15-Page Summary of the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee’s Initial Recommendations
June 23, 2021
What should be done under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) to tear down the many barriers that impede students with disabilities in Ontario schools between Kindergarten and Grade 12, so they can fully participate in and fully benefit from Ontario’s education system? What should we include in a promised new law, to be called the “Education Accessibility Standard”, so Ontario’s school system becomes barrier-free for students with disabilities by 2025? Here is a summary of the 20 themes in the draft or initial recommendations by a Government-appointed committee, the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee. Its members are drawn from the disability community and the school system. They want your feedback. At the end of this summary is a backgrounder.
The non-partisan AODA Alliance prepared this summary. We urge one and all to read The Standard Development Committee’s entire 185-page report and to send The Government your feedback on it by September 2, 2021 by writing educationSDC@ontario.caz
Objective of the Education Accessibility Standard
The Education Accessibility Standard’s objective is that by 2025, the publicly funded K-12 education system will be fully accessible, equitable, inclusive and learner-centered:
- A) By removing and preventing accessibility barriers impeding students with disabilities from fully participating in, and fully benefitting from all aspects of the education system, and
- B) By providing a prompt, accessible, fair, effective and user-friendly process to learn about and seek programs, services, supports, accommodations and placements tailored to the individual strengths and needs of each student with disabilities
…We envision an Ontario public education system K-12 where learning environments are barrier free and fully inclusive of learners with disabilities. All learners with disabilities will have full access to meaningful education and relevant learning experiences that include appropriate instructional supports.
Major Theme 1: Ensure that Schools Effectively Serve All Students with Any Kind of Disability
Ontario’s special education system is now designed to only serve students with a condition that falls within the Ministry of Education’s out-dated definition of “exceptionality.” That definition leaves out some disabilities. It includes some students who have no disability.
Under the Standards Development Committee ‘s recommendations, all disability-related education supports would be available to all students with any kind of disabilities.
Major Theme 2: Training on Disability Accessibility for Everyone Involved in Ontario’s Schools
School boards should provide training on disability accessibility and inclusion for teachers, school staff, parents and all students. Training standards and requirements for teachers and other educational staff who provide specialized support for students with disabilities should be increased.
The Ministry of Education should develop models for this training, which school boards could use. The Ontario College of Teachers and university Faculties of Education should ensure that people trained to be teachers receive effective training on how to teach students with disabilities. Knowledge and experience on inclusion of and full participation by students with disabilities should become an important hiring and promotion criterion for principals, vice-principals and teaching staff.
School curriculum should include lessons about the accessibility barriers facing people with disabilities, and how to remove and prevent them.
Major Theme 3: Removing and Preventing Digital Disability Barriers in Ontario Schools
School boards need to take extensive new proactive measures to tear down the digital accessibility barriers that impede students with disabilities. For example, school boards should design and implement a digital accessibility action plan. Each board should designate an accessible “digital accessibility lead” to support educators in the procurement and use of digital technologies, and to be responsible for all digital information.
Digital technology procured for students and teachers should be accessible, using universal design principles. Books and other instructional materials for use by students, parents or others in the school community should be in accessible formats, as should report cards and other important documents used with students and/or their families. If pdf is used, other accessible formats should be provided at the same time, because pdfs present accessibility problems.
Students who are provided assistive technology for use at school should be permitted to take it home for home use. School boards should remove barriers that prevent students with disabilities from fully accessing adaptive technologies such as restrictions on being able to install apps on laptop computers or mobile devices, or firewalls that restrict access to websites needed to facilitate the use of adaptive technology. The Ministry’s program for funding adaptive technology for students with disabilities should not bar the use of any category of needed adaptive technology, such as smart phones.
The Government should ensure that distance learning becomes accessible to students with disabilities. For example, TVO should make its online learning content accessible to persons with disabilities, and should promptly make public a plan of action to achieve this goal. The Ministry of Education should make public a plan of action to swiftly make its own online learning content accessible for persons with disabilities. Only accessible platforms for distance learning should be permitted in Ontario schools.
