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Principles of accommodation

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Accommodation is a means of preventing and removing barriers that impede students with disabilities from participating fully in the educational environment in a way that is responsive to their own unique circumstances. The principle of accommodation involves three factors: dignity, individualization and inclusion.[9]

Respect for dignity

Students with disabilities have the right to receive educational services in a manner that is respectful of their dignity. Human dignity encompasses individual self-respect and self-worth. It is concerned with physical and psychological integrity and empowerment. It is harmed when individuals are marginalized, stigmatized, ignored or devalued.

Education providers must fashion accommodation solutions in a manner that respects the dignity of students with disabilities.[10] Accommodations should be considered along a continuum from those that most respect a student’s right to privacy, autonomy and dignity, to those that least respect them. Accommodations that do not take into account a student’s right to respectful and dignified treatment will not be appropriate.[11] Respect for dignity also includes taking into account how an accommodation is provided and the student’s (and/or their parent(s)’ or guardian(s)’) own participation in the process.

Educators have a duty to maintain a positive school environment for all persons they serve.[12] Throughout the OHRC’s consultation, participants emphasized that the attitudes of educators towards disability issues play a major role in influencing how other students treat and relate to students with disabilities. Teachers should make efforts to sensitize students about disability issues and to model respectful attitudes and behaviour towards students with disabilities. Education providers need to address any behaviour that may be injurious to the dignity of students with disabilities.

Individualized accommodation

There is no set formula for accommodation. Each student's needs are unique and must be considered afresh when an accommodation request is made. At all times, the emphasis must be on the individual student and not on the category of disability. Blanket approaches to accommodation that rely solely on categories, labels and generalizations are not acceptable.

Although many accommodations will benefit large numbers of students with similar needs, it must be kept in mind that an accommodation solution that meets one student's requirements may not meet the needs of another. Two students with the same disability may have very different needs; for example, while some students with visual impairments read Braille, many do not. Different effects of a disability and different learning styles may call for different approaches.[13]

In practice: An appropriate accommodation for a student who is deaf and whose primary language of communication is American Sign Language or Langue des signes québecoise might be a Provincial School for the Deaf or a sign language instructional program in a local community school. At the same time, an appropriate accommodation for another student, who is also profoundly deaf, and who primarily uses auditory-verbal communication, might be inclusion in a regular classroom.

Individualized assessment includes being aware of the ways in which students with disabilities are affected by also being members of other historically disadvantaged groups. These students may sometimes be subjected to discriminatory treatment that is based on more than one protected Code ground, e.g., race, sex, sexual orientation or ethnic origin. These grounds may “intersect” thus producing a unique experience of discrimination.[14]

In practice: An eight-year-old boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, whose family has recently immigrated to Ontario from Sri Lanka, registers at his neighbourhood public school.Tto ensure that the boy’s parents are fully informed about the workings of the special education system and the resources available to students with disabilities, the school principal provides the family with written information about these services in Tamil, the family’s first language.

In practice: A university organization providing support services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students ensures that its literature is available in alternative formats so that it is accessible to students with visual disabilities.

Education providers must also ensure that testing and evaluation materials and procedures used to grade and place students with disabilities are not selected or implemented in a manner that is racially or culturally biased, or otherwise infringes the rights protected by the Code.

Inclusion and full participation

As the OHRC noted in its Disability Policy, “in some circumstances, the best way to ensure the dignity of persons with disabilities may be to provide separate or specialized services.”[15] However, education providers must first make efforts to build or adapt educational services to accommodate students with disabilities in a way that promotes their inclusion and full participation. Preventing and removing barriers means all students should be able to access their environment and face the same duties and requirements with dignity and without impediment.

