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Right to Read inquiry moves forward

The OHRC has made solid progress on its Right to Read inquiry into human rights issues that affect students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system. The evidence-gathering phase is now complete, and the inquiry team is analyzing the large amount of data, information and documents received and drafting a final report.


Collecting information and data

The inquiry team has received and is analyzing documents, data and information from the eight representative Ontario English language public school boards and the Ministry of Education (MOE), and has asked questions and done follow-up interviews where needed. We extend our appreciation to the school boards and MOE, given the challenges they faced with COVID-19 and other issues.

We have also received and reviewed documents, data and information from Ontario’s 13 English-language public faculties of education.


Connecting with the public

The OHRC used various ways to get public input. For example, 1,425 students, parents and guardians completed an online survey and shared their experiences with learning to read and the impact on themselves and their families. As well, over 1,760 educators (teachers, teacher candidates, special education teachers, school and board administrators), private tutors and other professionals (such as Speech-Language Pathologists, psychologists and pediatricians) completed a survey targeted to educators.

The inquiry has also received over 1,000 telephone calls or emails, and many more engagements through social media. Also, 20 organizations representing a variety of perspectives made written submissions.

The OHRC hosted four public hearings – in Brampton, London, Thunder Bay and Ottawa. At each public hearing, up to 20 speakers or groups of speakers shared their experiences. We heard from students, families, educators, service providers (such as private tutors and a child welfare agency), and other professionals. Over 600 people attended the hearings. All but the Brampton hearing were live streamed, and all hearings are archived on the OHRC’s YouTube channel.

As well, 25 people attended a public meeting in Kenora. Unfortunately, we were unable to host planned meetings in Barrie and Hamilton due to the Emergency Order prohibiting public gatherings due to COVID-19.

The OHRC held First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) engagements. We held listening circles at the London, Thunder Bay and Kenora Indigenous Friendship Centres, and met with representatives of the Métis Nation of Ontario and an Inuit organization in Ottawa. Further FNMI engagements planned for Barrie and Hamilton could not take place due to the pandemic.


Expert assistance, research

The OHRC continues to work with Dr. Linda Siegel and Dr. Jamie Metsala, who are both experts on reading disabilities, to assist with the inquiry and analyze the information received. We have also conducted extensive research to understand scientific research and best practices in other jurisdictions.


Looking at COVID-19 and education

Unprecedented closures of schools and shifts to online learning have been difficult for all students. The OHRC has heard from stakeholders that students with special education needs and other vulnerabilities have experienced unique and compounded challenges, that their circumstances have not consistently been considered and addressed, and as a result they have fallen even further behind than their peers.

Some specific concerns have been raised in the context of the Right to Read inquiry. We have also heard from members of the OHRC’s Education Advisory Group, as well as from disability rights organizations. 

The OHRC wrote to the Ministry of Education and school boards, calling on them to establish plans and programs to systematically and consistently address the needs of students with disabilities for the 2020–21 school year. The letter included concerns and recommendations related to:

  • Technology
  • Personal contact
  • Professional services
  • Screening and assessment
  • Instruction
  • Specialized programming
  • Identification, Placement, and Review Committees (IPRCs) and Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and the duty to accommodate
  • Summer learning programs
  • Shared legal responsibility.


Working with the Ministry of Education

In December 2020, the Chief Commissioner met with the Minister of Education to discuss these issues and potential recommendations stemming from the Right to Read Public Inquiry. During the meeting, the Chief Commissioner also raised the need to work with the Ontario College of Teachers to explore the possibility of requiring anti-racism training as a component of certification. The Minister was receptive to this suggestion.

The inquiry team continues to have discussions with senior staff at the MOE. We have shared information about our research, what we have been learning in the inquiry and potential recommendations. We will continue to engage with the MOE and encourage the MOE to address concerns arising from the inquiry.


Next steps

The inquiry team is currently analyzing the information received and drafting the final report. This report will address concerns with how Ontario’s public education system meets the needs of students with reading disabilities or at risk for these disabilities in areas such as curriculum and teaching, early screening, reading interventions, accommodations and psycho-educational assessments. The inquiry’s findings will also help other students (low-income, racialized, FNMI, newcomer, English Language Learners, other disabilities etc.) who are not realizing equitable opportunities to succeed.

COVID-19 and other factors have delayed some elements of the inquiry. A final inquiry report, which will include detailed findings and recommendations for government and education stakeholders, is now planned for release later this year.


Watch the Right to Read update video

The OHRC has produced a five-minute video, Right to Read: an inquiry snapshot, which offers an update on our progress and features several of the speakers from our public hearings. As well, the public hearings are included on the OHRC YouTube channel.


Twitter iconTwitter

Emily Moorhead @moorhead_emily
Of all the things about the inquiry process, what struck me most was that every story was as much the same as it was different. Over and over: families, children, teens, parents, students pleading, discouraged, longing for the right to read (and to be taught how!) It’s time.


