YRDSB Is Still Having Issues Understanding Human Rights

The York Region District School Board (YRDSB) is no stranger to ignoring the human rights of students underneath its care, let alone their parents as well. In 2016, the Province of Ontario had to step in to investigate allegations of systemic racism not just within board and political leadership but by staff as well. The board was eventually taken to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal where the tribunal ordered an apology to a black woman who was called the “n” word by a YRDSB trustee, along with this woman’s children being racially discriminated against by staff. The provincial investigators later recommended that The York Region District School Board put into place an “independent” human rights office to assist with defending the board against human rights claims. A move that the Ontario Ombudsman completely signed off on.

Now it appears the embattled York Board is up against another major human rights show down. This time with respect to accommodating autistic kids. At issue is a program that was run through the board called Giant Steps. Giant Steps provided autistic kids with intensive behavioral therapy among other specialized services to assist in their education. These kids were also segregated into a completely separate school outside of the community in which most of these students didn’t live in. This program also charged tuition.

Recently the YRDSB closed this program citing inequality issues. At first glance I thought this was a good move. Being someone who is currently studying disability rights in Canada and internationally that made some sense. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD) in which Canada ratified in 2010 under the Harper Government, gives guidance to matters of education in article 24 of the convention. Specifically in this situation Article 24 S.2 (b) of the CRPD applies which states (emphasis added):

2. In realizing this right, States Parties shall ensure that:

(b) Persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live

Currently the UN is reviewing Canada’s compliance with the CRPD. The Supreme Court of Canada has also weighed in regarding Canada’s international human rights obligations through case law, and how they need to conform to domestic law. I can see how the YRDSB was advised on making this move, since the way Giant Steps operated was not in line with international human rights law. However, under Article 24 S.2 (b) of the CRPD, it also lists “quality” of primary and secondary education, and that’s an important point moving forward.

An important definition needs to be made in this case regarding the “quality” of education all autistic students are entitled to under Article 24 S.2 (b) of the CRPD. It would be one thing if the YRDSB greatly expanded the level of support Giant Steps was offering tuition free to all autism students across the board but that’s not what has taken place. There has been no replacement of Giant Steps to ensure inclusive, quality and free primary and secondary education on an equal basis throughout the board, nor a commitment from the board to ensure that moving forward.

In fact that the quality of supports Giant Steps offered is consistent with Article 24 S.1 of the CRPD, which states:

1. States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to education. With a view to realizing this right without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity, States Parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning directed to:

a. The full development of human potential and sense of dignity and self-worth, and the strengthening of respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and human diversity;

b. The development by persons with disabilities of their personality, talents and creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential;

c. Enabling persons with disabilities to participate effectively in a free society.

Without the level of support Giant Steps has offered, and since there is no alternative for that level of support offered by the board, the YRDSB is basically in violation of international human rights law at a time when our international human rights obligations are under review by the UN, and at a time when people with disabilities, their caregivers, and families have been the hardest hit during the COVID 19 pandemic.

If those troubles weren’t enough, the quality of education some received under this program should have been made available to all autistic kids from the onset free of charge from the moment Giant Steps went active. Because that wasn’t the case, the YRDSB can possibly face a massive amount of litigation from families in which didn’t receive that level of support outside of Giant Steps.

By shutting Giant Steps down without providing the same level of quality and support this program offered to all autism students, this board may have opened up a can of worms that’s going to be increasingly hard to close. I’ve had my own experiences with the YRDSB in advocating for support for my autistic son. You have to fight this board tooth and nail before they will accommodate. If I was a betting man, I’d bet that there are a very large number of angry parents right now because their kids are not getting the supports they need through the YRDSB. By closing Giant Steps, rather than expanding the program free to all autistic students, the YRDSB may have put itself in a much more risky situation legally.

The last thing this board will want is to be used as an example of non-compliance in international human rights law. The last go around of non-compliance with human rights at the YRDSB didn’t go over well for its director of education, trustees, and the board’s reputation. I’d hate to see what would happen to the board’s reputation when the UN Special Rapporteur reviewing Canada’s compliance with the CRPD comes knocking.

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