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The opportunity to succeed: Achieving barrier-free education for students with disabilities

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Executive summary


Education is an international human right essential to the life of an individual and to a community as a whole. Education provides opportunities for personal, social and academic development and is important for future employment and integration in society. The school setting is one of the first places that children learn to relate to and interact with one another. It is often in relation to their peers that children begin to develop a perception of themselves and of the world around them. As such, a student’s experience in school can have a major effect on his or her self-image and self-esteem, and on his or her development in later life.

In Canada, education is recognized and legislated as a fundamental social good. A publicly funded education system, accessible to all, is recognized as a core responsibility of government. At the international level, various United Nations conventions recognize the importance of education to persons with disabilities, including the Covenant on Economic, Social And Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Declaration of the Rights of Disabled Persons.

The Ontario Human Rights Code sets out the principle that each person should feel a part of the community and able to contribute fully to the development and well-being of the community and the Province. The Code guarantees the right to equal treatment in education, without discrimination on the ground of disability, as part of the protection for equal treatment in services. This protection applies to elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, both public and private.

In July 2002, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released Education and Disability: Human Rights Issues in Ontario’s Education System, a consultation paper which identified human rights issues in education. The Commission invited feedback from interested parties, through written submissions and participation in public hearings, on the issues identified in the consultation paper, and on other human rights issues in education. The response was overwhelming and came from a wide range of interested parties.

The Report

The Opportunity to Succeed: Achieving Barrier-free Education for Students with Disabilities is the final Report on the Commission’s extensive research and consultation. The Report represents an overview of the feedback received from consultees from across the province. It canvasses human rights issues that arise in the provision of education to students with disabilities, it outlines actions required by parties to the accommodation process to promote compliance with human rights law and policy and sets out the Commission’s own commitments in this regard.

Based on the Commission’s findings, it is apparent that many students with disabilities do not have equal access to educational opportunities in Ontario, either at the primary and secondary, or at the post-secondary level. The key barriers are inadequate funding, physical inaccessibility, cumbersome and time-consuming accommodation processes, negative attitudes and stereotypes, and a lack of understanding of the rights and responsibilities of all parties under the Code and Commission policy.

Accommodation is not always provided in a timely manner. It is often insufficient, and sometimes, is not provided at all. There are delays at many stages of the accommodation process. For example, consultees reported a large backlog in the processing of claims for special education funding, long waiting lists for professional assessments, and delays in the provision of special education programs and services. In some cases, disputes about accommodation have caused students to lose substantial amounts of time in school. Children and youth cannot afford to wait for accommodations that will provide them with the opportunity to access education services equally. Educational institutions have a responsibility to deal with accommodation effectively and quickly as educational opportunities delayed can have serious and permanent effects.

Every student is unique. All students have particular strengths, needs, and goals. Most students will require support at one time or another in order to reach their potential. Students with disabilities are individuals first and foremost, and should be treated as such. Blanket approaches to accommodation that rely on categories, labels and generalizations will not work. For example, rigid application of suspension and expulsion policies that do not take into account a student’s individual circumstances and are implemented with stereotypical assumptions run the risk of having a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on students with disabilities and other individuals and groups protected by the Code.

Not all students with disabilities who experience discrimination will do so in the same way. For example, students with disabilities may also be members of other historically disadvantaged groups. The discrimination they experience may be based on more than one ground, and these grounds may intersect producing unique experiences of discrimination. In order to fully recognize and account for the complex ways in which many people experience discrimination, an individual approach to discrimination analysis and accommodation assessment is needed.

The accommodation of students with disabilities is a shared responsibility. Everyone – educators, school staff, government officials, school boards, parents and students themselves – must take responsibility for becoming informed about disability and education issues to ensure that students with disabilities can count on a welcoming and inclusive environment. Everyone needs to work together to ensure equal access to education for students with disabilities. When it comes to ascertaining the needs of a student for the purposes of developing an Individual Education Plan, for example, the student’s principal, teachers, and any special education professionals with whom the student has worked should co-operate with the student’s parents and the student, where appropriate, to devise the most effective plan. Everyone has an interest in providing all students with the opportunity to reach their potential.

The Ministry of Education must co-operate with school boards and schools to develop more effective mechanisms to monitor the progress of students with disabilities and the effectiveness of specific accommodation measures. Likewise, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities must work together with universities and colleges to develop better systems of accountability in accommodating students with disabilities.

It should be remembered that while there are costs associated with providing certain forms of accommodation and support to students with disabilities, there are lifelong costs to not providing these supports. The Code requires education providers to accommodate students with disabilities up to the point of undue hardship. Participants in the consultation repeatedly identified inadequate funding as a serious barrier for students with disabilities. Part of the duty to accommodate includes providing the resources that children and youth with disabilities need to have the opportunity to succeed.

Moving Forward

The Report outlines the actions which schools and school boards, post-secondary institutions, government, and other responsible parties are expected to take to address these issues. These actions are designed to address the concerns raised by participants in the consultation, to promote compliance by education providers with their legal obligations under the Code, and to ensure that students with disabilities are receiving equal treatment in the context of educational services. As well, the Commission has committed to monitoring progress on these issues, promoting understanding and awareness by communicating with parties, developing educational tools, and undertaking public education activities.

In order to assist parties to understand their roles and responsibilities, the Commission will release Guidelines on Accessible Education as a companion piece to this Report. The Guidelines will rely on key principles outlined in the Code and the Commission’s Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate and apply them to the education context. The Guidelines will discuss disability, discuss prima facie discrimination because of disability, identify the parameters of the duty to accommodate, assess undue hardship, and provide suggestions for accommodation planning in the education context.

It is the Commission’s expectation that this Report will promote dialogue among individuals and institutions involved in Ontario’s school systems and will result in progressive steps being taken towards ensuring that all students with disabilities are provided with the opportunity to succeed in school.

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