Changes needed to make Ontario schools more inclusive
Ontario Human Rights Commission policy includes recommendations for province and school boards
The Ontario Human Rights Commission has released a new policy on accessible education for students with disabilities. The goal of the policy is to “help education providers recognize and fulfil their obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code, design their facilities, policies and procedures more inclusively, respond appropriately and in a timely way to accommodation requests, and effectively address complaints related to disability.”
The policy will also help students and their families understand their rights and responsibilities, and their role in the accommodation process.
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 document points out that the definition of ‘disability’ is expanding, and includes visible and invisible disabilities, physical and mental disabilities, as well as medical conditions such as anaphylaxis. According to People for Education’s most recent Annual Report on Ontario’s publicly funded schools, an average of 17% of students per elementary school and 27% per secondary school receives special education support – a proportion that has increased steadily over the last two decades.
The OHRC says that it is important for education providers to be aware of new and emerging disabilities, as students with disabilities continue to face barriers in education, even though they are guaranteed the right to equal treatment. Those barriers may include ineffective communication to parents and students about their rights, insufficient training for educators, a lack of classroom supports, and waiting lists for assessment.
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.
The document also recognizes the concept of “intersectional discrimination” for students who may face discrimination on more than one ground (eg. learning disability and race).
Duty to accommodate
Under the Human Rights Code, there is a legal obligation to accommodate students with disabilities, including students whose behaviour is disruptive. People for Education’s 2018 report found that approximately half of Ontario’s principals have had to recommend a student with special education needs not attend school for the full day – the majority for safety reasons.
According to the new policy, the most appropriate accommodation:
- respects the student’s dignity
- responds to the student’s individualized needs
- best promotes inclusion and full participation
The policy emphasizes a pro-active approach, building inclusion into the design of curriculum, the classroom environment, teaching and evaluation methods, expectations, and outcomes. It recognizes that “barrier prevention is much more preferable to barrier removal.”
According to the policy, students should receive accommodations for their disabilities, even if they do not have a formal assessment. In these cases, educators are expected to “use the best information available to facilitate the accommodation”.
Student placement: Inclusion first
When determining the appropriate placement for a student, the policy states that the first consideration should be inclusion in a regular classroom. If a student cannot be placed in a regular classroom, they should, wherever possible, be included in programs and activities with students without disabilities.
The policy provides detailed recommendations for both the province and school boards. Some of the key recommendations include:
- communicating clearly to students and parents about both the right to accommodation and the right to participate in the accommodation process
- addressing the delays in accessing support, including waiting lists for assessments
- collecting demographic data on students with disabilities and the accommodations provided to them; and analysis of the data to identify and address systemic barriers
- communicating to students and parents about the legal obligation to accommodate all students with disabilities, not just those recognized as “exceptional” under the Education Act
- an end to the practice of asking parents to keep students with disabilities home for part or all of the school day
- adequate funding and resources to meet the needs of students and provide training for staff
- mandatory professional development for educators