November 1, 2021
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) welcomes the Postsecondary Education Standards Development Committee’s 2021 Initial Recommendations Report (the recommendations) under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
Over the last several decades, during the OHRC’s own work with persons with disabilities and disability rights advocates, we know that while people are protected from discrimination and harassment under Ontario’s Human Rights Code (Code), this is often not yet a lived reality for many students with disabilities.
The OHRC’s Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities and related recommendations identifies many barriers that students with various disabilities face at all levels of education. Government and other public and private organizations responsible for education in Ontario have a legal duty to accommodate the disability-related needs of students. Under the Code and the AODA, colleges and universities should ensure they take 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 ensure students know how to request disability-related accommodation. Accommodation procedures and documentation requirements should not be onerous. Students should have timely access to accessibility advisors and accommodation supports. There should be effective and timely mechanisms to resolve disputes. The privacy of medical and other personal information must be protected. Colleges and universities must also comply with the requirements set out in With learning in mind, the OHRC’s inquiry report on systemic barriers to academic accommodation for post-secondary students with mental health disabilities.
In this context, the OHRC supports the committee’s efforts to make comprehensive recommendations aimed to remove the variety of barriers that students with disabilities face throughout Ontario’s post-secondary education system, and to ensure necessary accommodation supports are available to all students with any type of disability, as required by the Code.
The OHRC is pleased to see human rights principles and obligations affirmed throughout the committee’s recommendations, particularly in training recommendations.
The wide scope of the recommendations over the nine broad themes identified, including attitudinal barriers; awareness and training; assessment, curriculum and instruction; digital learning; admission and accommodation processes; and physical and financial barriers, demonstrates an important holistic view of students with disabilities.
The OHRC generally supports the committee’s recommendations and believes that if the post-secondary system follows these recommendations, by 2025 colleges and universities will be significantly more accessible, equitable, inclusive and learner-centred, consistent with the committee’s objectives and the aims of the AODA and the Code. We also support the committee’s call for increased resources to address many of the existing barriers for students with disabilities at post-secondary institutions.
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 awareness and training for educators and others, bona fide academic requirements, data collection and putting students at the centre of decision-making. We have highlighted below some areas we wish to note in particular, and others that we ask the committee to consider further.
While we understand the scope of the committee’s work is publicly funded colleges and universities, the OHRC agrees with the committee’s call that the Education Accessibility Standards should also be applied to privately funded education providers. We further agree that the government should ensure that privately funded education organizations have access to any information or training resources developed as a result of the new standards.
Awareness and training
The OHRC recognizes and supports the inclusion of Code training as part of the foundational onboarding training and awareness for faculty and staff (Recommendation 22). We also support Recommendation 18: Awareness, calling for a sustained, multi-faceted ongoing public education campaign on accessibility to support the culture shift that is needed.
Accessibility standards for teaching and learning
The OHRC strongly agrees with Recommendation 31: Accessibility standards for teaching and learning, particularly regarding the inclusion of Universal Design for Learning as a guiding document for standards and expectations for a common set of minimum accessibility standards for teaching and learning. We also acknowledge the importance of including a variety of settings for learning including labs, field and clinical placements in addition to others.
Work integrated learning settings
A workplace placement is essential to learning and to graduation in some areas of post-secondary education. A student with a disability must have the required accommodations to have an equal opportunity to fulfill and succeed in the placement. Accommodations might be the same or different than in the university or college setting, and it is therefore important to ensure any necessary accommodations are made available while at the same time not dissuading employers from undertaking student placements. While Recommendations 55 to 57 address some aspects of the need for accommodations in work-integrated learning settings, it may be important to designate an ultimate accountability source for ensuring accommodations are provided to students in these situations.
In Recommendation 92: Documentation policies for academic accommodations, the committee calls on the government to develop, in concert with stakeholders, common documentation requirements for providing accommodations that are consistent with the OHRC’s Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities (March 2018), section 8.7. We also suggest you may wish to reference and consider the following additional guidance:
- New documentation guidelines for accommodating students with mental health disabilities (2016)
OHRC policy position on medical documentation to be provided when a disability-related accommodation request is made (2017).
In discussing the need for an effective dispute resolution mechanism in the OHRC’s 2018 Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities, section 8.3.5, we noted that the lack of an effective and timely dispute resolution mechanism is a serious longstanding issue that has caused considerable discord in the relationship between education providers and students. We therefore acknowledge the importance of Recommendation 110 of the committee’s initial report: Resolving disability accommodation refusal disputes. It addresses the need for an effective dispute resolution mechanism, and also addresses the need for timeliness, interim accommodation, impartiality and the potential need for a third-party mediator, when required.
On the committee’s recommendations on service animals (Recommendations 112 and 113), it is important to note there are no Code requirements for the professional training of service animals or service animal users. Colleges and universities should not automatically exclude animals that lack designated professional training or certification.
On an individual case-by-case basis, an animal that provides support to a person with a disability rather than a service may meet the requirements of a service animal if they meet the requirements as defined in the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation O. Reg. 191/11 (IASR), or may be considered a service animal under the Human Rights Code.
It is also important to note that guide dog and service animal provisions of the (IASR) include guide dogs as defined in section 1 of the Blind Persons’ Rights Act. It is important to consider the obligations under the Blind Persons Rights Act in any policy or procedures.
Any standards, policies, procedures or processes on use of guide dogs or service animals created for or by colleges and universities need to be consistent with the obligations and rights under the Code.
Admissions and transition accommodations
The OHRC is pleased to see the area of transitions within and between levels of education given the special focus of the Technical Sub-Committee, and generally agrees with the recommendations cited in its separate report.
Education providers have a duty under the Code to ensure students with disabilities have equal access to any programs, and any necessary accommodations, that support transition and admission to and between post-secondary education, school to workplace and community opportunities.
Post-secondary institutions and their admissions committees must also ensure their admissions standards and processes accommodate the individual needs of students with disabilities. The committee should examine the 2020 decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in Longueepee v University of Waterloo that found a university discriminated in its admissions process when it failed to consider a student’s prior grades had been affected by undiagnosed and unaccommodated disabilities.
Leave policies or procedures
While the committee has raised important considerations in Recommendations 115 and 172 in relation to disability-related leaves for students or graduate students, it should also examine concerns about college and university mandatory leave of absence policies. Mandatory leave and the withdrawal of essential services (housing, health and counselling services) at a time when a student is in crisis and most in need of support may result in discrimination based on mental health disability. The OHRC believes this is an important area for the committee to consider to ensure any such policies or procedures comply with the Code duty to accommodate, including objective assessment of risks and meaningful access to supports, to the point of undue hardship, before imposing any such leave.
Specialist hubs of expertise
While the OHRC agrees with the committee that each college or university needs to develop expertise on accessibility to be able to address the needs of students related to information technology, procurements, built environment, accessibility of the curriculum, etc., the committee may wish to consider whether the government should establish particular specialist hubs of expertise in various colleges and universities (accessible information technology, disability accommodations in specific disability areas, built environment, etc.). The hubs might be given a mandate to undertake research, explore future tools and techniques, and readily share best-practice information on accessibility and disability accommodation with all colleges and universities or beyond.
The OHRC hopes that this submission is helpful to the committee and wishes it success in fulfilling the remainder of its mandate.