Major Theme 4: Ensuring Accessible Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction
The Standards Development Committee made many recommendations aimed at the design of curriculum taught in school, at how students are taught in school, and at how student learning is tested or assessed in school. Curriculum, student instruction and student assessment should be reformed to ensure that they are barrier-free and fully accessible for students with disabilities. This includes ensuring that principles of universal design in learning and differential instruction are built into them. The Ministry of Education should develop tools to help school boards implement these requirements. The Ministry should designate an office or person with lead responsibility for ongoing review of provincially mandated curriculum and resources offered to school boards, for removing accessibility barriers.
Specific strategies are needed to ensure that such things as STEM (science, technology, engineering and Math), physical education, French language immersion, and other specialty programs are accessible to and effectively accommodate students with disabilities.
The Ministry of Education should ensure that school boards use barrier-free tests and other assessments for student performance. The Ministry should provide guides and resources to school boards on how to do this. The Ministry and school boards should monitor student assessments to ensure that they are barrier-free for students with disabilities. The Ministry should ensure that all provincial standardized tests are barrier-free for students with disabilities.
Major Theme 5: Substantially Strengthen Individual Education Plans (IEPs)
A key way Ontario’s education system tries to serve students with disabilities is by having school boards develop and implement an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for each student with special education needs. The Standards Development Committee found that there are important shortcomings with the current regime for these. For example, Ontario’s requirements only apply for students whose disability falls within the out-dated and narrow term “exceptionality.” IEPs should be available for all students with disabilities, whether or not their disability falls within the term “exceptionality.”
The Standards Development Committee recommends that any student with any kind of disability should be entitled to an IEP if they, their family or the school things one would help. An IEP should document in one place all the measures for the student’s disability-related accommodation. The content and implementation of IEPs should be periodically audited to ensure that the needs of students with disabilities are being met.
Major Theme 6: Expanding and Strengthening Parent and Student Participation In the Accommodation of Students with Disabilities
Parents /guardians of students with disabilities, and students with disabilities themselves, need direct, easy access to important information about the menu of programs, services, supports and accommodations available for students including students with disabilities, and how to request or advocate for them. They have a right to know all the important information they need including what is available, what persons and what office to approach to get this information or to request or change the student’s placements, programs, supports, services or accommodations, or to raise concerns about whether the school board is effectively meeting the student’s disability-related education needs.
This information should be easy to find. It should be readily available in accessible formats, plain language and multiple languages. Parents report that too often, it is very difficult to find out this important and basic information. It is inefficient and unreliable to leave this responsibility to individual principals, spread across Ontario, to each deal with this as they choose. Each school should implement a series of measures to ensure that parents of students with disabilities and the students have ready access to all this information.
Parents/guardians of students with disabilities report that too often, they find it very difficult frustrating and demoralizing to advocate for their child’s needs in the school system. Depending on the board, the school and the people involved, it can be welcoming, positive and cooperative, or alienating, bureaucratic and rigid.
The school should offer every family of a student with disabilities a meeting to discuss what should be included in the IEP (an IEP meeting) If any participant in the meeting, such as the student or their parents, need a disability accommodation to participate, this should be provided.
School boards should offer families a system navigator to help them make their way through the bewildering process of trying to get their child’s disability-related needs accommodated. If the family or student think the IEP does not include measures they need, or that the school is not implementing all or part of the IEP, they should have access to a swift, fair, effective internal appeal within the school board. The appeal should be to a board employee or an outside mediator who have expertise in educating students with disabilities, and who was not involved in the actions under appeal.
Students with a disability who move from school board to school board, or school to school, should have the right to an Individual Education Plan with same or comparable programs, services and accommodations. If the school board, or the school to which the student transfers, proposes to deny or to reduce those accommodations or supports, the parent/guardian/student should be able to take their concern to the dispute resolution process. All accommodations shall be maintained until and unless, the school board has justified a reduction of those accommodations.
Major Theme 7: Access for Students with Disabilities to Timely Professional Assessments Needed for Disability Accommodation
Often, students with disabilities need an expert or professional assessment of disability-related needs. There are too often great delays in getting these assessments. The Standards Development Committee made recommendations to speed up these assessments.
Major Theme 8: Reforming the Process for a School Board Identifying and Making the Placement of Student with Disabilities
The current system for a school board’s formal identification and placement of students with disabilities creates barriers for students with disabilities. For a formal decision on a student’s identification and placement, one must have a hearing before a school board committee called an Identification, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC). The IPRC can only decide on whether the student falls within the definition of “exceptional pupil” and on the students’ “placement”. It can only make recommendations but not binding decisions on the student’s “program” or services”.