DecodingDyslexiaON @dyslexiaON
Weekly we hear of current public school experiences. Yet public education should know better since the evidence has been available for decades. Hopefully the OHRC Right to Read Inquiry’s Report and findings will be the change catalyst that Ontario (and Canada) needs.


Alicia Smith @AliciaFromTiny
Thank you for conducting the #RightToRead public inquiry, the work is ongoing but the results are already starting to be felt. #scienceofreading @Sflecce


Working with government on existing, emerging education issues

The challenges of the pandemic, including the unprecedented closure of schools, have been difficult for all students. Since April 2020, the OHRC has met several times with education stakeholders to discuss urgent needs of students from Code-protected groups, especially students with disabilities. These discussions led the OHRC to send two substantial letters to the Minister of Education outlining a range of concerns on school closures, virtual learning and return-to-school plans. Drawing from the OHRC’s principles and actions documents along with stakeholder feedback, the letters provided specific guidance on:

  • The need to establish a return-to-school partnership table
  • Obligations under the Code for students with disabilities experiencing barriers to virtual learning and potential barriers resulting from modified classrooms in the 2020–21 school year.


Adding a mandatory human rights lens in education

In spring 2021, Ontario’s Ministry of Education launched a mandatory online professional learning program for over 200,000 teachers and school administrators across Ontario – and the OHRC was pleased to contribute to this important initiative.

Human rights, anti-racism, anti-discrimination and anti-colonial education, a four-part, year-long program, is designed to promote dialogue and reflection about human rights, anti-discrimination, anti-colonial education, and confronting anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism.

The goal of this series is to equip educators and school boards to address and prevent discrimination based on all Code grounds, and to dismantle the systemic barriers that hamper some students’ opportunities to learn and thrive. The sessions are intended to build awareness of what racism and discrimination looks like in teaching, classrooms and schools, and to respond in ways that are decolonized and culturally relevant.

The OHRC’s Chief Commissioner recorded a video segment to introduce the importance of human rights in education.

Here are some highlights of the Chief Commissioner’s presentation:

Teachers are the key to providing a learning environment that fosters human rights. Your teaching, role modeling, expectations and attitudes have a direct impact on students’ self-esteem, sense of security, academic performance and social integration. Most importantly, you teach students how they should be treated, and how they should treat others.

A learning environment that promotes and protects human rights…

  • Has curriculum and materials where all students can see themselves represented and celebrated
  • Has educators, administrators and staff who reflect the community and authentically welcome the community
  • Is designed from the ground up to be accessible to students with a range of abilities and needs
  • Ensures that each student learns about respect, tolerance and human rights, and takes this learning into the wider community.

Only with these systems in place can we achieve the outcomes every student has a right to – to be treated fairly, to be supported and to reach their highest potential.

Education is the lifeblood for building – and sustaining – a culture of human rights. Schools are the best places for human rights learning to begin, and we know the earlier the better. We need to lay the groundwork as early as possible to build positive messages and images to counter social media rife with racism, misogyny and homophobia.

Most importantly, what students learn and experience through their education shapes their perceptions and expectations of all other government systems, so it is imperative that our schools model the kind of society we want to live in.

The Chief Commissioner acknowledged and thanked all the individuals and groups, including educators, administrators and families, for their support of human rights, and especially the Ministry of Education, who launched this training to promote our shared vision of a respectful, equitable and vibrant school system.

The Chief Commissioner concluded her remarks by talking about how our children’s futures – and the heart of our society – depend on getting the right start. She then quoted the world's youngest Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousafzai: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”


Teaching human rights in Grade 10 Civics and Citizenship classes

Teaching Human Rights in Ontario: a guide for Ontario schools (2013) is one of the OHRC’ most popular resources. This year, we worked on developing a new curriculum support product for the mandatory Grade 10 Civics and Citizenship classes. This update includes several new scenarios based on actual cases, and student activities that are based on the Code. The OHRC partnered with the Ontario Justice Education Network to develop the lesson plans. Teachers from across the province as well as members of the OHRC’s Education Advisory Group also provided input on the plans, which will be released later in 2021.

The lesson plans are linked with Teaching Human Rights in Ontario, which provides activities, quizzes, fact sheets, case studies and discussion questions related to the Code to support high school education.

Teaching Human Rights in Ontario is available online in PDF format.


Providing guidance to the Peel School Board Review

In June 2020, the OHRC wrote to the Minister of Education to acknowledge the steps his Ministry had taken on its review of the Peel District School Board (PDSB) in response to growing concerns about systemic discrimination, anti-Black racism, discord among senior leadership, and issues of governance. The OHRC also outlined our concerns with the lack of action by the PDSB to address many of the systemic issues and statistical disparities faced by Black students. For example:

  • Black students represent 10.2% of the secondary school population, but approximately 22.5% of students receiving suspensions
  • Only 7.7% of Black secondary school students are enrolled in academic courses; while 21.7% are enrolled in applied courses and 25.4% in the locally developed credit course stream
  • Between 2013 and 2019, the PDSB recorded 52 suspensions at the junior kindergarten level and 103 at the senior kindergarten level.

