Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dear Mr President...Premier...or Prime Minister

Sometimes I wake up in the morning wondering if I should blog today and then I get an email in my inbox with the subject line "Solutions for Ontario Students with Communication Disorders". The message contained a link that led to a petition about education in Ontario and how our current education system serves those with communication disorders.  Any discussion regarding a lack of speech and language services for those in need flames my fire.

From my own experience I know that the Ontario government since 1997 has put millions of dollars into preschool speech and language services...and it's not enough. I was hired in '97 when preschool services launched in Ontario and I do know that the system got more organized and waitlists lessened depending on where you are.  Still a 2 year wait list in some areas for a 3.5 year old is too long...they'll age out of the system before they get off the wait list.

Unfortunately, since the first dollars were put into preschool speech and language services in Ontario, more than 10 years ago, no additional funds have been sent that way. There is very little new hiring and when therapist positions become open due to maternity leaves or job changes; they cannot be filled due to lack of funding.

Since 1997 the Ontario government has introduced the Infant Hearing Program. "Every year in Ontario, approximately four in 1,000 babies are born deaf or hard of hearing. Through the Ontario Infant Hearing Program these babies can be found very early and given the help they need to develop language."

Millions of dollars have gone into Preschool Autism Services and those services are not supposed stop once a child gets to a certain age. What's offered at the preschool level, intensive behaviour intervention (IBI), though is not easily duplicated at the school level without a massive shift of thinking and training for the staff in our schools.
  • Ontario is increasing its annual spending on autism by $25 million. Since 2003-04 the government has more than quadrupled autism investments to over $186.6 million.
  • Since 2004, Ontario has committed more than $15 million to autism-related research.
If your child had a communicative disorder that wasn't due to autism, there has been no increase of funding. If you were looking for intervention for your child with autism, that wasn't related to intensive behavioural intervention (IBI), there is no funding for your family.

In Ontario, there are many more supports for preschool children with communication disorders since 1997 but it's not enough. As well the children I saw between 1997 and 2001 while working at Surrey Place Centre are now teenagers. These children have severe communication disorders...are they getting the support they need?  Many of the young adults I worked with during that time only received speech and language intervention if they had severe behaviour problems.

Has the system for older children and young adults with communicative disorders changed in the past ten years? Unfortunately, it hasn't.

There's a lyric from a P!NK song that hits home for me: "No child is left behind? We're not dumb and we're not blind. They're all sitting in your cells" (lyrics from "Dear Mr President")

Here are some chilling facts from the American Speech and Hearing Association "Special Populations: Prison Populations - 2004 Edition":
  • "Studies of the relationship between communication disorders and delinquency, violence, and incarceration date back to the 1920s."
  • "According to one study, the incidence of language and communication problems among female juvenile delinquents is approximately three times the figures cited for adolescents in the general population (9)."
  • "The majority of studies report the incidence of hearing loss in prisoners to be approximately 30% (2)."
  • "One explanation for the high incidence of hearing loss among inmates is that early loss can cause poor language skills, frustration, academic problems, and inadequate social skills. These in turn may lead to school drop out, juvenile delinquency, and eventual criminal behavior (14)."
Services for children with communicative disorders in Ontario school is fragmented and in some cases non existent. Therapists (speech language pathologists and communicative disorders assistants, when they are hired) are only allowed to provide assessments and consult with educators. Very little actual speech and language therapy takes places in school. Many school boards still refuse to hire communicative disorders assistants, who are trained at a post-graduate level.

This petition is calling upon the Ontario government to mandate, consolidate and fund speech language services for students with communication disorders as an integral part of our educational system.

We must pay for it now...because we WILL pay more for it later.

Sara Bingham is the founder of WeeHands and the author of The Baby Signing Book. WeeHands is the world's leading children's sign language and language development program for babies, toddlers and preschool children.
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