Teacher Advocacy Matters in the Right to Read

Ontario Human Rights Commission on the Right to Read

In the past school year (2019-2020), the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) on the Right to Read has launched a public inquiry on the human rights issues affecting students with learning disabilities. This public inquiry was facilitated due to concerns from parents and recent Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) test scores showing over 25% of Grade 3 students and 53% of Grade 3 students with special education needs did not meet provincial standards.

Students Struggling with Reading

The OHRC cites that students who cannot read struggle with many aspects of school and are more vulnerable to psychosocial stressbehavioural issuesbullying and much lower levels of educational achievement  (Schumacher et al, 2007.) The result of these challenges means that these students face life-long consequences including, homelessness, and involvement with the criminal justice system (Bruck, 1998; Macdonald, 2012; Maughan, 1995).

All students with reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, have a right to learn how to read. The OHRC is concerned that these students are not getting the supports they need to become literate. This is particularly challenging when students are not receiving early intervention and supports that are known to be effective in increasing reading ability.

The OHRC Right to Read inquiry team assessed evidence based approaches to meet students’ right to read. As part of an effective systematic approach to teach all students to read, they cited five benchmarks including: universal design for learning (UDL), mandatory early student screening, reading intervention programs, effective accommodations, and psycho-educational assessments.

OHRC Advocacy for the Right to Read

For the 2020-2021 school year, the OHRC Right to Read inquiry team wrote to the Ministry of Education and school boards, calling on the establishment of programs that systematically address the needs of students with learning disabilities. The communication cited concerns around students’ inconsistent access to technology, professional services, screening and assessment, and specialized reading instruction and programing. In addition, the OHRC Right to Read inquiry team had concerns about the role of Identification, Placement, and Review Committees (IPRCs), the implementation of Individual Education Plans (IEPs), and the duty to accommodate students’ education needs.

The OHRC Right to Read inquiry team is currently analyzing the information received and is drafting a final report. The report will address concerns with how Ontario’s public education system meets the needs of students with reading disabilities. These concerns relate to curriculum and teaching, early screening, reading interventions, accommodations and psycho-educational assessments.

A final OHRC Right to Read inquiry report, which will include detailed findings and recommendations for government and education stakeholders, is now planned for release in Spring of 2021.

Teacher and Guardian Advocacy on the Right to Read

As teachers, we see the direct impact challenges with reading has on students’ learning. The lack of literacy at grade level prevents students from taking full advantage of what is being taught in the classroom. Every day of not being able to read results in another day where students fall further behind.

Waiting for Psychoeducational Assessments

Psycho-educational assessments are key to determining students’ strengths and needs in their educational profile. With this profile, students can receive the special education funding and support they need to achieve their potential as learners.

As teachers, we also know of students who have been placed on long waiting lists for psycho-educational assessments. Even with the increase in special education funding, boards of education and principals report inadequate resource funding to meet students’ needs (People for Education, Feb 2020.)

Parents and guardians must wait, for sometimes years, for their child’s name to make it to the top of the list in order to receive a board funded assessment. Parents and guardians who have resources can seek costly psycho-educational assessments from private providers. Parents and guardians who do not have resources must wait as their child falls further and further behind. Sometimes students never receive a psycho-educational assessment. This reality means that students who live in lower socioeconomic households may never get their special education needs assessed or met, thus making them more susceptible to leave school early.

It is important to note that boards of education are trying their best to support all students’ needs. Boards of Education already spend 80% more on special education than they receive from provincial educational Ontario funding (Ontario’s Auditor General, 2017.)

Teacher Advocacy Matters

When students struggle with their learning, teachers’ advocacy matters. In the Ontario College of Teachers’ (OCT) Ethical Standards for Care includes “compassion, acceptance, interest and insight for developing students’ potential. Members express their commitment to students’ wellbeing and learning through positive influence, professional judgment and empathy in practice” (OCT, 2020). This means that within teachers’ practices, they must promote students’ potential. I cannot think of anything more important than promoting literacy to promote students’ potential.

