Ontario Human Rights Commission Releases Right to Read Public Inquiry Report

In October 2019, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (the “OHRC”) initiated a public inquiry into human rights issues impacting students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s English public education system. The inquiry is the first of its kind in Canada. It’s a compilation of findings from surveys, public hearings, community meetings and engagements with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. The findings included data from emails, telephone calls, artwork and submissions.

The public inquiry builds on the 2012 Supreme Court of Canada decision Moore v British Columbia (Education) in which the Court affirmed the right to equal opportunities to learn to read for all students and that students with disabilities are entitled to meaningful access to education, including special education.

On February 28, 2022, the OHRC released its highly critical final report[1] (the “OHRC Report”). It concluded that Ontario’s education system is falling far behind on consistent, equitable screenings as well as interventions and accommodations which can improve and mitigate low literacy and reading difficulties among students. These early interventions can help reduce the compounding impacts of social and economic barriers facing many vulnerable students, including Indigenous, Black and Latin American students, newcomer students and students with disabilities who disproportionately fall through the cracks of the system. The OHRC Report highlights the “urgent need” for systemic change. It strongly condemns the ableist assumption that is perpetuated by the provincial system that “some students – including students with disabilities – will never learn to read.”

Some key findings from the report include:

        • Ineffective methods and systems which fail to provide students the foundational building blocks to identify and decode words and a lack of professional development and resources for educators.
        • Lack of “universal, systematic, evidence-based early screening” program to properly and consistently identify “at-risk” students who may require additional supports, accommodations and interventions for reading[2] and a lack of consistent data collection and analysis.
        • French school boards had fewer resources and fewer opportunities to support reading challenges among students in French-language education, resulting in many French-speaking families giving up their language rights, and switching their children to an English board school.
        • Accommodations can reduce stress and mental health issues among students experiencing academic difficulties. The OHRC Report makes clear that accommodations should never be a substitute for the goal of teaching all students to read and access to accommodations should be timely, effective and supportive.[3]
        • Parents experienced significant barriers to ensure proper accommodations are in place for their children, including the development and implementation of accommodation plans or Individual Education Plans (“IEP”) and access to professional assessments. Parents and students reported having to resort to “persistent advocacy.” The OHRC Report found that there was a “direct relationship between the ability to advocate and access to resources (i.e. private professional assessments and lawyers” raising serious equity issues for families from “historically marginalized backgrounds…”[4]

The OHRC Report makes 157 recommendations including:

        • increase access to technology, including assistive technology and accommodations that reflect “intersecting needs” of students that respect the dignity and privacy of students, rather than distinguishing and isolating students who may need additional supports.[5]
        • Shift the definition of identifying a learning disability away from academic achievement and intelligence level to applying the DSM-5 criteria for diagnosing a learning “disorder” which is simpler and broader, which will provide a more inclusive definition. This definition should explicitly recognize the term ‘dyslexia’ (word reading accuracy or fluency).[6]
        • Improve data collection, reporting and management.[7]
        • Eliminate requirements of and reliance on formal diagnosis to access accommodations and interventions.[8]
        • Improve consistency, monitoring and accountability in the education system generally and for students with disabilities and other Human Rights Code-protected identities.[9]
        • Revise Ontario’s Kindergarten Program to remove use of cueing systems and to focus on word-reading accuracy and fluency, with an emphasis on early screening and evidence-based interventions.[10]
        • Provide sufficient, stable, enveloped, yearly funding from the Ministry of Education (the “Ministry”) to implement the OHRC recommendations, including but not limited to additional staff, professional development, evidence-based early screening and intervention, access to accommodations, removing barriers to receiving professional services and additional funding on an as needed basis allocated to northern, remote, rural and small school boards to implement the OHRC recommendations.[11]

In response to the OHRC’s Report, the Ministry stated it was reviewing all 157 recommendations and would take “immediate action” including:

        • Revising the elementary language curriculum with evidence-based approaches;
        • Revising various French-language programs; and
        • Releasing a science-based guide for educators in Spring 2022.

The Ministry also stated it provided $11.76M to support evidence-based intervention programs and $20M for re-engaging students and providing early reading assessment supports in 2020-21 and committed to funding for expanding tutoring supports, temporary additional staffing, de-streamed grade 9 and increasing the Special Education Grant.

PooranLaw welcomes the OHRC’s comprehensive, in-depth report and evidence-based recommendations. We will continue to monitor the province’s progress on implementing the OHRC’s recommendations and other developments in education law and policy impacting students with disabilities.

[1] Ontario Human Rights Commission, “Right to Read: Public Inquiry into human rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities” (2022) (the “OHRC Report”)

[2] OHRC Report, at 31.

[3] OHRC Report, at 46.

[4] OHRC Report, at 49-50

[5] OHRC Report, at 51.

[6] OHRC Report, at 9, 58.

[7] OHRC Report, at 15, 58.

[8] OHRC Report, at 59.

[9] OHRC Report, at 61.

[10] OHRC Report, at 32.

[11] OHRC Report 61-62.