Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update
United for a Barrier-Free Society for All People with Disabilities
AODA Alliance Asks Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce to Take Important Actions to Meet the Urgent Needs of Students with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Crisis
April 29, 2020
Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce has been in the public spotlight a great deal speaking about the Ford Government’s plans to meet the needs of students during the COVID-19 crisis. But what is he and his Ministry planning to do for students with disabilities during this crisis?
Today the AODA Alliance wrote Mr. Lecce. Our letter is set out below. We ask the Ford Government to take immediate action to address the urgent needs of students with disabilities in Ontario during this crisis. These students number up to a third of a million, if not more. We offer the Minister our help.
Meanwhile, as we announced last Friday, the AODA Alliance and the Ontario Autism Coalition are exploring the possibility of holding a Virtual Town Hall meeting next week to share ideas on what school boards, teachers and parents can do to help with the education of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis. We’re inviting the Ontario Government partner with us in this effort. Stay tuned for more news on this important issue.
To learn more, check out and widely share:
* The AODA Alliance’s efforts over the past decade to advocate for full accessibility and inclusion for students with disabilities in Ontario schools.
* The AODA Alliance’s efforts on the COVID-19 crisis are available on our COVID-19 web page. Our long-term efforts to make education in Ontario accessible to and inclusive for students with disabilities are available on our education web page.
* The guest column by AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky in the April 20, 2020 online Toronto Star, which summarizes our major COVID disability issues in one place.
* The widely viewed April 7, 2020 online Virtual Public Forum on what Government Must Do to Meet the Urgent Needs of People with Disabilities During the COVID crisis.
* The AODA Alliance’s April 14, 2020 Discussion Paper on Ensuring that Medical Triage or Rationing of Health Care Services During the COVID-19 Crisis Does Not Discriminate Against Patients with Disabilities.
* Action tips on how to help ensure that patients with disabilities don’t face discrimination in access to critical health care.
* The April 8, 2020 open letter to Premier Ford, organized by the ARCH Disability Law Centre, voicing concerns about the Ontario Government’s protocol for rationing medical care during the COVID crisis.
* The AODA Alliance’s March 25, 2020 letter to Premier Ford, which has gone unanswered.
There have been a jaw-dropping 454 days since the Ford Government received the groundbreaking final report of the Independent Review of the implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act by former Ontario Lieutenant Governor David Onley. The Government has announced no comprehensive plan of new action to implement that report. That makes even worse the problems facing Ontarians with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis.
There have been 35 days since we wrote Ontario Premier Doug Ford on March 25, 2020 to urge specific action to address the urgent needs of Ontarians with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis. He has not answered. The ordeal facing Ontarians with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis is worsened by that delay.
April 29, 2020 Letter from the AODA Alliance to Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce
ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE
April 29, 2020
To: The Hon Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education
Re: Ensuring that Students with Disabilities Fully Benefit from Education at Home During the COVID-19 Crisis
We hope you are staying safe and healthy in the midst of this public health crisis. We write to ask your Government to take immediate, strong action to ensure that the urgent needs of at least a third of a million students with disabilities in Ontario are effectively met by Ontario’s education system as part of your Government’s COVID-19 emergency planning. We offer our help, and set out constructive suggestions for action. We need your Government to show strong leadership in this important area.
Since the latter part of March and at least up to the end of May, your Government has closed Ontario’s publicly-funded schools due to the COVID-19 crisis. Your Government had to move education for Ontario students to the online setting.
This move is entirely understandable, given the COVID-19 crisis. However, it creates quite a number of serious barriers and hardship for a third of a million or more students with disabilities in Ontario-funded schools.
For years, Ontario’s education system has been plagued by many serious accessibility barriers that impede learning by students with disabilities. The Ontario Government has not had a comprehensive strategy to remove those barriers and to prevent the creation of new barriers against students with disabilities in Ontario’s education system. That is why the Ontario Government is now in the process of developing an Education Accessibility Standard under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act . For over a decade, the AODA Alliance has led a non-partisan grassroots campaign to get the Ontario Government to develop and enact a strong and effective AODA Education Accessibility Standard.
The necessary swift move from the physical classroom to online learning during the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated those disability barriers. For that reason, students with disabilities as well as their parents, teachers, schools and school boards need the Ontario Government to quickly develop and implement a comprehensive action plan to ensure that the urgent needs of students with disabilities are effectively met during the COVID-19 crisis. From what we have seen, no such strong and effective provincial action plan is now in place. The Ontario Government has not committed to develop and implement one.
