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Right to Read: Remarks by OHRC Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire (2022)

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Remarks by Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire at the February 28, 2022 news conference on the release of Right to Read.

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Good morning everyone, thank you for joining us today.

Today we release Right to Read, the report on our inquiry into human rights issues that affect students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system. Right now there is at least one child in every classroom in an Ontario public school who is struggling to learn to read.

A student in kindergarten is feeling ashamed because they cannot spell out their name while others can. The parents of a Grade 3 student are worried and frantically trying to know why their child cannot read despite being told not to worry, that they will catch up soon.

Sadly, we know that those same students may never learn to read and may face a lifetime of low-paying jobs or, worse yet, disadvantaging future generations. Our children and our society deserve better than that. And that is why the Right to Read inquiry report calls for critical change to Ontario’s approach to early reading.

This report combines the lived experiences of students, parents, educators and other professionals with the research and guidance from experts to provide recommendations on curriculum and instruction, early screening, reading, interventions, accommodation, professional assessment and systemic issues. The Right to Read Report also provides much more details on how and why learning to read is a basic and essential human right.

Learning to read is critical in building a lifelong sense of personal empowerment. It builds self-confidence; it will improve employment opportunities and enhances physical, emotional and mental well-being. But this is not always happening; many factors are contributing to students being denied an equal right to read.

For example, the inquiry has found that schools are not using evidence-based approaches to teach early reading and as a result, students with reading disabilities and other students are failing to learn to read.

Studies show that at least one-third of all Ontario students leave school without attaining the level of literacy that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development deems necessary to function fully in today’s economy.

Ontario’s approach to screening students for reading difficulties is inconsistent, ad hoc and relies mostly on non-evidence-based reading assessments. Many actual students are not identified or receiving intervention early enough or at all. And when effective interventions do exist, getting access to them is hard and demand often outstrips supply.

The ultimate result is that some students disproportionately experience higher rates of reading disabilities and their future can be irreparably harmed, like the student in kindergarten or Grade three.

Studies have shown that the link between low literacy and marginalization in employment increases risks of mental health, addiction, homelessness and issues with the youth justice or criminal justice system. Our Right to Read report outlines how these impacts can be prevented.

The report includes recommendations to have students learn to read and reduce the negative consequences experienced by students, their families and our society.

And one of the focuses of the inquiry was on early word reading and reading disabilities such as dyslexia. The recommendations will also benefit students with other disabilities, Black and other racialized students, Indigenous, multilingual and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

With the systemic evidence-based approach, we can prevent reading failures in almost every child. During the inquiry we started the process of calling on government and education partners to make substantive changes. We released this report today but our work is not finished, we will continue to push for change and work with communities.

In the past, we have advocated for systemic changes long after reports were released and we will do the same with the Right to Read inquiry.

Today the Commission calls on all partners in the Ontario education system to meet their responsibilities and legal obligation under the Ontario Human Rights Code by removing barriers that limit students’ opportunities to learn and succeed.

This work will require partners to collaboratively implement system-wide changes; it will also require sufficient and sustainable funding. The Commission will continue to monitor the progress of government and other education partners to encourage the implementation of its recommendations. But the Commission cannot do this alone.

We will continue to push for change and call on communities and stakeholders to help monitor developments. The Commission is committed to ensuring that Right to Read is not just another report but a real step forward to ensure literacy.

Let me be clear, this is not about blaming, pointing fingers or shaming. It is about giving all children access to literacy, access to freedom. This work must begin now. The catalyst of COVID 19 and the global anti-Black racism movement affords us the opportunity to reset the dial, to re-culture schools and the way reading is taught. Students, families and educators across Ontario are depending on us, can we afford to disappoint?