The Ontario Human Rights Commission recently released a new policy titled “Accessible Education for Students with Disabilities.” The policy updates the Commission’s previous guideline on accessible education released in 2004.
This new policy further articulates the intersection of disability with other Code-protected grounds such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and family status. Specific areas highlighted by the policy include the following:
- Ableism. Ableism is a stereotyped assumption that the disabled population is less able to contribute and participate, and that their disability is an anomaly to normalcy. Disabled persons have reported difficulty accessing services because of the widespread perception that they are seeking an advantage or are a burden on the educational system. The policy recommends training and education to promote the understanding that difference is not representative of inferiority.
- Harassment and Poisoned Environment. The policy describes direct, indirect, subtle, and adverse effect discrimination. Educators are obligated to protect students from discrimination, as well as harassment. The policy defines a poisoned environment as one where unwelcome disability-related conduct or comments are pervasive within an institution, and result in a hostile or oppressive atmosphere for one or more people with a disability. Although the behaviour involved in a poisoned environment may be similar to harassment, it is a distinct concept. In a poisoned environment, the nature of the conduct and its effect on the individual are the vital elements of the analysis. Comparatively, harassment requires repetitive problematic behaviour.
- The Accommodation Process. The policy includes an updated summary of the accommodation process, including the substantive and procedural duty to accommodate, the undue hardship standard, and the judicial discrimination analysis. In addition to the legal tests, the policy describes planning and policy requirements for all parties to the accommodation process. The need to provide meaningful accommodation, but not necessarily the accommodation of the student’s choosing, is discussed within the context of educational requirements, accommodation planning, and undue hardship.
- Universal Design for Learning. Inclusive design, also called “universal design for learning,” is an approach that represents a shift from single accommodations to the removal of systemic barriers to foster full participation by all students, despite variations in abilities and needs, by creating an accepting environment where accommodation is the norm, rather than the exception. This has been embodied by educators in Ontario employing the “necessary for some, good for all” concept of educational programming.
- Disability Disclosure. Disclosure, particularly related to medical documentation, remains a challenge. Students requesting accommodation are required to disclose sufficient information to support their request. However, many people are not comfortable disclosing all of the information related to their disability. Medical information is confidential, and there are limits on the type of information that can reasonably be required to substantiate an accommodation request. The Policy provides that students are not required to disclose their disability diagnosis, but rather, the existence of a disability and the student’s disability related needs. The scope of education narrows as students grow older, and the disability disclosure narrows proportionately. Documentation requests should always be focused on functional limitations instead of diagnostic specifics.
Overall, the Commission’s recommendations emphasized clear communication, timely responses, an inclusive school community, and the implementation of universal design for learning across all systems.