For example, in your April 26, 2020 statement, extending school closings to the end of May, you made no mention of students with disabilities. They number up to one in every six students in Ontario-funded schools. The only reference you made to any disabilities during your answers to the media’s questions was toward funding for a help line for students with mental health issues. That is a commendable initiative, but one which leaves out the unmet needs of the vast majority of students with disabilities .
Premier Ford has commendably stated that during the COVID-19 crisis, the Government is addressing the needs of the most vulnerable. Yet Ontario’s many school boards, schools and teaching staff have all been left largely to flounder on their own to figure out what to do for students with disabilities. This means they each must re-invent the wheel one school board, or even one teacher, at a time. This is an ineffective way to address the needs of Ontario’s most vulnerable students. It is especially unfair to parents of students with disabilities, who have to take a leading role in educating their own children at home, and who often have to try to work from home at the same time. It is also an inefficient use of public money.
Since the onset of this crisis in March, we have been publicly raising the pressing need for strong provincial action to meet the urgent needs of people with disabilities in the Government’s COVID-19 emergency planning. For example, we wrote Premier Ford to this effect back on March 25, 2020. The needs of students with disabilities in the COVID-19 crisis figure prominently among concerns we have publicly raised. We repeatedly offered to help your Government, and emphasized the need for the Government to work closely with the grassroots disability community. We regret that your government has largely not taken us up on those offers. For example, our March 25, 2020 letter to Premier Ford remains unanswered five weeks after we sent it.
We offer the following recommendations to you as examples of major priorities for students with disabilities. We would welcome the opportunity to work with you and your Government to implement them, and to identify further priorities:
- Your Government should now announce that it will swiftly develop and implement a comprehensive action plan for meeting the urgent needs of students with disabilities during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, to assist and support students with disabilities, as well as their families, their teaching staff, their schools and school boards.
This plan should address the needs of students with any kind of disability as defined in the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. It should not be limited to the out-dated and unduly narrow definitions that the Ministry of Education uses for students with special education needs or students with “exceptionalities” or for “exceptional pupils”.
- This provincial action plan should be developed, implemented and overseen in close consultation with the grassroots disability community among others, and with front-line educators.
It is helpful that you have apparently met twice with your Government’s Ministry’s Advisory Committee on Special Education MACSE to get ideas. However, that is no substitute for consulting extensive grassroots disability community participation that is needed. We understand that a significant number of positions on MACSE remain vacant due to the Government’s not appointing people to fill those vacancies. Also, MACSE is designed to focus on “special education” which is not addressed to students with all kinds of disabilities, due to the Government’s unduly narrow definition of special education students.
As of the time of writing, your Government has not acted on our recommendation shared with the Premier five weeks ago that you get input on this topic from the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee, appointed under the AODA. Your Government cancelled that Committee’s April 1, 2020 meeting, rather than using that opportunity to get input on this urgent topic.
- As part of this provincial action plan, your Government should set up a command table for students with disabilities akin to the command table that is overseeing action on COVID-19 generally. It should be headed by a senior public official with demonstrated expertise in delivery of education to students with disabilities in the K-12 school setting. That senior public official should have full-time responsibility for leading the development and implementation of the provincial action plan for students with disabilities .
- As a fundamental and immediate part of this provincial action plan, your Government should quickly gather and make publicly available to school boards, teaching staff, and to students with disabilities and their families, practical strategies and action tips for remotely teaching students with different disabilities. The Ministry of Education should canvass school boards, Faculties of Education, families, community disability organizations, Special Education Advisory Committees, as well as sources of experience and expertise elsewhere inside and outside Ontario (such as across Canada and in the US).
The Government should not simply create web pages with a blizzard of links to other websites. Parents, teachers and school board officials struggling with this crisis won’t have the time to plow through innumerable links in hopes of finding something helpful.
To this end, the AODA Alliance and Ontario Autism Coalition are trying now to organize an online Virtual Town Hall to give practical tips to teaching staff and parents on how to effectively teach students with different disabilities remotely during the COVID-19 crisis. We have publicly offered to partner with the Ontario Government on this. No one from the Ontario Government has answered. We would still welcome your participation in this project. We would welcome a speaker from the Ontario Government. Time is tight, as you will understand.
