Faculty of Education prof is helping to build a more inclusive Canada

Sheila Bennett has devoted her career to advocating for the inclusion of students with special needs into regular classrooms.

Her years of experience brought her to Ottawa in November, when she was invited to share her message with the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration (CIMM).

Bennett, Associate Dean Professional and Undergraduate Student Services and Professor in the Faculty of Education, joined 24 other expert witnesses to testify during a review of the medical inadmissibility of immigrants to Canada.

The CIMM review examined an Immigration and Refugee Protection Act provision that can disqualify some individuals from immigrating to Canada if they have a medical condition or disability that would place “excessive demand” on health and social services.

Demand is defined as excessive if it would exceed average anticipated per capita health and social services costs over a specific period or would add to existing wait lists, increasing mortality and morbidity for Canadian citizens and permanent residents because of less timely service delivery. Some immigration application classes, such as Convention Refugees, are exempt from the provision.

Medical inadmissibility can prevent entire families from making the move to Canada if one member has a disability or medical condition that would qualify as excessive. In the case of Felipe Montoya, a York University professor, his family’s permanent residency application was denied because his teenage son has Down syndrome.

In 2016, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) used Bennett’s work to justify the decision on Montoya’s application, claiming that special education costs for Montoya’s son would be excessive. Bennett strongly disagreed with this interpretation of her work and continues to promote inclusiveness and diversity in and out of the classroom.

In her Nov. 21 testimony to CIMM, Bennett highlighted that the number of school boards with segregated services for students with special needs is shrinking. For school boards that are transitioning to inclusive approaches, the funding for services needed by students with special needs is spent within the whole school community, creating benefits for everyone.

Bennett also highlighted the positive outcomes of inclusiveness and diversity.

“Inclusive schools have been shown to have a positive effect, not just on the academic and social learning of the student with special needs, but more importantly a positive effect in terms of tolerance and acceptance of difference in all members of the school community,” she said during her testimony. “Schools as a microcosm of society tell us that cognitive and physical diversity add value.”

CIMM’s final report, Building an Inclusive Canada: Bringing the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act in Step with Modern Values, was presented to the House on Dec. 13. In it, CIMM recommended that the federal government repeal the medical inadmissibility provision, arguing it is counter to Canadian values, particularly related to the protection of human rights.

For Bennett, being a part of this process was an honour. “Our role as academics is to contribute in a way that makes a difference. To be an informed voice at the table,” she said after the report was released.

The CIMM meeting, including Bennett’s testimony, is available online through the House of Commons website.

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