As a dyslexia learner and a teacher of dyslexic learners, I understand the struggle and emotional impact of living with dyslexia. People do not grow out of learning disabilities, they just learn how to live with them.

The bottom line is that reading is a human right and without the ability to read, students face an ambiguous future.

Teachers work to empower literacy for all students, as all our students deserve the Right to Read.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston, PhD

Resources for Teachers and Guardians

What are LDs?

Living with LDs

Assistive Technology and LDs

Executive Function and LDs

Reading and LDs

Writing and LDs

Math and LDs


Math Waterfall Chart: Understanding Learning Disabilities- How processing Affects Mathematics Learnings

Building Math Skills at Home

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD and LDs)

Mental Health and LDs


Bruck, M. (1998). Outcomes of adults with childhood histories of dyslexia. Reading and spelling: Development and disorders179, 200.

Macdonald, S. J. (2012). Biographical pathways into criminality: understanding the relationship between dyslexia and educational disengagement. Disability & Society27(3), 427-440.

Maughan, B. (1995). Annotation: Long‐term outcomes of developmental reading problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry36(3), 357-371.

Schumacher, J., Hoffmann, P., Schmäl, C., Schulte-Körne, G., & Nöthen, M. M. (2007). Genetics of dyslexia: the evolving landscape. Journal of medical genetics44(5), 289-297.

Inclusive Education for All Students Including Those With Special Education Needs


As Ontario teachers, we know that there is a current challenge in addressing the learning needs of special education students with significant behaviour issues including violence against school staff.

The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario has developed a multi-year strategy to address violence in schools. This states specific goals and includes resources such as videos on how to address needs:

  • Lobbying the Ministries of Education and Labour to address violent incidents in schools and improve school board compliance with health and safety legislation;
  • Working with Ministry and school board representatives to improve workplace violence reporting and compliance procedures and develop training materials;
  • Building community advocacy to press the government to review its education funding formula and provide more funding for special education and support for students with high risk behaviors; and
  • Providing ETFO locals and members with enhanced education, training and resources on dealing with workplace violence.

Today, I read an excellent article by Caroline Alphonso  (The Globe and Mail, January 5, 2019) discussing how students with special education needs are being excluded from school due to their behaviour and violent tendencies. Alphonso cites Annie Kidder of People for Education stating that in 2018 “58 percent of elementary school principals and 48 percent of high school principals reported asking that a student with special needs not attend school for a full day” (Alphonso, January 5, 2019) due to insufficient classroom support. In addition, in British Columbia, special needs students miss up to 35.5 school days a year (BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, cited in  Alphonso, January 5, 2019).

Violence against teachers is documented in a 2018 Canada wide study, Pan-Canadian Research Review on Violence in Schools. The study showed that rates of violence against teachers ranged from 41% to 90% and that elementary teachers working in lower socioeconomic locations experience the most violence (Canadian Teachers’ Federation, July 8, 2018). Key findings included widespread funding needed to provide resources, services, and training to address inadequacies in services for student mental health, behavioural, and special education needs.

To put this bluntly, the study stated that schools do not have enough trained support staff to deal with the increases in students’ needs and the result of this discrepancy is that students are not attending school.

I was prompted to write this blog after talking to a colleague. She regularly calls me to seek advice and support for her daughter, Rebecca. When I mentioned that I would like to write about Rebecca, my colleague wanted me to use her daughter’s name. In the most recent crisis, Rebecca was banned from taking the bus to school and regularly sent home early, due to her behaviour. On the bus, Rebecca broke a school bus window, was accessing her dirty diaper and playing with its contents, and attacking the teaching assistant staff. Rebecca is a highly autistic youth who functions at about a 3 year old child’s level.