Did you know: Internationally, inclusion is recognized as an essential part of ensuring that students with disabilities have equal opportunities in school. In this regard, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) noted:
Inclusion is to be seen as part of the wider struggle to overcome exclusive discourse and practices, and against the ideology that each individual is completely separate and independent. Inclusion is about the improving of schooling. Rather than being a marginal theme concerned how a relatively small group of pupils might be attached to mainstream schools, it lays the foundations for an approach that could lead to the transformation of the system itself.[16]

Other jurisdictions: In the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act also recognizes the importance of including students with disabilities in the regular curriculum. The Act states:

To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities...are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.[17]

Education providers must take steps to include students with disabilities in classroom and extra-curricular activities, wherever possible. Education policies, programs, services and activities must be designed inclusively with the needs of all students in mind, so they do not exclude or single out any student. Education policies must take into account the diverse needs of the student population, and must plan for alternative measures to address the needs of students with disabilities.

In practice: Workplace tensions have culminated to the point where a labour strike by school staff appears imminent. Thinking ahead, the school board in question works together with school principals to draft a contingency plan for students that would permit them to continue attending school should there be a work stoppage. The plan includes specific provisions addressing the needs of students with disabilities, and includes a back-up plan in the event that educational assistants, special needs assistants and other special education staff are part of a walkout.

The following are steps education providers can take to provide students with disabilities with the greatest opportunity to participate fully in educational services:

STEP 1: Promoting inclusive design

To ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to education, academic facilities, programs, policies and services must be structured and designed for inclusiveness. This means education providers have an obligation to be aware of both the differences between students and differences that characterize groups of individuals when making design choices to avoid creating barriers. This approach is referred to as “inclusive design” or “universal design.”[18]

Course curriculum, delivery methods and evaluation methodologies should be designed inclusively from the outset. This may mean creative use of technology, such as putting materials online, or selecting software that is compatible with screen readers. When courses are online, web-based or CD-based, accessibility issues should be addressed up-front, in the development stage.

Did you know: UNESCO’s 1994 World Conference on Special Needs Education, which resulted in the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education, emphasized that educational systems and programs should be designed and implemented to take into account the wide diversity of children’s needs and characteristics. Article 28 of the Salamanca Statement provides: “Curricula should be adapted to children’s needs, not vice-versa. Schools should therefore provide curricular opportunities to suit children with different abilities and interests.” [19]

When constructing new buildings, undertaking renovations, purchasing new computer systems, launching new websites, designing courses, setting up programs, services, policies and procedures, education-providers should keep in mind the principles of universal design. New barriers should never be created in the construction of new facilities or in the renovation of old ones. Rather, design plans should incorporate current accessibility standards such as the Canadian Standards Association’s Barrier-Free Design[20] and the Principles of Universal Design.[21]

In practice: A college takes steps to ensure that course handouts and other curriculum materials are available in electronic text format at the time print materials are provided to all students, so that students who require alternative formats (e.g., students with visual impairments or learning disabilities) do not experience delay. The college also makes efforts to provide course materials to all students by e-mail or the Internet to promote even greater inclusiveness.
Inclusive design emphasizes equal participation and recognizes that all students have varying abilities and needs. This method of design may involve an entirely different approach and it is based on positive steps needed to ensure equal access for those who have experienced historical disadvantage and exclusion from society’s benefits.[22] This positive approach is more effective because it is accessible and inclusive from the start. Barrier prevention is much more preferable to barrier removal, and it is consistent with the notion of disability as a social model.

STEP 2: Removing barriers

Students with disabilities currently face many obstacles in the education system, including physical, attitudinal and systemic barriers. Students with mobility disabilities, for example, may face barriers in the form of inaccessible school buildings and student housing. Negative attitudes towards and stereotypes about students with disabilities continue to act as obstacles in themselves, with some students not feeling welcome or included in class activities or social situations at school.

The removal of barriers is necessary to give meaning to the right to equality and freedom from discrimination guaranteed to persons with disabilities under Part 1 of the Code.

Where barriers already exist, the duty to accommodate requires education providers to make changes up to the point of undue hardship to provide equal access for students with disabilities.

In practice: A university arranges sensitivity training for all faculty and academic staff on issues facing students with learning disabilities. The training focuses on creating greater awareness of different learning needs, and addressing misperceptions and misinformation which in themselves can create barriers to equal access to educational services.