- Your Government should include in this provincial action plan urgent measures to ensure that school boards are not creating new disability barriers while they move to online learning. For example, school boards are using a range of different platforms for holding online meetings and classes. Some have significant accessibility barriers. In contrast, the Zoom platform is designed with very substantial accessibility features. Ironically, we understand that Zoom is not being used in some parts of Ontario’s education system, thereby creating disability barriers. the Ontario Government should ensure that school boards know which platforms, like Zoom, are accessible, and ensure that only those platforms are used.
- As part of this provincial action plan, new additional accessible resources and accessible online learning opportunities should be established to support students with disabilities during the summer months. You have announced that there will be some summer learning resources made available to students this summer. However we have seen no announcements of any provincial plans to ensure that these have full disability-accessibility. We have not seen any announcement of any plan to make resources or supports available to students with disabilities to help remediate the lost learning opportunities students with disabilities suffered during the COVID-19 school closures.
- You have announced that TVO and its online resources are an important partner in the Government’s education strategy during the COVID-19 crisis. The provincial action plan we seek should include detailed plans to ensure that TVO’s online learning resources become fully accessible to students with disabilities. We have concerns about their accessibility.
On April 27, 2020, we wrote TVO to inquire about the steps they have taken to ensure the full accessibility of their online education resources. TVO has not answered. We would appreciate a prompt answer from TVO. We would also like to know what your Government did to investigate the accessibility of TvO’s online resources, before deciding to make TVO a key partner in your COVID-19 education strategy.
As but one example, we have not found an easy-to-use tool on TVO’s website to locate fully accessible course content and resources. This leaves school boards, teachers and families in a difficult position when trying to locate accessible online education resources and tools from your key partner, TVO.
- This provincial action plan should include plans or proposals for school boards on what they should include for students with disabilities in their plans for re-opening schools, when the Ontario Government deems school re-opening to be possible. Many students with disabilities will face substantial added hardships when they return to school. They will need a surge of added supports to address these hardships. School boards must include this in their school re-opening plans.
- The Government should not hold back on announcing this provincial action plan until all of its ingredients are finalized. Instead, the Government should start immediately to roll it out, and then announce new elements as they are ready to go. School boards, educators, parents and students need action now. They cannot await layers of protracted Government deliberative processes.
- It is essential to avoid the longstanding Government education practice of producing long, detailed policy documents that call on school boards to themselves create long, detailed policy documents. That will only take time, waste money and delay progress. This provincial action plan must focus on getting action tips, tools and resources into the hands of school boards’ frontline educators, and to parents who are teaching their children at home, as quickly as possible. We are not looking for school boards to create policies that get posted on their websites and which may not translate into front-line action for students.
A week ago, on April 22, 2020, I spoke with your Ministry’s acting Assistant Deputy Minister responsible for special education Mr. Jeff Butler. During that conversation, (the first one we have had with anyone in your Ministry since the COVID-19 crisis began) it was evident that there was no provincial plan in place akin to what we are seeking. We described the critical need for such a plan, and for the Ministry to get right to work on it.
Mr. Butler kindly asked me to provide any resources to him and his staff that might be helpful to share with school boards. We appreciate that offer. However, we emphasized the need for the Government to reach out not only to us via that phone call, but to all key players, such as parents, teachers, school boards , and Special Education Advisory Committees among others.
We are now over seven weeks into this crisis. We would welcome an urgent phone meeting with you to follow up on this. We ask you to be sure to update the public on what the Government is doing for students with disabilities in each of your major public statements and announcements on education during the COVID-19 crisis. We are eager to do what we can to help you, your Government and your Ministry.
David Lepofsky CM, O. Ont
Chair Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance
CC: Premier Doug Ford
Via Email: [email protected]
Raymond Cho, Minister of Seniors and Accessibility
Nancy Naylor, Deputy Minister of Education
Jeff Butler, Acting Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Support and Field Services Division
Yael Ginsler, Assistant Deputy Minister of Education (Acting) for the Student Achievement Division
Denise Cole, Deputy Minister for Seniors and Accessibility
Susan Picarello, Assistant Deputy Minister, Accessibility Directorate of Ontario
Claudine Munroe, Director of the Special Education/Success for All Branch
Demetra Saldaris, Director of the Professionalism, Teaching Policy and Standards Branch