More than half of the students receiving special education services and who have an IEP were not identified through an IPRC. This strongly suggests this process is irrelevant to many.
Many school staff and families complain about the IPRC’s administrative burden and delays that can create barriers.
IPRCs are hampered by the arbitrary, undefined and confusing distinction between define “placement” on which the IPRC can decide, and inseparable issues concerning “program” or “services” upon which the IPRC cannot decide.
Families report that they don’t understand the IPRC process or feel included in it. Frequently the meetings are short, and families feel rushed. In addition, families who don’t understand the process may waive their right to a review.
The Standards Development Committee recommended that the IPRC system be reviewed, reformed or replaced with a process that is swift, fair, and user-friendly. Decisions over a student’s placement should not be arbitrarily hived off from decisions over their supports, programs, services and accommodations.
Major Theme 9: Ministry of Education and School Boards Should Each Embed Accessibility Oversight in Their Operations
Several recommendations call for the Ministry of Education and each school board to put in place new measures to ensure that school boards effectively serve students with disabilities.
The Ministry of Education should designate an office or role, such as an Assistant Deputy Minister, responsible for achieving a barrier-free and accessible school system for students with disabilities. A Ministry Ombudsman for complaints regarding disability-related needs of students with disabilities should be created. The Ministry should annually audit school board effectiveness at serving students with disabilities, review disability issues and barriers in Ontario schools, plan strategies to address them, and publicly report on these efforts.
Each school board should ensure that its schools create an accessible and welcoming environment for students with disabilities and their families, including family members with disabilities. This includes ensuring schools encourage and make it easy to seek accommodations for disabilities. Each school board should create a board accessibility committee, school level accessibility committees, and a network of teachers and staff with disabilities. Each board should designate a senior official with lead responsibility for advancing the goal of disability accessibility. Each school board should create and implement multi-year accessibility plans that address all disability barriers, and not just those identified in earlier limited AODA accessibility standards. The board should publicly report on the plan’s implementation.
Major Theme 10: Recommendations Regarding Disability-Specific Needs
Some Standards Development Committee recommendations focus on a specific disability, such as autism. As well, there is a recognized need to better serve students with low-incidence disabilities such as vision loss, which chronically receive less attention from the Ministry of Education and school boards.
Ontario should upgrade its substandard training requirements for teachers of the visually impaired. Where needed, specific added disability-focused curriculum should be required for teaching students with specific disabilities that need this. For example, each school board should be required to teach students with vision loss the Expanded Core Curriculum that has been internationally recognized.
Major Theme 11: Reducing the Exclusions/Refusals to Admit to School/Reduced School Hours
Parents voiced concerns with the principal’s power to exclude students from school. (Also called refusal to admit to school) Section 265(1)(m) of the Education Act requires principals:
“Subject to an appeal to the board, to refuse to admit to the school or classroom a person whose presence in the school or classroom would in the principal’s judgment be detrimental to the physical or mental well being of the pupils.”
Concerns are expressed that a significant proportion of those excluded from school are students with disabilities. The Ministry of Education does not require school boards to track data on exclusions from school.
There is a lack of due process, such as parents not being told the reason for the refusal to admit their child to school, or how to challenge it. There is no limit on how long the refusal to admit can continue. There need not be a plan for the student’s return to school and no assured provision of alternative education program while the student is excluded. There is no consistent, fair process to appeal a child’s exclusion from school. Concerns have been raised that in some situations, a student with disabilities is excluded from school directly or indirectly because the school has not effectively accommodated that student’s disability.
There are many stories from parents about formal and informal arrangements for a student with disabilities to attend for less than the full school day without parents’ voluntary consent. There are no consistent practices for when or how this can occur, the documentation to be kept, or plans for return to full time school.
An AODA Alliance survey of Ontario school boards showed that a majority of boards have no policy on how and when a principal may refuse to admit a student. Of the 33 boards for which a policy was obtained, these policies vary substantially. A student, excluded from school, and their parents are treated very differently from one board to the next. Students and parents across Ontario deserve the same safeguards. Principals are placed in a difficult position, not knowing what they can and should do.