The first thing I did was question why Rebecca was in a dirty diaper on the bus. The school staff told my colleague that Rebecca said “no” to getting her diaper changed. The school staff also stated that Rebecca was having regular meltdowns in the hallways at school so they could not take her outside. The staff also said they were not allowed to touch Rebecca. Rebecca’s outbreaks and violence often resulted in her being sent home. After further discussion, I wondered how much training the educational support staff had to address Rebecca’s specific needs. In addition, Rebecca was being excluded from attending school.

Rebecca’s mother asked me to do some research specifically to help advocate for her daughter’s needs and advice on how to address these needs with the school principal. I looked into the policies and laws dealing with students with special needs. I specifically cited Policy/Program Memorandum No. 119, Developing and Implementing Equity and Inclusive Education Policies in Ontario Schools, as it states that our “publicly funded education system is to support and reflect the democratic values of fairness, equity, and respect for all” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). Through Policy/Program Memorandum No. 119, school boards, and teachers, must address barriers to learning that fall within prohibited grounds of discrimination set out in the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Rebecca was facing discrimination against her right to attend school due to her disabilities. After filling my friend in on the details of Rebecca’s rights, I suggested to her that she ask questions on how Rebecca’s specific needs were being met.

Just after New Year’s day I got a call from Rebecca’s mother. The school’s principal started putting measures in place to ensure Rebecca’s needs were being met. The school brought in specialized trainers to train the teaching assistants on how to deal with Rebecca and her outbursts. The school bus windows were changed to unbreakable Plexiglas and Rebecca was fitted with a specialized body suit so she could no longer access her body while on the bus. The teaching assistants were instructed not to allow Rebecca to have meltdowns in the school hallway and told to promptly pick her up and redirect her. The teaching assistants were also told that Rebecca must have regular, daily physical activity, inside and outside of the school, as well as daily quiet time. The teaching assistants were also told to change Rebecca’s diaper immediately after a BM.

The result of this training was impressive. Rebecca stopped banging the bus window because it was too hard on her hands. Rebecca quietly stayed seated until the staff came on the bus to get her. Rebecca stopped having meltdowns because she no longer had an audience to watch her very brief outbursts. Rebecca stopped hitting staff. Rebecca’s behaviour is not perfect but it is manageable. And here is the best part, Rebecca started to ask when she was going to school. I cried when I heard that!

This story shows that with enough support and trained staff, students with behavioural issues and violent tendencies can have their needs met. With this approach, students, staff, and teachers can have good quality school experiences.

I would like to thank Rebecca’s principal for supporting Rebecca’s needs – because this girl wants to go to school.

I ask of all teachers, principals, and school staff to reach out to advocate for students who are not so easy to teach so they can attend school – because this is their human right.

Collaboratively yours,

Deb Weston, PhD


Alphonso, C. (January 5, 2019). Educating Grayson: Are inclusive classrooms failing students? The Globe and Mail. Toronto. Downloaded from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/education/article-educating-grayson-are-inclusive-classrooms-failing-students/

People for Education. (September 4, 2018). Changes needed to make Ontario schools more inclusive: Ontario Human Rights Commission policy includes recommendations for province and school boards, People for Education. Downloaded from https://peopleforeducation.ca/research/new-policy-recommends-changes-to-make-ontario-schools-more-inclusive/

Canadian Teachers’ Federation. (July 8, 2018). News release: Lack of resources and supports for students among key factors behind increased rates of violence towards teachers, Pan-Canadian Research Review on Violence in Schools, Canadian Teachers’ Federation, Downloaded from https://www.ctf-fce.ca/en/news/Pages/default.aspx?newsid=1983998942&year=2018

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). Policy/Program Memorandum No. 119: Developing and Implementing Equity and Inclusive Education Policies in Ontario Schools, Government of Ontario. Toronto. Downloaded from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/extra/eng/ppm/119.pdf

Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. (2019). ETFO Action on Violence in Schools, Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. Downloaded from http://www.etfo.ca/DefendingWorkingConditions/HealthandSafety/pages/actiononviolence.aspx