Meaningful Access to Education for Students with Disabilities

On December 29, 2017, Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal issued a decision in U.M. v. York Region District School Board where it examined whether two students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum were provided ‘meaningful access to education’ without discrimination in relation to the educational supports and programming provided by the school jurisdiction.

The Complainant – A ‘Very Involved’ Parent

The parent’s human rights application focused on the school jurisdiction’s alleged failure to adhere to his parental wishes.

The complainant, referred to as a ‘very involved’ parent, relied on his own opinions about his children’s school needs.  The father rejected the psycho-educational and medical assessments; he did not agree to any re-assessments (in spite of these having been recommended) because he did not trust the professionals. His distrust extended to the school board’s Autism Team, to some of the teachers and EAs at his children’s school.  Taking the position he was the primary expert on his children’s educational needs, he wanted to make all decisions about his children’s educational supports and programming.

Position of the School Jurisdiction

The arguments of the school jurisdiction:

  • It provided ‘meaningful access to education’ in accordance with the law, in particular the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Moore v. British Columbia (Education) wherein the Court held that special education is not the service in and of itself but rather a means by which certain students get meaningful access to the general education services that are available to all students.

  • Any limitations or omissions in its provision of education and related supports to the 2 children were directly related to the parent's requests, actions and/or decisions.

  • While it acknowledged that certain educational placements and interventions might have helped the children, forcing these, in light of strong parental resistance, would have been traumatic for the children.

Father's Case Dismissed

The complaint was dismissed. Adjudicator Nichols concluded there was no evidence to support the father’s claim of discrimination finding that the parent advanced his discrimination complaint because he wanted to change his children’s educational circumstances to match his own wishes and expectations for his children, even when his expectations and approach were not supported by professional opinion and the Education Act.

Legal Principles in Alberta

  • School boards cannot deny ‘meaningful access to education’ to students with disabilities who are under their care.

  • The determination of the content of appropriate educational programs and services delivered to students with disabilities is primarily the responsibility of school jurisdictions under the direction of the Ministry of Education and the School Act.

  • While Alberta’s School Act acknowledges the importance and relevance of considering parental preferences in public education, the School Act does not give parents the absolute power to make all decisions about the education of their children within the public education system.

  • Examples where it was concluded that students with disabilities were not granted ‘meaningful access to education’ (and unequal treatment):

    • Where a school jurisdiction proactively reduced the provision of appropriate special education services which directly resulted in an escalation of behaviours related to the student’s diagnosed disability, in turn leading to the student’s exclusion from school.

    • Where a school jurisdiction failed to reasonably accommodate a student with disabilities in the context of a reasonable and appropriate assessment as identified by the school jurisdiction.

Bottom Line

‘Meaningful access to education’ for students with disabilities includes a current assessment of the relevant data which should include a reasonable exploration of and support for their strengths and needs;  it does not require a public school jurisdiction to grant a parent every wish as to their children’s educational supports and programming.