OHRC’s updated disability definition opens door for students

Image by: Zier Zhou

The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s broadened definition of disability reaffirms a student’s right to a discrimination- and harassment-free education. 

In late August, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released an updated Policy on Accessible Education for Students with Disabilities. The new definition includes mental disorders, mental illnesses, and learning disabilities within its purview. 

The OHRC’s new interpretation of disability represents the impact of ableism on students’ access to education when struggling with their mental health. 

The University of Toronto (U of T) passed a mental health policy over the summer that mandated a leave of absence for students subjectively deemed overly challenged by mental illness. 

The OHRC, which condemned an earlier version of U of T’s policy, has implicitly denounced its latest version through its statement that “exclud[ing] a student from school due to alleged health and safety risk without sufficient objective evidence … may constitute discrimination.”

Pushing students out instead of giving them a helping hand is no way to run a campus. The OHRC’s new policy forbids that behaviour from institutions on the basis of the Ontario Human Rights Code. Students with disabilities cannot be deemed incapable of receiving an education unless their capabilities have been professionally assessed and properly accommodated. 

The Commission also recommends postsecondary institutions collect quantitative and qualitative data to understand the barriers blocking access to education and leading to systemic discrimination.

U of T now operates with a policy that violates the provincially-mandated human rights of students. 

As a public research institution with provincial funding, the legal liability U of T faces due to its discrimination against students impacted by disability could be both costly and damaging. U of T has a responsibility to accommodate every student that pays tuition to attend classes. 

It’s unacceptable to bar humans from an education they pay for because of an unjustified assessment claiming they’re unfit to continue learning. A policy that removes students from support resources and networks on campus doesn’t just fail to help those struggling—it actively harms them. 

The OHRC’s suggestion that schools collect data to proactively understand students rather than reject them goes a long way to improve this. 

Any educational institution can benefit from understanding that having students on your campus thereby puts you in a position of responsibility for their wellbeing.

Understanding the OHRC’s provincial reach, Queen’s could benefit fromconsidering the expanded disability definition. Our ever-developing school’s policies are still far from perfect, with long wait times and stigma surrounding accommodations for mental health.

The OHRC’s expanded definition of disability protects those struggling with mental health so they can fairly and freely attain an education free of discrimination. 

—Journal Editorial Board

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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