November 1, 2021
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) welcomes the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee’s 2021 initial recommendations report (the recommendations) under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
We know from our Right to Read public inquiry into human rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities, and other ongoing work in recent years, that the protection from discrimination under Ontario’s Human Rights Code (Code) is often not a lived reality for many students with disabilities and their families.
The OHRC’s Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities and related recommendations identify the many barriers that students with various disabilities face at all levels of education. Government and other public and private organizations responsible for education services in Ontario have a legal duty to accommodate the disability-related needs of students. Under the Code and the AODA, education providers should make sure they undertake proactive measures to design their goods, services and facilities inclusively, work diligently to identify and remove any existing individual and systemic barriers and prevent any new barriers. They must also make sure students and families know how to request disability-related accommodation and have local mechanisms in place to resolve disputes.
In this context, the OHRC strongly supports the Committee’s efforts to make recommendations aimed at removing the variety of barriers that learners and family members with disabilities face throughout Ontario’s education system, and ensuring necessary accommodation supports are available to all students with any type of disability, as required by the Code.
While we understand the scope of the Committee’s work was directed to publicly-funded K-12 education, the OHRC recommends that the Ministry of Education work to ensure that the information and resources that result from the final accessibility standard also apply to privately funded education providers.
The OHRC is pleased to see human rights principles and obligations affirmed throughout the Committee’s recommendations. The wide scope of the recommendations over the nine broad themes, including social realms, emergency and safety and digital training demonstrates an important holistic view of students with disabilities at school. The effort to address barriers to family members with disabilities is equally important.
The OHRC is generally supportive of the Committee’s recommendations in the areas identified and believes that if the education system follows these recommendations, by 2025, the publicly funded K-12 education system will be significantly more accessible, equitable, inclusive and learner-centred, consistent with the objectives of the Committee and the aims of the AODA and the Code.
The Committee’s recommendations appear consistent with the Code and the OHRC’s Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities, including principles and recommendations on universal design, oversight and accountability, training for educators, data collection and reporting, and putting students and parents at the centre of decision-making. We have highlighted below some areas that we ask the Committee to consider further.
In particular, we wish to acknowledge the importance of the recommendations on the need for clear and effective complaint mechanisms at various levels for resolving disputes in the accommodation process or in the Individual Education Plan development process. In the OHRC’s Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities, section 8.3.5, we note that the right to an effective mechanism for redress for students with disabilities has been recognized at the international level.
On the Committee’s recommendations on service animals (68), it is important to note that there are no Code requirements for service animals or service animal users to be professionally trained. School boards should not automatically exclude animals that lack designated professional training or certification.
The Committee’s final recommendations should clarify that education providers should facilitate a student’s access to their service animal in school to accommodate any disability-related need, not only a need related to learning. For more information, please review the OHRC’s 2019 letter to the Minister of Education on Policy/Program Memorandum (PPM) No. 163 – School Board Policies on Service Animals service animals.
The Committee’s recommendations 53.5 and 53.6, on training for teachers of blind students, are important, and we would ask the Committee to consider whether to expand these recommendations to address other disabilities with unique learning needs. This could include students with developmental disabilities, autism, who are Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing, have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, have learning disabilities including reading disabilities, and possibly other types of disabilities. Other staff who may interact with students including teaching assistants, lunch staff, etc. may also require training on the unique techniques for working with students with specific disabilities.
Technical Sub-Committee transition recommendations
The OHRC is pleased to see the area of transitions within and between levels of education given the Technical Sub-Committee’s special focus and is in general agreement with the recommendations cited. Education providers have a duty under the Code to make sure students with disabilities have equal access to any programs, and any necessary accommodations, that support transition to postsecondary education, school to workplace and community opportunities.
Recommendations related to the OHRC’s Right to Read Inquiry
In 2019, the OHRC launched its Right to Read public inquiry into human rights issues that affect students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system. The goal was to determine whether Ontario is using evidence-based approaches to meet students’ right to read. The OHRC assessed school boards against five benchmarks that are part of an effective systemic approach to teaching students to read:
- Universal design for learning (science-based curriculum and teaching methods)
- Mandatory early screening
- Evidence-based reading interventions
- Effective accommodation
- Professional assessments (if required).
The OHRC will be releasing the Right to Read inquiry report in February 2022, and we encourage the Committee to review this important work on Ontario students’ right to learn to read. The report will include detailed findings and recommendations for government, school boards, faculties of educations and others and we believe it will be of interest in the ongoing work of the Committee.
We ask the Committee to consider expanding its recommendation 41.8, on the establishment of an education advisory committee on autism, to address other disabilities with unique learning needs such as students with developmental disabilities, who are Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing, have learning disabilities including reading disabilities, etc.
We also ask the Committee to consider the following recommendations:
Curriculum and Universal Design for Learning
- The Ministry of Education to revise and implement a new Kindergarten Program and Grades 1-8 Language curriculum, so that it reflects the most current evidence-based principles about what benefits all students, including students with reading disabilities
- Faculties of education and school boards to train future and current teachers on evidence-based approaches to teaching students to read
- The Ministry and school boards to provide in-service training to teachers in evidence-based approaches to teaching students to read.
Mandatory early screening
- The Ministry of Education to mandate and standardize evidence-based universal early screening on foundational reading skills focused on word-reading accuracy and fluency, so that schools can identify struggling and at-risk readers to provide early and targeted intervention
- School boards to screen every student, at least twice a year from kindergarten to Grade 2.
Evidence-based reading interventions
- The Ministry of Education to standardize evidence-based interventions in word reading accuracy and fluency, to develop standard decision-making rules for selecting interventions and matching students to intervention programs and to make sure that every school board has these interventions available to all students who require them.
- The Ministry of Education to eliminate unnecessary requirements for professional assessments, and establish clear criteria for referring students with suspected reading disabilities for assessment, and create consistent, transparent and accountable systems for managing waitlists for necessary professional assessments.
- Boards and schools to implement accommodations in a timely manner, and regularly meet with the student and/or parent/guardian to discuss how the accommodation plan might be improved
- Boards and schools never to use accommodations to replace evidence-based classroom instruction or interventions consistent with a universal design for learning approach
- The Ministry of Education to investigate and approve a standard list of assistive technology tools to accommodate students who face barriers accessing the curriculum, and to fund procurement of, and training in, these tools
- The Ministry to mandate that all resources on the Trillium List be available in electronic, accessible form
- Boards and schools only to modify a student’s curriculum expectations as a last resort, and only with clear disclosure to the student and/or parent/guardian about the impact of modification on the student’s academic pathway
- Boards and schools to track and publicly report how many students have had their curriculum expectations modified, and how.
- Provide students and/or parents/guardians with straightforward conflict resolution services to address barriers they face when attempting to access educational services
- The Ministry of Education and school boards to take steps to collect detailed, disaggregated student identity data (including whether students identify as having a disability – and, in that case, which disability or disabilities – and whether they identify with another Code ground or grounds), and analyze that identity data against outcomes such as EQAO results, academic pathways, credit accumulation, graduation rates, and post-secondary application, acceptance and attendance.