View and download PDF: Right to Read Report
Never, in a million years did I think our public education system would pick and choose which children are worth helping and shrug their shoulders and leave others behind.
It is our job to get kiddies reading. One of the things we do as educators is teach students how to read. Getting to all students regardless of their profile is a moral imperative.
- Board administrator
I have had a front-row seat to see the emotional distress, mental health disorders such as school avoidance, anxiety, depression and suicidality that are a result of unaddressed reading problems at school…As you know, educational level and literacy are social determinants of health and economic outcomes. We know that a system-wide approach needs to be adopted to inform the development of policies that can adequately solve this problem – and it is solvable.
Education is the foundation lives are built on. The first few years of school help shape a person’s future, influencing everything from their lifelong sense of self-confidence and self-worth to their future employment and income, and even their physical and mental health. Reading is a fundamental building block in this foundation. No skill is more important in the first few years of school than learning to read.
It is the education system’s job to teach every student to read. Yet, the reality in Ontario is much different. Many students are not learning this foundational skill, with devastating consequences. Students who do not develop strong early reading skills struggle in school and later life. This negatively affects the student, their family and broader society.
This does not have to be the case. Many researchers have studied how children learn to read, and for decades we have known the best way to teach foundational word-reading skills. But we are not using these approaches in Ontario. Instead, Ontario is using approaches to early reading that we know will fail the most vulnerable students.
Students with word-reading disabilities/dyslexia and other disabilities, students from lower-income backgrounds, racialized students and Indigenous students are all much more likely to fall behind their peers when it comes to early reading. When schools do not use proven approaches to teach word-reading skills, these students disproportionately experience higher rates of reading difficulties. This makes learning to read a human rights issue, which is why the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) launched an inquiry focusing on the right to read.
Ableism is a belief system, similar to racism, sexism or ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as less capable or worthy of respect and consideration than others. It is an attitude that exists in society and is reflected in our education system. For far too long, lowered expectations for certain learners – including students with disabilities – have resulted in systemic failures in the education system. A belief that some students cannot learn as well as their peers has led to limiting their opportunities instead of removing barriers to make sure they can learn. However, these students’ struggles are not inevitable. They can be prevented with high-quality, scientifically validated curriculum and instruction, universal early screening to identify who may be at risk for difficulties, providing early evidence-based interventions, ensuring timely and effective accommodations if required, and providing professional assessments for the small number of students who may still need them.
Our public education system has a responsibility to improve equity outcomes and provide students with an equal opportunity to succeed in life. However, for many students, the system creates, deepens and exacerbates disadvantage.
The OHRC’s mission is to promote and enforce human rights and create a culture of human rights compliance and accountability. The OHRC 2017–2022 Strategic Plan, Putting people and their rights at the centre: Building human rights accountability, identifies education as one of four strategic priorities, and places a special focus on addressing systemic discrimination in our education system.
For over 20 years, the OHRC has exposed and challenged systemic discrimination in education by publishing policies on accessible education for students with disabilities; making many submissions and recommendations to government, school boards and post-secondary institutions; engaging in strategic litigation; and using its other powers under the Ontario’s Human Rights Code (Code).
In 2007, the OHRC initiated and settled human rights complaints about safe schools provisions under the Education Act and related school discipline policies that had a disproportionate effect on students with disabilities and racialized students.
In 2008, the OHRC successfully argued that the Ministry of Education (Ministry) should be added as a respondent to a human rights case before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO). In Davidson v Lambton Kent District School Board, the HRTO found that the Ministry has a role in how school boards exercise their responsibilities, and can potentially be liable for discrimination where its definition of exceptionalities prevents or delays a student (in this case, a student with ADHD) from receiving required accommodations. This important decision ensures that matters the Ministry is responsible for – the framework for providing special education services, and the standards that set preconditions for access to special education services – can be the subject of a discrimination claim.
In 2012, the OHRC intervened in Moore v British Columbia (Education). This landmark Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) case dealt with the denial of meaningful access to education for a student with dyslexia. The SCC agreed with the OHRC’s arguments about how to analyze discrimination claims about accessible education, and upheld the original decision that found discrimination.
After intervening in and settling a case involving the rights of post-secondary students with mental health disabilities in 2016, the OHRC obtained a commitment from all Ontario public colleges and universities to implement steps to reduce systemic barriers for these students. With Learning in Mind  reports on the systemic barriers the OHRC identified, the modifications to post-secondary institutions’ policies and procedures requested by the OHRC, and the institutions’ self-reported progress in implementing the requested changes.
In 2018, the OHRC released an updated Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities and made recommendations for improving education outcomes for students with disabilities to the Ministry, school boards, private education providers and post-secondary institutions.
These are just a few of the OHRC’s efforts to address discrimination in education. Yet despite these efforts, the OHRC has continued to hear concerns about students’ experiences in Ontario’s public education system, particularly related to the largest special education exceptionality in Ontario – learning disabilities, and especially reading disabilities/dyslexia.
These concerns, combined with the results of extensive background research, led the OHRC to start a public inquiry into human rights issues facing students with reading disabilities. On October 3, 2019, the OHRC announced it would use its inquiry powers under section 31 of the Code to investigate whether students with reading disabilities have meaningful access to education as required under the Code and international human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The OHRC’s public inquiry powers under section 31 include but are not limited to:
- The power to request the production of documents or things
- The power to question a person on matters that may be relevant to the inquiry
- The ability to use expert assistance to carry out the inquiry.
The OHRC’s public inquiries support its mandate to promote and enforce human rights compliance in Ontario.
 Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability (27 June 2016), at 3, online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-ableism-and-discrimination-based-disability/9-undue-hardship [OHRC, Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability].
 Ontario Human Rights Commission Strategic Plan 2017–2022 (8 December 2016), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/ontario-human-rights-commission-strategic-plan-2017-%E2%80%93-2022.
 Policies approved under section 30 of the Code reflect the OHRC’s interpretation of the Code, and set out standards, guidelines and best practice examples for how individuals, service providers, housing providers, employers and others should act to ensure equality for all Ontarians. OHRC policies must be considered by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario if a party or intervenor requests it (Human Rights Code, RSO 1990 c H19, s. 45.5 [Human Rights Code]). For more information see A Policy Primer: Guide to developing human rights policies and procedures (revised December 2013), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-primer-guide-developing-human-rights-policies-and-procedures/purpose-ohrc-policies.
 With Learning in Mind: inquiry report on systemic barriers to academic accommodation for post-secondary students with mental health disabilities (April 2017), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission www.ohrc.on.ca/en/learning-mind [OHRC, With Learning in Mind].
 See Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities (revised March 2018) and Appendix A to the Policy, online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-accessible-education-students-disabilities [OHRC, Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities].
 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 13 December 2006, 2515 UNTS 3, art 24 (entered into force 3 May 2008, GA Res 61/106, UNGA, 61st Sess, Supp no 49, UN Doc A/RES/61/106, Annex I) [CRPD].
 Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, 1577 UNTS 3, art 23 (entered into force 2 September 1990) [CRC].
 Human Rights Code, supra, note 3, s 31.