Teacher alleges ableism in union survey

·3 min read

A student services educator is calling on the Manitoba Teachers’ Society to both retract a survey he claims “promotes ableism in public education” and apologize for its release.

Michael Baker, a public school teacher who is currently working on a PhD in inclusion and disability studies at the University of Manitoba, said he was taken aback when he started filling out his union’s 2021 workload study.

The voluntary review, which has been circulating among members in recent weeks, with a participation deadline of Dec. 10, asks queries about teacher work weeks, class make-up and COVID-19-related adjustments, among other items.

“I noticed some real big problems in the survey that singled out one group, people with disabilities, and it became so horrendous to me that I just couldn’t continue with the survey,” said Baker, who sits on the City of Winnipeg’s human rights committee of council, during a phone call Monday.

“I’m categorizing this — at worst, as a charter infringement and at best, this promotes ableism in public education, which is an extreme problem.”

One of the 34 questions asks respondents to tick boxes of all “practical solutions” — including, “reduce the number of exceptional students per classroom” and “provide more supports to deal with exceptional students” — that would help manage workloads.

In another section of the study on class size and composition, teachers are asked: “What would be a reasonable cap on the number of exceptional students in each class you teach?”

Rather than select an option between zero and upwards of six, Baker wrote “discriminatory” beside the question before he submitted his document.

The teachers society indicated it distributes a workload survey every four years that covers a range of areas, including class size and composition. According to MTS, the current edition is gathering information from members in preparation for the first round of provincial collective bargaining.

“MTS is a strong supporter of inclusive classrooms and believes that class size must be addressed along with class composition to ensure teachers have the time and resources necessary to ensure success for all students in our public schools,” union president James Bedford said in a statement Monday.

Bedford said information about class composition is crucial to ensure teachers and students alike are given “the appropriate resources and supports necessary to succeed.”

“Students with exceptionalities” and “learners who have exceptional needs” have become popular buzzwords in public education that refer to students with varying physical, behavioural and cognitive disabilities.

The union’s use of those terms, which “obliterate” an individual’s identity as disabled, are disturbing — never mind the survey in its entirety, said Nancy Hansen, a professor and director of the interdisciplinary master’s program in disability studies at the U of M.

Hansen, who identifies as a disabled person, said educators should be discussing the underfunding of education rather than reinforcing systemic ableism by suggesting there be “quotas” for students with wide-ranging disabilities. She noted it would never be deemed appropriate to set quotas for other equity, diversity and inclusion groups, such as people of colour or women in this context in 2021.

Hansen added: “I find it disturbing and highly troubling that a disabled student is automatically assumed as someone problematic, as opposed to learning in a different way or requiring support learning.”

Baker echoed similar concerns, which he has raised with his union, alongside a request for a new set of survey questions to be released.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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