Equal and inalienable rights for all

Justice for those with disabilities has been reasserted in Canada

“All human beings are born with equal and inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms” – United Nations, Dec. 10, 1948.


On Nov. 8, 2012, the highest court in the land affirmed this declaration when it ruled on the 15-year-long legal battle of a public school student with dyslexia who was denied the learning support he needed for reading.

It was 1994 when Jeffrey Moore’s fight for his “inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms” began. It was a Grade 3 kid pitted against North Vancouver School District and the Province of B.C.

Jeffrey struggled to process printed words. The district’s diagnostic centre, which housed specially trained teachers and structured programs to help kids like Jeff, had just been closed.

The school district blamed the province’s inadequate funding for education.

That was wrong, said the Supreme Court.

“The reason children are entitled to an education is that a healthy democracy and economy require their educated contribution. An adequate special education, therefore, is not a dispensable luxury; it is the ramp that provided access to the statutory commitment [School Act] to education made to all children in B.C.”

The removal of Jeff’s “ramp” began a nightmare.

“It was heartbreaking to watch Jeff’s morale and self-esteem suffer after that,” says Rick Moore, Jeff’s father. “I’d always had faith in the public system. I never for a moment thought I’d be putting my kid in a private school.”

The Moores decided to fight for Jeff and for other kids whose right to an equal education were being ignored. With help from the Community Legal Assistance Society, they took their case to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

“Early intervention for kids with learning disabilities closes the academic gap between them and average students,” says Rick. “Down the road, it reduces the drop out rate, and increases overall graduation. If you get kids reading by Grade 3, they’re not a burden on the system.”

It’s true. Research shows twice as many learning disabled kids drop out of school. There’s more substance abuse among them, and a higher suicide rate. Adults with learning disabilities who didn’t get appropriate help lack job-related social skills, and struggle to hold jobs. Conversely, increasing literacy of students by just one per cent, equates to an increase of $32 billion in national income.

The Moores understood this in 1994, and Canada’s Supreme Court concurs now.

Potentially, that’s good news for thousands of kids and their families.

The bad news is that responsible government action has waited this long. Jeffrey won his Human Rights case in 1995. The tribunal ruled that the school district and  province discriminated against him by failing to provide specialized support – closing the diagnostic centre.

It gave the province one year to “ensure that all school districts have in place a range of services to meet the needs of [learning disabled] students,” and ensure “the delivery of free and appropriate programs to children with learning disabilities.”

In addition, it ordered,“early intervention programs so that [learning disabled] students can be identified and intensive remediation provided …”

The tribunal, like the Supreme Court, understood the society benefits from helping all kids learn in public schools.

As a special education teacher in 1995, I celebrated the tribunal decision only to feel frustrated and angry when it was ignored by the guardians of kids I worked with.

North Van and the province won their appeal, but the Moores fought on, “for all the kids and their families that put their hopes in this case.”

And now, justice for children and families has been reasserted in Canada.

But, will the Liberal government or the next one do the right thing this time?

Rick is cautious. “This kind of decision takes a long time to filter through the system. We’ve seen the ministry off-load responsibility and they’ll try to do that now. They know these kids are invisible. And, things are worse now. There’s more incentive not to identify them.”

He’s right to be sceptical. The ministry says it puts more money into education now.

It’s a specious claim intended to deceive, according to George Serra of the Maple Ridge Teacher’s Association.

“It’s kind of like 10 years ago a text book cost $50 and the government gave districts $60, but unfortunately, it costs $80 now, and the government isn’t funding that increase.”

That’s true. Government underfunding has resulted in a continuous decline in special education teachers. Those remaining have had their roles shifted from helping kids to administering tests that reduce the number of children “designated” for government licenced assistance, and the biggest group – learning disabled students – have been dropped from designations.

Most now get no help at all; nor do ‘grey area’ kids – weak students who can’t keep up alone. Librarians, second language teachers (ESL) have disappeared.

In short, discrimination has grown in our public schools, and unfortunately, judicial conclusions have not increased responsible behaviour by the B.C. government or trustees, who still cut and slash because they are told to.

Neither, to date, has reaffirmed, in any real way, the idea that, “All human beings are born with equal and inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms,” including an education.

Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.

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