Definitions of Learning Disabilities in Canadian Provinces and Territories

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Contents

Michelle Kozey and Linda S. Siegel
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Summary

The provinces vary as to the special education services that learning disabled (LD) children receive across Canada. This is due to the absence of a common definition for LD, and different identifying and funding procedures.

Most of the provinces use the definition of LD as being a discrepancy between intelligence test scores and achievement, even though research does not support this. Recently seven of the provinces have accepted all or part of the Canadian Learning Disabilities Association 2002 definition of LD. This definition says that LD is a cognitive processing disorder or condition with processing deficits. There are different definitional ways to look at LD: a research approach, a diagnostic approach, a policy approach and an advocacy approach. These should all be the same, but this is not the case. In this study, LD will be used to refer to reading disability or dyslexia, math disability or dyscalculia and writing disability or written output disorder.

One of the most common definitions is that LD is low academic achievement in the absence of severe intellectual, neurological, sensory or physical deficit. Many people object to LD being defined as a discrepancy between measured cognitive intelligence and performance on standardized tests. Thus it would seem that the main criteria that have been used to define, identify and serve LD in provincial policies are not valid, accurate or reliable.

Diagnostic definitions are used to provide a set of definitions that are used with medical or psychiatric labels for disorders, impairments or handicaps of clients. The use of these definitions is restricted to health professionals

The aim of a policy definition is to identify the exceptional student for educational purposes. Funding for these students is based on those identified. The decisions are usually made by a committee within the educational setting rather than health professionals.

In Canada, unlike the United States, different provinces have their own policies in place. These policies reflect the multicultural, linguistic and socio-economic conditions of that particular province. One must also keep in mind that education is not a federal responsibility.

Advocacy definitions are used by advocacy groups to promote the welfare of the people that the advocacy group serves. In the United States this procedure has been very successful. In Canada these groups have had a significant influence on the provincial ministries of education. For their purposes LD is looked on as lifelong and intrinsic to the person. It is caused by a combination of genetic and neurobiological factors, as well as brain injury. This definition states that LD is not the result of major physical impairments, low socio-economic status, culture or language, low motivation or poor instruction. It must be noted that these qualifications listed above can aggravate the situation.

All Canadian provinces have formal education legislation, but most do not reference LD, nor do they stipulate any special policy in regards to it. No special definitions are used. It must be noted that only Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan have made mention of LD in their Education Acts. Saskatchewan has the most comprehensive, empirically-based resource document regarding LD, and assessment practices. The most common trend in provincial LD policies is the adoption of the LD definition promoted by the LD Association of Canada. Recently many of the provinces and territories have begun to use this specific language.

The idea of intelligence is still a main feature of Canadian provincial LD policy. All of the provinces with written definitions of LD agree that LD can co-occur with other psychiatric and learning disorders. The concept of LD as a discrepancy between intelligence and achievement has been retained in most of the provincial policies. Many find this the discrepancy idea frustrating. Another feature of provincial policies is the definition of LD as a processing disorder, or as a condition with processing deficits. There is much controversy over this as well. Six of the provinces defined LD as having particular academic and functional impairments.

In a number of the provinces funding is given to the school districts for students with special education needs related to LD on a categorical basis. This links the funding to the number of children officially identified as having special education needs within that area. This way of funding seems to focus on support services for assessment for purposes of identification rather than assessment for purposes of intervention and service delivery. Overall LD services in Canada are mostly funded as part of the general monies from the provinces to the school boards. These funds are then spent at the school board’s discretion. The designation of a child with special needs or LD does not result in increased funds to their local boards or the school of the child, nor does it result in funds which are directly related to that child.

Overall Canadian policy is changing from the IQ-achievement model of LD, yet policy change takes time. In addition, there is a parallel existence of psychological diagnosis criteria that uses a discrepancy model. There is also the practical nature of discrepancy criteria, as well as the support of advocacy groups for a clear diagnostic criteria that are associated with disability ideas and not general students with learning problems or low achievement. Current policy approaches for LD are typically measured by standardized tests administered by psychologists. There is an administrative and financial need to set a criterion that determines which students are eligible for additional special education services. Funding in Canada for special education and LD is independent of the numbers of students that are designated with LD, thus expectations for LD students are limited. This can, and has, resulted in law suits against school districts and Ministries of Education.

The result of the Response to Intervention model has yet to be determined. In this case early and intervention-based services are provided by general education staff in consultation with other learning experts. Several criticisms have been noted against this model. It has no links to any empirical definition of LD. It fails to distinguish between students with LD and other impairments is very important. There is also concern over general classroom teachers as being able to adequately provide intensive, individualized assessment has been questioned. The success of this model depends on an assumption of standardized and quality teaching. The most concern with this model is the relative nature of the benchmarks used to identify students with learning difficulties or those failing to respond to general resource/remedial and special education.

It is unclear as to whether the situation for LD students in Canada is likely to improve. Many problems still exist in this field. We continue to rely on highly diagnostic approaches which may lead to a wait and fail policy in which case rates and severity of LD may worsen. The old definition of LD must be changed.

Key Findings

  • Across Canada there many variations in the programs that LD children receive.
  • There is no common definition for LD and the definition most often used is not empirically supported.
  • The old definition of LD must be changed and the new one utilized.
  • Different funding mechanisms exist across the country. Different provinces have their own policies.
  • All Canadian provinces have formal education legislation, but most do not reference LD, nor do they list any special policy in regard to it.
  • Saskatchewan has the most comprehensive, empirically-based resource document regarding LD and the assessment practices.
  • The idea of intelligence is still a main feature of Canadian provincial policy.
  • Policy definitions are made by committees within the educational settings.
  • In a number of provinces funding is given to the school districts for students with special education needs related to LD on a categorical basis.
  • Overall LD services are mostly funded as part of the general monies from the provinces to the school boards.
  • These funds are spent at the school board’s discretion.
  • The designation of a child with special needs or LD does not result increased funding.
  • Canadian policy is changing slowly.
  • Diagnostic decisions are only given by health professionals.
  • Advocacy groups have had a significant impact upon the provincial ministries of education.
  • The most common trend is the adoption of the LD definition promoted by the LD Association of Canada.
  • For these groups LD is seen as lifelong and intrinsic to the person.
  • The result of the Response to Intervention model has yet to be determined.
  • It is unclear as to whether the situation for LD students is likely to improve.

Recommendations for Future Research/Discussion

  • Plan to convince the provinces to all use the same definition for LD students
  • Help ALL provinces to provide more detailed information for professionals and families
  • Limit the importance of advocacy groups in regard to selecting a suitable definition for LD students
  • Increase pre-referral informal assessments for students
  • Reduce wait times for formal assessments
  • Do not rely upon intensive and invalid definitions

What do you think?

  1. Do you agree or disagree with the new definition of L.D.?
  2. Were you surprised at the services offered to L.D. children in different regions in Canada?
  3. Do you feel that the funding for these children is equitable?
  4. What impact would it have if everyone made a decision to work within the framework of the new definition of L.D.?
  5. Discuss why Saskatchewan is a good place for a L.D. child to live?
  6. Why do you think that a new definition was needed?
  7. Do you understand the concern over capping the special education funding as a set percentage of the general education population?
  8. Do you agree or disagree with this sentence - “The categories previously used were somewhat fluid and unreliable.”
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