Accessibility to continuing education courses

Everybody is taking courses or being educated these days! Every employee and every professional has an obligation to keep current with respect to rules, research, practices, techniques and systems in his or her area. Hospitals, unions, professional groups and universities are among those who provide training, courses and materials to assist in continuing education. These help the hospital and its professionals provide up-to-date healthcare, and provide a safe physical plant, nutritious food and modern equipment which will assist in the diagnosis and treatment of patients’ healthcare problems.

Patients are involved in education and training in the hospital setting, as well. It is often part of the treatment for injuries and disease. Dietary education is very important for cardiac patients; advice with respect to the environment is essential for those suffering from asthma; courses in stress management are important for psychiatric patients; and instructions on medication are essential for patients for whom drugs are prescribed.

Many courses and training materials are available to everyone who is interested. However, it is not necessary for everyone to have the opportunity to take all courses. A cook in the hospital kitchen would not be interested in new surgical techniques and education in these techniques would not help the cook with his or her career or contribution to the well-being of the hospital and its patients. Similarly, a surgeon would not take a course in kitchen management (although many surgeons could use, and would be interested in, cooking courses!).

An issue sometimes arises concerning whether courses and materials must be made available to all individuals, including those with physical handicaps. Courses should be made available in a manner in which they are accessible to members of the group. This is particularly true if there is regulation dealing with education for members of the particular profession, such as physiotherapists, nurses, certain technologists, etc.

Organizations and individuals who are offering courses to specific professional and employee groups can be expected to limit participation to members of the profession or group.

Courses which are available to the general public must satisfy some additional legal requirements. The Human Rights Code in Ontario (there is similar, but not identical, legislation in other provinces) has provisions which are relevant here. For example, the Code provides “every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or handicap”.

It is well-established by the courts that educational courses are included in “services, goods and facilities”. These provisions would apply to courses whether given by private organizations or public organizations, provided that they are offered to the general public.

A “handicap” included epilepsy, amputation, visual impediment, hearing impediment, speech impediment, physical reliance on a guide dog, a wheelchair, or a similar device, etc. It does not amount to discrimination if the handicapped individual is incapable of performing the essential duties and requirement of the activity. The course must be offered in such a way that it is possible for the handicapped individual to attend and participate, unless the result is “undue hardship” on the organizers of the course who are responsible for accommodating the individual’s needs. In determining whether there is “undue hardship”, the cost of making the accommodation, outside sources of funding, if any, and health and safety requirements, if any, are considered. Thus, it is necessary to accommodate a hearing impaired individual, unless it would create “undue hardship” on the educational organization.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has published guidelines which set out some of the accommodation which should be made for the special needs of individuals. These include making buildings and transportation accessible, making print information available in alternative formats, such as tape or Braille, and translating auditory information into visual or tactile modes for persons with hearing impairment.

It is no excuse to state that making the special accommodations would cause business inconvenience or interfere with the general operation of the organization providing the course. The organization can dispense with the special accommodations for the disabled individual, provided that the cost of doing so would alter the essential nature or would substantially affect the viability of the organization itself. If immediate changes are required to allow disabled people to participate, the organization can phase the accommodation changes over a reasonable period of time.

The courts have held that a disabled individual must accept a reasonable proposal for accommodation of his or her special needs and cannot stipulate the method of accommodation. Thus, a hearing impaired student may be provided with complete written materials rather than having an individual “signer” present at all courses.

If the organization providing the course infringes the Human Rights Code, it can be responsible for monetary compensation for losses.

The organization could be ordered to comply with the Code, could be required to implement a non-discrimination policy and could be required to report periodically to the Human Rights Commission. It also could be required to write a letter assuring the Commission that it will comply with the Code in the future. Finally, a prosecution under the Code could result in a fine.

When providing courses and materials to the general public, care should be taken to make sure that reasonable steps are taken to accommodate individuals who have special needs which may make it more difficult for them to attend, participate in and/or digest the information provided in the courses and materials. This is good policy and it is the law.