The Standards Development Committee’s recommendations seek to reduce or eliminate the number and duration of exclusion of students with disabilities. It makes detailed recommendations to reduce how and when a student can be excluded from school. The student and their family would be entitled to know the reason for the exclusion from school and its duration. An excluded student would have a right to receive their education while excluded from school. Students would have a right to a fair process before, during and after an exclusion from school. School boards should track and make public data on how often students are excluded from school.
Major Theme 12: Improving Collection of Data on Education of Students with Disabilities
The Ministry of Education regularly requires school boards to collect and report very extensive data on teachers, staff, students and other aspects of board operation. Yet the Ministry collects far too little data on the numbers and needs of students with disabilities, and on what is being done to meet those needs. The Standards Development Committee called for a substantial increase in the collection and public availability of data regarding students with disabilities.
Major Theme 13: Addressing Barriers Facing Students with Disabilities in Social Realms
The Standards Development Committee made detailed recommendations to better enable students with disabilities to participate in social activities in connection with school. This includes, for example, ensuring that activities to take place off school grounds are held in accessible locations, providing staff assistance to help ensure that students with disabilities can socialize with other students, and taking anti-bullying measures.
Major Theme 14: Addressing Disability Barriers in School Transportation
In 2011, the Ontario Government enacted the AODA Transportation Accessibility Standard. It includes provisions aimed at transportation of students with disabilities. After a decade, it is clear that these have not ensured that these transportation services are accessible for students with disabilities. Therefore, the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee made recommendations to ensure that student transportation for students with disabilities is accessible.
The Standards Development Committee recommended that school boards consult individually with each family to identify accessibility and accommodation needs of the student with disabilities regarding transportation, and ensure drivers are properly trained to accommodate each student’s disability needs. If a bus driver is replaced, the school board should ensure that the replacement is given the same training before driving the student, or, in an emergency, as soon as possible.
Each school board should designate a reachable official especially during working hours when students are being transported, to receive and address phone calls, emails and text messages from a family about problems with a student’s transportation.
Major Theme 15: Addressing Disability Barriers to Experiential / Co-Op Learning
People with disabilities face extraordinarily high unemployment rates. Getting the chance for an experiential learning or co-op placement while in school can be the gateway, if not the only gateway, to that first letter of reference. A student’s first letter of reference is essential to getting their first job.
It is important for school boards to provide informal advice and support to all employers, including small businesses.
To ensure that students with disabilities can fully participate in experiential learning programs, each school board should review its experiential learning programs to identify and remove any accessibility barriers and ensure that there will be a range of accessible placement opportunities in which students with disabilities can participate. School boards should ensure that partner organizations that accept its students for experiential learning placements are effectively informed of their duty to accommodate the learning needs of students with disabilities.
Major Theme 16: Removing Disability Barriers to a Student Bringing a Trained Service Animal to School
Some students on the autism spectrum and their families have reported having difficulties at some school boards with being allowed to bring a service animal to school and have had to take legal action against a school board. Others succeeded in bringing their service animal to school.
The Standards Development Committee made recommendations to require any school board to follow a series of swift and fair steps, when a student with disabilities asks to bring a trained service animal to school with them. For example, if the school board has any objection to or concerns about the request, the school board will immediately notify the family about the specific concerns, and shall work to resolve them.
If the school board does not believe that the service animal could assist the student at school, the board should investigate the request, including how the student benefits from the service animal outside the school and at home. If the school board has concerns about the feasibility of allowing the student to bring the service animal to school, it shall investigate the experience of other school boards and schools which have successfully enabled a student to bring their service animal to school.
If a concern is expressed that the service animal at school would interfere with the human rights of other students or staff, the school board shall take action to effectively accommodate their rights without sacrificing the human rights of the student using the service animal. For example, if an EA, assigned to work with the student, cannot work with the service animal for health or other human rights reasons, the school board should assign this to another staff member.
A student shall not be refused the opportunity to bring a qualified service animal to school without the school board first allowing a trial or test period with the service animal at school. If the school board does not agree to the service animal being allowed at school, or if there is a problem with implementing the school board’s plans to facilitate its inclusion, the school board shall make available a swift dispute resolution process. Nothing in the accessibility standard shall reduce or restrict the rights of a person with vision loss bringing with them their guide dog, trained by an accredited school.