The OHRC also stressed that community members have expressed serious concern for the plight of Black students across Ontario, and that Black students in Ontario’s urban centres and suburban communities face many of the same concerns about systemic and anti-Black racism that were cited in the PDSB review.

The OHRC also wrote about the vital need to make improving the well-being of Black students in Ontario a priority, and we offered to share our expertise in addressing issues of this nature, and to work with the Ministry to make sure that future recommendations provide redress for the historic experiences of Black students who faced systemic discrimination in the education system.

The OHRC met with the PDSB in March 2021, and we learned that the board has a working draft of a proposed anti-racism policy and plans to conduct community consultations on the policy. The OHRC will take a close look at the PDSB’s steps so far, and continue to provide whatever help it can in the next stages.

In July 2020, the Peel Regional Police (PRP) School Resource Officer Program was put on pause in response to concerns – particularly from Black and other racialized community members – that the presence of officers in schools led to over-surveillance and criminalization. The pause was intended to create meaningful dialogue with diverse stakeholders and to consult with community members.

The OHRC took part in the consultation committee that included racialized community groups, child and youth organizations and other key stakeholders. The OHRC highlighted the need to be sensitive to the lived experience of racialized students as a priority concern in assessing the program. In November 2020, following the consultations, the PRP announced it would cancel the program in response to community concerns. The OHRC has encouraged the PRP to consult with the Ministry of Education's Education Equity Secretariat when considering future police engagement with the education system.


Looking at youth mental health in education

In the summer of 2020, the Chief Commissioner supported the Investigative Journalism Bureau’s extensive reporting on the youth mental health crisis. The Investigative Journalism Bureau, a newsroom with the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and the Toronto Star, launched an in-depth series called “Generation Distress,” examining how academic institutions treat students with mental health disabilities. The investigation collected data on mental health appointments, wait times, budgets, accommodation policies and student suicides. With a particular focus on mental health disabilities in post-secondary education and the duty to accommodate, the Chief Commissioner provided the investigation team with advice on human rights principles and the duty of education providers to accommodate mental health needs, the problematic aspects of mandated absence policies, and the human rights analysis of who must bear the cost of medical documentation. The Generation Distress series was nominated for the prestigious CJF Jackman Award for Excellence in Journalism, which honours exceptional reporting in the public interest.


Education Advisory Group continues to guide us

After being created in November 2019, 14 community representatives joined the OHRC’s Education Advisory Group (EDAG). Each group member has substantive knowledge of education issues, and is providing ongoing feedback and guidance on priority education issues and projects.

The kick-off meeting planned for March 2020 was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and an initial virtual meeting was convened in May. In this first meeting, discussion focused on racism in education and the OHRC’s curriculum development work for Grade 10/11 Civics and Citizenship courses.

After four months of school closures, a second meeting was organized in June 2020 to gain input on pressing COVID-related concerns in the education sector, especially the needs of students with disabilities, vulnerable students lacking technology to support online learning, the needs of Indigenous students and student mental health.

In August 2020, the advisory group identified concerns about the re-opening of schools in September, which helped the OHRC draft two substantial letters to the Ministry of Education. As well, the Chief Commissioner met with the Minister of Education to discuss COVID-19 related concerns along with the OHRC’s Right to Read public inquiry recommendations.

At the third meeting in September 2020, the group focused on racism in education, the unique needs of Indigenous learners, and ongoing COVID-19 concerns. The advisory group also provided input to the Ministry of Education’s Education Equity Secretariat’s alternative dispute resolution mechanism for Indigenous students.

Future discussions will focus on human rights concerns with the School Resource Officer Program, and the impact of the OHRC’s letter to universities and colleges on racism and other human rights concerns in response to a series of high-profile racist incidents on various campuses.

In each of these cases, the Education Advisory Group is a critical resource on key human rights issues in education.


Introducing the Education Advisory Group

  • Lindy Amato, Ontario Teachers Federation
  • Patrick Case, Education Equity Secretariat, Ministry of Education
  • Amy Cooper, Equitas
  • Jim Costello, Council of Ontario Directors of Education
  • Rachel da Silveira Gorman, Critical Disability Studies, York University
  • Hina Ghaus, ARCH Disability Law Centre
  • Josh Hill, Ontario Student Trustee Association
  • Dr. Carl James, Faculty of Education, York University
  • Annie Kidder, People for Education
  • Justine Mackay, Ontario Student Trustee Association
  • Jessica Reekie, Ontario Justice Education Network
  • Cecil Roach, York Region District School Board
  • Jodie Williams, First Nations, Métis & Inuit Education Association of Ontario
  • Lynn Ziraldo, K–12 Education Standards Development Committee

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