Ottawa·Go Public

University accused of discrimination for requiring dyslexic student to take course in French

A University of Ottawa student says the school is putting its “bilingual” status ahead of his learning disability by requiring him to take a class in French, a language he can’t learn because of his severe dyslexia.

Critics say human rights law trumps University of Ottawa's tradition of bilingualism

Human rights vs bilingualism

7 years ago
Duration 2:18
University of Ottawa accused of discrimination for requiring dyslexic student to take course in French

A French vs. English language battle is unfolding at the University of Ottawa.

Student James Lewicki says he's being discriminated against in the name of bilingualism.

Lewicki's application for the master of political science program wasn't accepted, because he's not able to take one course in French, which is a program requirement. 

Lewicki has been diagnosed as gifted, but with a type of dyslexia that's so severe he can't learn another language.

"English as a language in itself was incredibly difficult," says Lewicki. "I spent years with a tutor, in a special classroom learning the language." 

Students taking the master's program in French are not required to take one course in English.

Human rights complaint filed 

Lewicki has filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, writing, "This has affected my sense of dignity.… For an individual who has struggled with this special identity all my life, this continued reinforcement has shaken my concept of myself and of my abilities."
Lewicki says he was told to apply to another program with 'less stringent' bilingualism criteria. (CBC)

Lewicki would like to take the one course required in French in English instead, or have the university provide a translator, but he says "they're insistent that they will not support any form of accommodation."

He says a university official suggested that he apply to another program that is "less stringent on bilingualism."

"They can say, 'Go somewhere else,'" says Lewicki. "But turning someone away because of a disability and saying, 'There are other options,' is still discrimination. If you turn someone away from your store because of the colour of their skin, or their gender, or identity, that's still discrimination, even if there's a store next door that would take them."

The University of Ottawa declined several Go Public requests for an interview, but in an email said that the purpose of the university was "to further bilingualism and biculturalism and to preserve and develop French culture in Ontario."

The spokesperson for the University of Ottawa says its admission requirements do respect the Ontario Human Rights Code.

The University of Ottawa declined to answer specific questions about this case, but said the purpose of the university is to 'further bilingualism.' (CBC)

"The University of Ottawa does not see this as an accommodation issue," says the email. "Mr. Lewicki was not admitted … because he did not meet the essential admission requirements for the program." 

The requirement on the university's website states that students must have "an active knowledge of French" and take at least one course in French. 

'Human rights law trumps tradition'

"What we see … time and time again is rigid requirements that unnecessarily exclude people," says Renu Mandhane, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Go Public contacted Mandhane before Lewicki filed a formal complaint.

"Quite honestly, human rights law trumps tradition," says Mandhane. "You have to articulate something that goes beyond, 'This is how we've always done it.'"

Mandhane says institutions like universities have a duty to try hard to accommodate people with disabilities.

"If they haven't had those conversations and really thought about what could be done to accommodate this student, I think that they would have a hard time at the [human rights] tribunal to justify not accommodating."
Human rights lawyer Anne Levesque says the University of Ottawa's bilingual requirements do not exempt it from human rights legislation. (Anne Levesque)

Under the law, a university can only discriminate against someone if it can prove that making accommodations would cause undue financial hardship or safety concerns.

"Things that we hold to be untouchable, are not," says Anne Levesque, chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

"Admission standards are not exempt to human rights legislation," says Levesque. "We always need to consider the impact that they will have on persons with disabilities, and to explore the way to eliminate those barriers."

University called inflexible

Lewicki says he faced discrimination at the University of Ottawa several months ago — ironically, while taking a course on human rights.

"I write with a computer, because I can't write by hand," says Lewicki, due to a physical disability called graphomotor disorder. "I'm allowed a laptop in classroom and during exams, as long as it's not connected to the internet."

But a professor said he would not allow anyone in his class to use a laptop.

The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa says it's tried "continuously" to talk with the university about better accommodations for students with disabilities, but that the university is not "flexible."

The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa says it has seen many cases where the university has 'failed to provide adequate accommodations.' (CBC)

"We've seen many cases where the university has failed to provide adequate accommodations, and we will extend our support to James Lewicki so that the proper accommodations are given to him," says vice-president of communications Romeo Ahimakin.

"Students like James are suffering," says Ahimakin.

Other students fight discrimination 

Cases where universities are accused of discrimination are rare, but not unheard of.

In January, a student at York University won a two-year challenge to have universities accommodate students with mental disabilities, without students having to disclose their diagnosis when trying to get academic support.

Last fall, a professor at St. John's Memorial University came under fire for refusing to wear a small transmitter that would allow a hearing-impaired student to hear her lectures.

In Lewicki's case, Mandhane says students who have struggled and worked hard to pursue graduate education should be academically encouraged, not discouraged.

"It would be a shame for a student like that … not to be able to succeed because of very rigid interpretation of requirements."

"I think there is, anecdotally, a bit of a backlash within universities about the request for accommodation," says Mandhane. "Feeling that everyone's diagnosed with a disability, everyone comes with requests for accommodation."

The Ontario Human Rights Commission's chief commissioner Renu Mandhane says universities must try hard to accommodate students with disabilities. (CBC)

But Mandhane says this case could be an opportunity to show leadership.

"This is a moment to accommodate a student who has a disability. To address a thorny issue in a thoughtful way that really takes to heart not only the letter of the [human rights] code but the spirit and intent of the code."

Lewicki says that whatever happens now, the University of Ottawa's refusal to consider his application will cost him a year of his life, because he has missed the deadline to apply to other universities for the fall semester.

"To have them turn their back on me like this," says Lewicki, "to point at me and say, 'You're different and we won't let you in because of it' — that's an emotional blow."

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Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.

With files from Enza Uda


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