Major Theme 17: Addressing Physical and Architectural Barriers
Too often, the built environment where K-12 education programming is offered, have physical barriers that can impede some students with disabilities from being able to enter or independently move around. These barriers also impede parents, teachers and other staff and volunteers with disabilities.
The Ontario Ministry of Education does not effectively survey all school buildings to ensure that they are accessible, or to catalogue needed accessibility improvements. Ministry of Education’s specifications for new school construction do not ensure that news schools are accessible.
The Standards Development Committee recommends that the Education Accessibility Standard should include specific requirements to be included in a new school, requirements to be included in a renovation of or an addition to an existing school, and retrofit requirements for an existing school not slated for a major renovation. Its detailed recommendations, beyond what the Ontario Building Code and existing AODA standards minimally require, are set out in full in the June 16, 2021 AODA Alliance Update. They do not only include the needs of people with mobility disabilities. They include people with other disabilities such as (but not limited to) people with vision and/or hearing loss, autism, intellectual or developmental disabilities, learning disabilities or mental health disorders.
Each school board should develop a plan to ensure that the built environment of its schools and other educational facilities becomes fully accessible to persons with disabilities as soon as reasonably possible, and in any event, no later than 2025. As a first step, each school board should develop a plan for making as many of its schools’ disability-accessible within its current financial context. They should identify which existing schools can be more easily made accessible. An interim plan should be developed to show what progress towards full physical accessibility can be made by first addressing schools that would require less money to be made physically more accessible.
When a school board seeks to hire design professionals, such as architects, interior designers or landscape architects, for a school project the school board should include in any Request for Proposal a mandatory requirement that the design professional must have sufficient demonstrated expertise in accessibility design. This includes accessibility needs of people with all kinds of disabilities, and not just those with mobility impairments. A properly qualified and experienced accessibility consultant should be retained by the school board (and not necessarily by a private architecture firm) to advise on the project from the outset, with their advice being transmitted directly to the school board.
Where possible, a school board should not renovate an existing school that lacks disability accessibility, unless the school board has a plan to make that school accessible. For example, a school board should not spend public money to renovate the second storey of a school which lacks accessibility to the second storey, if the school board does not have a plan to make that second storey disability accessible. Very pressing health and safety concerns should be the only reason for any exception to this.
When a school board decides which schools to close due to reduced enrollment, a priority should be placed on keeping open schools with more physical accessibility, while a priority should be given to closing schools that are the most lacking in accessibility, or for which retrofitting is the most costly.
Each school board should take an inventory of the accessibility of its existing indoor and outdoor play spaces and gym and playground equipment, and make this public. Each board should adopt a plan to remediate the accessibility of new gym or playground equipment.
Major Theme 18: Accessible Transitions for Students with Disabilities
Students with disabilities can encounter difficulties with transitions from one school to another, from elementary school to high school, from school to post-secondary education or from school to work. Detailed recommendations are offered to help with these transitions. For example, each school board should develop and create the role of the Transition Facilitator/Navigator to work with students and their families in collaboration with school staff, and community agencies to develop and carry out transition plans.
To help with transitions, where possible, and to the point of undue hardship, each school board should allow siblings of a student with a disability who attends a special education program outside of their home school, to attend that same school within that school board if requested by the family.
Each school board should ensure that students with an IPRC, and their parents/guardians, are informed in grades 7 through 10 about the importance of updating their assessment during Grade 11 and 12. School boards should ensure that students in Grades 11 and 12 are informed during their IEP review/renewal meetings and transition support meetings if/when their formal professional assessment should be updated.
Major Theme 19: Planning for Emergencies
A subcommittee of the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee submitted a comprehensive package of excellent recommendations to the Ontario Government on July 24, 2020 on how to address the urgent needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The K-12 Education Standards Development Committee distilled those recommendations for future use in its March 12, 2021 initial report/recommendations. The following are some key recommendations.
The Ministry of Education should establish an independent review committee as soon as possible to assess the COVID-19 response by the Ministry of Education and School Boards from the perspective of students with disabilities, and to make recommendations for future emergency preparedness.