STEP 3: Accommodating remaining needs

Even where the principles of universal design have been fully implemented and schools have adopted a comprehensive approach to removing barriers, some barriers may continue to exist for students with disabilities.

Where barriers continue to exist because it is impossible to remove those barriers at a given point in time, then, as part of the duty to accommodate, next best alternatives or temporary solutions must be explored and implemented, if to do so would not result in undue hardship.

Differential treatment may sometimes be required to provide students with an equal opportunity to achieve full benefit from the education service. When accommodating the needs of students through differential treatment, educators must still keep in mind and maximize the principles of respect for dignity, individualization, inclusion and full participation.

How to achieve accessibility

  • Develop an accessibility policy and student complaint procedure.
  • Review and identify accessibility barriers across educational facilities.
  • Develop a standardized accessibility plan for future locations based not only on the Ontario Building Code, but also on the Ontario Human Rights Code and current standards and best practices in barrier-free design.
  • For existing facilities, develop a plan and begin removing barriers.
  • Monitor progress toward achieving accessibility

[9] In Eaton v. Brant County Board of Education, [1997] 1 S.C.R. 241, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that while specialized or segregated education may be appropriate where it is in a child’s best interest, integration should be recognized as a norm of general application.
[10] The Supreme Court of Canada has confirmed that dignity is a factor to be considered in determining disability accommodation in the education context. In commenting on its decision in Eaton v. Brant County Board of Education, the Court stated:
...Emily’s claim might have succeeded if ...the Court had been persuaded that the Board’s response to the challenge posed by Emily’s placement [the accommodation] had itself violated Emily’s dignity as a human being equally deserving of consideration, or placed discriminatory obstacles in the way of her self-fulfillment. [Emphasis added.]
Granovsky v. Canada (Minister of Employment and Immigration), [2000] 1 S.C.R. 703 at para. 74 making reference to Eaton decision, ibid.
[11] The Supreme Court’s decisions in Law v. Canada (Minister of Employment and Immigration), [1999] 1 S.C.R. 497 and Granovsky, ibid, have confirmed that the concept of human dignity is central to discrimination analysis. These cases indicate that if an accommodation marginalizes, stigmatizes or demeans the person with a disability’s sense of worth or dignity as a human being, it will not be appropriate.
[12] Ross v. New Brunswick School District No. 15, [1996] 1 S.C.R. 825, 25 C.H.R.R. D/175.
[13] In the Eaton decision, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the unique nature of disability and emphasized the need for individualized accommodation because the ground of disability “means vastly different things depending upon the individual and the context,” Eaton, supra, note 10 at para. 69.
[14] The OHRC has explored this “contextualized” or “intersectional” approach to discrimination analysis at length in its discussion paper entitled An Intersectional Approach to Discrimination: Addressing Multiple Grounds in Human Rights Claims (2001), available online at the OHRC’s website:
[15]Disability Policy, supra, note 2 at Part 3.1.3.
[16] UNESCO, Salamanca Five Years On: A Review of UNESCO Activities in the Light of The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education (1999) at p. 9
[17] Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C., ss. 612(a)(5)(A).
[18] The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University defines universal design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities.” Please see Information accessed July 30, 2004.
[19] Document available at Information accessed May 12, 2004.
[20] Document available at Information accessed May 12, 2004.
[21] See
[22] In Eaton, the Supreme Court of Canada stated:
Exclusion from the mainstream of society results from the construction of a society based solely on "mainstream" attributes to which the disabled will never be able to gain access...[I]t is the failure to make reasonable accommodation, to fine-tune society so that its structures and assumptions do not result in the relegation and banishment of disabled persons from participation, which results in discrimination against them. Eaton, note 10 at para. 67 of Quicklaw version.
And in another decision, the Court also affirmed that standards should be designed to reflect all members of society, insofar as this is reasonably possible. See British Columbia (Public Service Employee Relations Commission) v. BCGSEU, [1999] 3 S.C.R. 3 [“Meiorin”] at para. 68.

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