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When Johnny can't read, his human rights are denied, commission hears

Ottawa Citizen logo Ottawa Citizen 2020-03-11 Kelly Egan
a man and a woman taking a selfie: Cheshmak Farhoumand-Sims is a mother of four children (ranging from grades 2 to 5) who all have reading challenges, she says. She was part of a full house at the Nepean Sportsplex on Tuesday evening as parents and some children gathered at an Ontario Human Rights Commission Inquiry called © Julie Oliver Cheshmak Farhoumand-Sims is a mother of four children (ranging from grades 2 to 5) who all have reading challenges, she says. She was part of a full house at the Nepean Sportsplex on Tuesday evening as parents and some children gathered at an Ontario Human Rights Commission Inquiry called

The Ontario Human Rights Commission heard powerful testimony Tuesday about how school boards are failing children with reading disabilities, leaving them struggling, anxious and even ashamed in a system with only patchwork support.

The “Right to Read” hearing was part of a cross-Ontario review of how school boards are dealing with children who exhibit reading and spelling disabilities, particularly the most common one, dyslexia.

Some of the 100 in attendance at the Nepean Sportsplex were moved to tears by the personal stories of both those who suffer from reading difficulties and parents forced to travel a maze-like road to access help for their children.

Morgan Farnel , 42, a City of Ottawa employee, spoke of how he failed Grade 2 because of his dyslexia, and lied and faked his way through much of his education because of his inability to read properly. “I felt ashamed,” he told a panel of commissioners. “I was hiding a secret.”

When his daughter began to struggle in elementary school, she was sent for an educational assessment. “I remember I got the report: ‘Your daughter has dyslexia.’ It just ripped my heart out.”

a person posing for the camera:  Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane of the Ontario Human Rights Commission made it clear the body considers learning to read a basic human right in Ontario. © Julie Oliver Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane of the Ontario Human Rights Commission made it clear the body considers learning to read a basic human right in Ontario.

Chief commissioner Renu Mandhane made it clear the body considers learning to read a basic human right in Ontario. Not only is it the foundation of our education system, but a lack of literacy is connected to poor mental health and employment prospects, as well as higher rates of homelessness and incarceration, she added.

“Learning to read is not a privilege. It is a basic and essential human right,” she said. “We continue to hear from parents, students and educators that the needs of the learning disabled are not being met.”

A pattern that emerged from several speakers is that school boards in Ottawa need to be better at three things: early detection, improved access to publicly funded psycho-educational testing and broader availability of specialized programs that help in early intervention.

Parent Tania Smutylo had a reading disability as a child, something that became apparent in Grade 2.

“I remember feeling like I was lost in the dark and everyone else had a flashlight.”

She now has three boys, each with his own reading struggles. They all entered the public board’s early French-immersion program, which starts with full-time French instruction in Grade 1. As academic problems began to crop up, she said the reflex response from teachers was to switch the children to English.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd:  It was a full house at Nepean Sportsplex on Tuesday evening as parents and some children gathered at an Ontario Human Rights Commission Inquiry called Right to Read. © Julie Oliver It was a full house at Nepean Sportsplex on Tuesday evening as parents and some children gathered at an Ontario Human Rights Commission Inquiry called Right to Read.

This would mean a detachment from friends, however, leading at least one child to lose his self-confidence and become socially isolated. The English program, she said — rightly or wrongly — was viewed as the place where the learning disabled were streamed and the academics were weaker.

She and other parents spoke highly of a program called Empower, developed at SickKids hospital in Toronto specifically for those with reading, spelling and decoding problems. But it appears to be available only at some schools and only in some grades.

Cheshmak Farhoumand-Sims was there with her four children, all of whom have needed support in learning to read. Two of them, she said, were for years treated with a “wait-and-see” attitude, missing opportunities for early intervention.

“I believe the right to education is a basic human right. When we’re not able to access that right, it not only impacts us as children, it has lifelong implications.

“And at the heart of the right to education is the right to literacy.” There are systemic barriers, she added, that need to be addressed.

The commission is focusing on issues like mandatory early screening in kindergarten, “evidence-based” intervention programs, accommodation with assistive technologies and timely access to psych-ed tests, which — in the private sector — can cost parents thousands.

It hopes to have a report by October.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email kegan@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn

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