The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released a new Policy on Accessible Education for Students with Disabilities on August 29.

This policy reflects a broader definition of disability, recognizes that education is important to a person’s development, and provides students with up-to-date information about their human rights and responsibilities.

It also reminds schools of their obligation to maintain accessible, inclusive, discrimination-free, and harassment-free spaces, along with recommendations on how to effectively meet legal obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Significance in relation to the UMLAP

The policy’s release comes months after U of T passed its new University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) in June.

The UMLAP allows U of T to put students on a mandatory leave of absence if their mental health affects their ability to complete their schoolwork, or if it poses a risk to themselves or others.

An early version of the policy was criticized strongly by OHRC’s Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane, who sent a letter to the university asking it to delay the policy’s approval.

According to the letter, sent in January, “the Policy falls short of meeting the duty to accommodate under the Code, and as outlined in the OHRC’s Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability.” 

The letter also said “the Policy appears to allow decisions to be made by University administration who do not have any specialized training on human rights or risk assessment.”

After this letter, the university withdrew that version of the UMLAP, but proposed another version in May, which was passed.

What’s in the new OHRC policy?

The new OHRC policy addresses “the evolving legal definition of disability and its implications for education providers.’

It also recognizes that “disability” includes “both present and past conditions,” as well as a subjective component based on the perception of disability.

The new policy also discusses ableism, negative attitudes, stereotypes, and stigma toward students with disabilities.

It states that “providers have a legal obligation under the Code to not discriminate against students with disabilities, and to eliminate discrimination when it happens.”

A major focus of the policy is on the “duty to accommodate,” which was also one of Mandhane’s main criticisms of the UMLAP.

“Under the Code, education providers have a legal duty to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities who are adversely affected by a requirement, rule or standard,” reads the policy.

The OHRC’s letter notes that “the decisions to exclude a student from school due to alleged health and safety risk without sufficient objective evidence… may constitute discrimination.”

It also adds that students with disabilities cannot be judged to be incapable of fulfilling their educational requirements unless proper accommodation has been provided and the capabilities of the students have been assessed.

The new policy also recommends that schools and postsecondary institutions collect quantitative and qualitative data to understand any barriers that may exist, and to identify and address any concerns that may lead to systemic discrimination.