The Ministry of Education’s future Emergency Plan shall include the creation of a Central Education Leadership Command Table with the responsibility of ensuring that students with disabilities have access to all accommodations and supports during an emergency. The Ministry of Education should develop a rapid response team to receive feedback from school boards on recurring issues facing students with disabilities and to help find solutions to share with school boards, and quickly and issues for students with disabilities as they arise during an emergency. The Ministry of Education should collect and make readily available resources/information on practices, effective strategies in learning environment, and alternate approaches for students struggling with online learning, etc.
School Boards’ Emergency plans shall include the creation of a similar Board Command/Central Table, to develop its own emergency plan. A senior school board staff member should be assigned to be responsible for accessibility, to ensure that all changes at schools in response to an emergency maintain accessibility for all students with disabilities. School Boards should plan to provide staff to support technology including accessibility needs to parents who are supporting the learning needs of students with disabilities during distance learning.
Serious concerns have been expressed for several years about deficiencies in the Accessibility Ministry’s compliance/enforcement of the AODA. The second Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Independent Review conducted by Mayo Moran in 2014 and the third such review conducted by Hon. David Onley in 2018 both called for Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act enforcement to be substantially strengthened. Their reports demonstrate that the slow progress on accessibility in Ontario has been due in part to shortcomings in the Ministry’s compliance/enforcement actions in the past. These deficiencies remain.
The focus of compliance/enforcement should not simply be whether an obligated organization such as the Ministry of Education or a publicly funded school board has posted a policy on an action required by the K-12 Education Accessibility Standard. It is important to assess the end result i.e. whether obligated organizations have in fact removed and prevented disability barriers that impede students with disabilities and to assess whether students with disabilities are being effectively included in and fully participating in the opportunities that Ontario’s public education system provides to students.
The Accessibility Directorate should conduct on-site inspections of a range of obligated organizations each year on the actual accessibility of their facilities and educational programs and services as addressed in the Standard, and not just an audit of their paper records on accessibility documentation.
To promote accountability and compliance, the Ministry of Education should establish and maintain a public searchable database where all reports, annual plans and updates posted or prepared by school boards or by the Ministry in compliance with the AODA will be made available in an accessible format to the public. As part of the Government’s compliance/enforcement plan, it should establish and widely publicize a provincial toll-free number, and dedicated email address to receive complaints and concerns from students with disabilities their families or others regarding accessible education for students with disabilities. The Ministry should assign a rapid response team to take action where appropriate on feedback there received. A summary of input/complaints received (with no identifying information) should be made public quarterly.
In addition, the Accessibility Directorate should have staff with experience in the area of education of students with disabilities or should have a resource team whom they can regularly and readily consult.
Any building project for a new school or major renovation should be required to comply with the built environment provisions of the K-12 Education Accessibility Standard to get a building permit. The project should be checked for compliance with the AODA and not just the Ontario Building Code.
Background to this Summary
The Ontario Government committed to enact an Education Accessibility Standard under the AODA. It appointed an advisory committee, the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee, to develop recommendations on what the Education Accessibility Standard should include.
On June 1, 2021, the Ontario Government made public the K-12 Education Standards Development Committee’s initial recommendations. The Government gave the public up to September 2, 2021 to send the Standards Development Committee feedback on its initial recommendations. The Standards Development Committee can use that feedback to refine and finalize its report and recommendations to The Government.
The Standards Development Committee’s initial report and recommendations is 185 pages long. To assist the public, the AODA Alliance prepared a 55-page condensed and annotated version of it. For those who want an even shorter version, the AODA Alliance prepared this summary. The AODA Alliance, and not the Standards Development Committee, is solely responsible for the preparation of both that 55-page condensed version and for this shorter summary. Both the 55-page condensed version and this shorter summary add some of our own headings, and re-arrange the sequence of some of the recommendations. Of course, some content is inevitably omitted when summarizing so much information. In this summary the wording is an inextricable blend of the Committee’s own text and our effort at summarizing it.
The initial recommendations were approved by at least 75% of the entire Standards Development Committee. Half of the Standards Development Committee is made up of disability community representatives. The other half of the Committee comes from the education system. The AODA Alliance endorses the entire 185-page report.