are safely attending school.
“Of the remainder, 311 are currently unable to safely access in-person learning at school as a result of CUPE’s job action, 111 students remain at home at the guardian’s discretion and 231 students are accessing learning on a hybrid basis between school and home,” Bunin wrote.
While schools have made arrangements to allow some students to attend for shorter periods of time — 30 minutes, one hour, two hours — Carver said that’s not good enough.
“There are families who can only take their child to school for half an hour or an hour, and then they have to go pick them up,” she said. “We are watching this happen right before our eyes.”
During a five-day school week, Carver said an equitable distribution of the strike’s impact would see each student getting the opportunity to attend school for the same amount of time.
“There needs to be a creative but equitable solution to this that means that every single student in the system feels the impact of it equitably,” she said.
“There would be families of students who are neurotypical who’d say, ‘Well that’s not fair.’ But this is not fair. There is nothing fair about this. There is nothing right about saying to a certain sector of students, ‘You cannot come to school’ or ‘You can only come for half an hour.’”
‘System is not working’
Carver said there would rightfully be an uproar if other marginalized groups of students couldn’t attend school because staff members were unable to keep them safe. When it comes to students with disabilities, she said it’s disheartening that “nobody is talking about it.”
If it’s deemed unsafe for one group of students to attend school, Carver said there’s a problem with the entire system. She believes legislation should be created to ensure the burden of any work stoppage affecting students is distributed equally.
“If we are operating under an inclusive education policy, then inclusive education is not working and therefore the education system is not working,” Carver said.
“I would suggest that the powers that be need to stop in their tracks and think about how this can be distributed equitably, and how do we make up for the losses of the students who are most vulnerable in our system.”
Beyond the impact on these students as they watch their peers and siblings continuing to attend school, Carver said every day that they’re out of school “is a day that they are losing out on something incredibly valuable.”
“I would say too that the students who are, big air quote here, ‘welcome’ to go to school, these are learning centre students. They’re not getting their appropriate education either.”
‘Unconscionable human rights violations’
Carver made a passionate plea on behalf of families of children with disabilities affected by the ongoing labour dispute:
If I can speak also on behalf of families, we are constantly advocating for our children and it is exhausting. The families of children with disabilities are more likely to have made career choices that don’t allow them to climb the career ladder in the same way that others do. They are more likely to have mental wellness challenges. They’re more likely to be divorced. They are more likely to be called to go pick up their kids more often.
They’re already really struggling. And what are those families doing? They’re not going to work. The Department of Education, the Department of Community Services, are not sending them a check to say, ‘Well, here. This is going to cover the respite costs for you so you can go to work while your child’s home.’ There’s nothing being done. There’s no acknowledgement of the unconscionable burden of this on the families and the unconscionable human rights violations that are taking place. It is not right.