February 28, 2022
Why an inquiry?
On October 3, 2019, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) began a public inquiry into whether students with reading disabilities have meaningful access to education as required under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code).
For over 20 years, the OHRC has exposed and challenged systemic discrimination in education by releasing policies on accessible education for students with disabilities; making submissions and recommendations to government, school boards and post-secondary institutions; engaging in strategic litigation; and using its other powers under the Code. Despite these efforts, the OHRC continued to hear concerns about students’ experiences in Ontario’s public education system, particularly related to the largest education exceptionality in Ontario – learning disabilities, and especially reading disabilities/dyslexia.
The analysis, findings and recommendations in the Right to Read report are based on the combined expertise of the OHRC in human rights and discrimination and two experts in reading disabilities, Dr. Linda Siegel and Dr. Jamie Metsala.
What the inquiry looked at
The inquiry looked into five key requirements that are essential to successfully teach and support students to read:
- Curriculum and instruction: Whether Ontario curriculum, teacher education programs and school board approaches to teaching reading reflect evidence-based approaches and are supported by scientific research.
- Early screening: Whether all students are being screened for reading difficulties in Kindergarten (or in Grade 1, where a child does not attend public school for Kindergarten) using scientific evidence-based early screening tools.
- Reading interventions: Whether students who have been identified as having reading difficulties through universal early screening or psychoeducational assessment have access to timely, scientific evidence-based reading interventions.
- Accommodation: Whether students with reading difficulties have access to timely and effective accommodation and assistive technology.
- Professional assessments: Whether students have access to timely and appropriate assessments where needed.
The inquiry considered systemic issues that contribute to human rights concerns, including setting standards; ensuring consistency and monitoring; improving data collection; and improving communication and transparency.
The inquiry looked at how definitions of reading disabilities and dyslexia are used and understood.
The OHRC also considered barriers faced by students with other disabilities, from marginalized groups such as First Nations, Métis and Inuit students; Black and other racialized students; newcomer and multilingual students; students from low socioeconomic backgrounds; and students facing intersecting barriers – where several of these factors combine to create unique or compounded disadvantage.
Ministry of Education, school boards and faculties of education
The inquiry focused on Ontario’s Ministry of Education, school boards and faculties of education because each plays a central role in meeting the right to learn to read. The Ministry has ultimate responsibility for education in Ontario. Ontario’s public school boards deliver education services in accordance with Ministry requirements. Faculties of education prepare teachers to teach students early reading skills, and provide ongoing professional development in areas such as reading and special education.
The OHRC selected eight representative school boards to assess their compliance with their obligation to provide equal treatment to students with reading disabilities:
- Hamilton Wentworth District School Board
- Keewatin-Patricia District School Board
- Lakehead District School Board
- London District Catholic School Board
- Ottawa-Carleton District School Board
- Peel District School Board
- Simcoe-Muskoka Catholic District School Board
- Thames Valley District School Board.
The OHRC used its section 31 powers under the Code to request production of documents, data and information from the eight boards, all 13 Ontario English-language public faculties of education and the Ministry of Education.
What are reading disabilities?
Reading disabilities arise from differences in how the brain processes specific types of information, and are not a sign of lower intelligence or unwillingness to learn. A reading disability is a type of learning disability that can range from mild to moderate to severe.
Dyslexia, or a reading disability in word reading, is a specific learning disability characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word-reading and/or poor decoding and spelling abilities. These difficulties may also result in problems with reading comprehension and can limit the reader’s ability to learn vocabulary and build background knowledge. Dyslexia can run in families. Approximately 40% of siblings, children or parents of an affected person will have dyslexia.
Impact on students, families and society
Children and adults with unsupported reading disabilities can struggle with many aspects of school. Along with academic problems, this can lead to social and emotional effects, including increased stress and anxiety, problems with self-image and depression. In adulthood, low literacy can lead to under-employment and higher rates of homelessness, incarceration and suicide.
The challenges associated with reading difficulties extend to other family members including parents and guardians, siblings, grandparents and extended family. Studies that looked at the impact of reading or learning disabilities confirm that parents of children with reading disabilities experience significant additional stress and anxiety as well as guilt, fear, shame, helplessness, frustration, disillusionment and isolation. These also result in significant socioeconomic costs to students, families and society as a whole.
The broader impacts of low literacy on society are well documented. This is why many organizations advocate for improved literacy in Ontario, with a focus on foundational word-reading skills. For example, the Pediatricians Alliance of Ontario (PAO) and the Physicians of Ontario Neurodevelopmental Advocacy (PONDA) have recognized the relationship between literacy and health outcomes, and have called for curriculum and reading instruction that incorporates explicit, systematic instruction in phonics, early screening and early evidence-based intervention. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has identified improving literacy as a tool to combat crime.
The financial costs that result are also substantial. A report prepared by the Roeher Institute for the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada quantified the estimated overall costs to society. Using a conservative estimate that 5% of the Canadian population has a learning disability, the report found that the simple incremental cost of learning disabilities from birth to retirement (to all individuals with learning disabilities, their families and to public and private programs in Canada) is about $3,080 billion. As these figures are from the early 2000s – in today’s dollars, the figures would likely be much higher.