September 20, 2018 Alexandra Elves
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) recently released a new policy on accessible education for students with disabilities, which says students with disabilities continue to face barriers in all levels of education.
“All students have the right to an education that allows them to meet their full potential and contribute to society, and yet students with disabilities continue to face obstacles accessing education services in Ontario,” Renu Mandhane, OHRC chief commissioner, said in a press release. “Our policy and recommendations call on key players in the sector to take proactive steps to remove barriers and put an end to discrimination in education, so that all students can gain the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.”
Statistics Canada reports that Ontarians with disabilities continue to have lower educational achievement levels, a higher unemployment rate, and are more likely to have a lower income than people without disabilities.
Addressed in the policy is the evolving legal definition of disability and what it implies for education providers, along with the impact of ableism on students’ experiences. The policy says that “ableism refers to attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of people with disabilities.”
This evolving definition includes a focus on non-evident disabilities, such as mental health issues.
The new policy release comes after the OHRC wrote a letter raising human rights concerns to the University of Toronto’s (U of T) around the U of T’s University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy.
Contested by many students, the U of T policy allows students with severe mental health problems to be placed on a non-punitive, mandatory leave by the university.
“Human rights law is constantly developing, and certain conditions, characteristics or experiences that have not historically been recognized as disabilities, may come to be commonly accepted as such, due to changes in the law reflecting medical, social or ideological advancements,” the policy said.
The OHRC also released recommendations on how education providers can best meet legal obligations under Ontario’s Human Rights Code.
The first recommendation for post-secondary institutions is the need to communicate the right to disability-related accommodations for students through multiple means.
At Carleton University, students can receive accommodations and support through the Paul Menton Centre for students with disabilities (PMC).
Carleton is “arguably the most accessible post-secondary institution in Canada for students with disabilities,” the university said in a press release after they were granted $800,000 to help kickstart careers for students with disabilities in July.
Taneeta Taljit, a second-year psychology student at Carleton, said in an email that these accommodations are effectively communicated to students.
“While it isn’t usually the forefront of most discussions, I have found that the majority of the faculty have been consistent in informing students of the accommodations available to them, should they be in need of any extra assistance,” she said.
Maddy Deveau, a second-year global and international studies student at Carleton, agreed with this sentiment.
In an email, she said she thinks for the most part, accommodations are explained pretty well but, during her first appointment at the PMC, she had some trouble following along.
“I had to keep asking follow-up questions because things were going fast and some of the accommodations I hadn’t been used to before,” Deveau said. “I found it hard to find out what I was eligible for in terms of accommodations, because it’s not advertised anywhere, so I felt like I was going in blind.”
This is the first time the OHRC has updated its policy for accessible education in 14 years.