A+ for Supreme Court

On Nov. 9, 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada found that Jeffrey Moore, a dyslexic child, was discriminated against in the B.C. public school system. This ruling overturned the verdicts of both the B.C. Supreme Court and the B.C. Court of Appeals regarding Moore, who attended public school in North Vancouver from 1991–1994.

Moore was eight years old when his father first filed a human rights complaint on his behalf. This recent ruling marked the successful end of more than 15 long years of litigation. The Moore family celebrated this win on CBC News national television, and many Canadians cheered along with them.

The court ruling, however, was not universally supported. The Globe and Mail denounced the decision in a same-day editorial. This editorial thundered warnings about impractical standards that “few if any school boards meet” and claimed that schools will be “forced to bleed other programs.” The article compared the overturned verdict to opening Pandora’s box, implying that we can’t afford to meet the needs of students with disabilities, that these needs are unending and unimaginable and that the children are a costly and exhausting burden.

When Moore was a child in kindergarten, it became apparent that he would have trouble learning to read. By grade one, he displayed all the signs of severe dyslexia. By the time he reached grade two, the public school system had cut programs for “special needs” and any chance that he could learn to read in the public system was lost. His parents were advised to send him to private school. They did, but also filed a human rights complaint claiming that the school district and the province had discriminated against their child on the basis of disability.

Most of us learn to read in the first two or three years of school. After that, we use our reading skills to learn everything else in the school curriculum. For a severely dyslexic child, a lack of specialized instruction in the first three years of school means that their education is over before it really begins. It’s not just that the child may benefit in some way from extra services and resources; rather, the link between literacy and learning is so fundamental that, without a way to read, children are essentially excluded from learning. For some children, these extra services could mean specialized instruction, instruction in an alternate method of reading, like Braille, or the use of computer software for reading.

The Supreme Court decision in the Moore case identifies a long-standing injustice towards children with reading disabilities; it doesn’t mandate an unlimited obligation towards every child with any kind of disability. With intensive specialized instruction, Moore did learn to read and finished school in the private system. He could have received this support in the public system, and he should have.

In my work as executive director of Access UVic, an advocacy group for disabled students on campus, I hear about the school experiences of many members with severe learning disabilities who are Moore’s contemporaries. They describe the way they were “passed” from grade to grade despite being functionally illiterate. They describe school years of hiding in the back row pretending to read and feeling frightened of the inevitable humiliation that would come when it was discovered they could not. One dyslexic student said they graduated from high school with a grade two education. Members of Access who are now in their 60s, some of whom are dyslexic, remember sitting in classroom corners wearing dunce caps. One member, despite an IQ in the Mensa range, only learned to read at 52, and only then, after a lifetime of manual labour, did he finally gain meaningful access to education.

Much of the progress made by people with disabilities has been through the courts.  In Canada, parents have had to battle for access to education for their children, often at great emotional and financial cost. Only reluctantly did schools open their doors to students with disabilities. Happily, the long court challenge on behalf of Moore, now 25, resulted in a landmark decision that will benefit many children for years to come. Congratulations, and thank you to the Moore family.

Leave a Reply