VANCOUVER - By the time he finished Grade 3, Jeffrey Moore still didn't know the alphabet and could not read his own birthday cards.
His parents sought help for the eight-year-old boy's dyslexia from his public school, but funding cuts gutted the program. So they instead remortgaged their home to put him into a private school catering to learning disabilities.
More than 15 years later, Canada's highest court ruled Friday that a British Columbia school board discriminated against Moore by not doing enough to give him the help he needed.
"There's a good chance when I have kids, they'll be dyslexic," the now 25-year-old Moore said from his North Vancouver workplace after learning of the decision.
"For any kid out there that has a learning disability, they'll be able to get the help that they need and deserve and be able to thrive to their potential. It's just amazing."
In their 9-0 ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada justices sided with Moore and his father, Rick, who initiated the action in the early 1990s. He made his first complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, alleging the district had discriminated against his son by failing to accommodate his disability.
Teachers had known of the boy's disability and referred the case to a diagnostic centre for special attention, but the district closed the centre for budgetary reasons before he could enrol.
In 2005, the tribunal awarded the family the cost of tuition at the independent school, half the cost for his transportation to the school and $10,000 in damages.
But the B.C. Supreme Court overturned the tribunal ruling and that decision was upheld by the B.C. Court of Appeal.
The high court, however, overturned the lower court rulings, restored the finding of discrimination and the tribunal's award of tuition, transport and damages. It also awarded court costs to Moore.
The ruling still fell short of calling the discrimination Moore suffered systemic.
Don McRae, B.C.'s education minister, said in a statement that the province is reviewing the ruling.
“We are pleased the court did not find that the government or the Ministry of Education discriminated against Mr. Moore," he said.
McRae said the province is now providing record levels of funding for students with special needs and this year, it's estimated more than $860 million will go to support them.
The province has also announced funding for school districts to hire additional teachers and special education assistants.
“Overall, students with special needs today have a wider variety of supports, funding and services available to them,” McRae said in the statement.
Robyn Durling, a spokesman for the B.C. Human Rights Coalition, said it will be some time before the impact of the ruling will be seen by parents across Canada.
The Supreme Court of Canada did not remove the ability for governments or school districts to argue that increased supports for special needs students are simply too costly.
"There will be more cases coming forward and there are already cases behind Jeffrey Moore that will have to be dealt with now that Jeffrey's case has been dealt with," he said.
But he added: "The law is much more clear around what has to be done."
Margot Young, an associate law professor at the University of British Columbia, agreed and said the ruling will make the hardship argument a much more difficult one to make.
The Supreme Court noted in its decision that the North Vancouver school district had funding choices: It chose to close the program that could have helped Moore while maintaining funding to an outdoor education program.
"Here's the really important point: Budget concerns alone, straight up, cannot justify human rights denial," Young said.
"That's the take-home message. You have to show that those budget cuts were reasonably necessary. That means you have to look at what your choices were, what else you could cut, how you could cut, how else you could fund."
Rick Moore said he believes the win against the North Vancouver board will have repercussions across the province.
"We've set a precedent that if you cut services to the most vulnerable kids, you will be liable as a district. We all know the districts are beholden to the ministries of education."
His son agreed that procedures must change at school boards.
"It's out there and they're going to have to make the changes."
In the ruling, the judges point out that the province's School Act acknowledges the very purpose of the school system is to enable all students to develop "their individual potential."
"Adequate special education, therefore, is not a dispensable luxury," Justice Rosalie Abella wrote for the court. "For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia."
Jeffrey Moore went on to attend a post-secondary institution and now works full-time as a plumber.
He said that enduring constant confusion and alienation in his early years will always be a part of him, as will the change he experienced when teachers and tutors at the independent school used different methods to suit his needs.
"My confidence started to come back, that was a big thing, not feeling so different from everyone," he said.
"That's why I'm really happy that fewer kids are going to have to go through that. They'll be taken care of a little better."
Rick Moore said the ruling is the end of the road for his fight, which he always realized had broader implications about the rights of free education than just his son's situation.
"I think there are thousands of families across the country who are celebrating today."
The B.C. Teachers Federation said the Moore family's fight for their son is a victory for all children who aren't getting the help they need in public schools across the country.
The number of special education teachers has been steadily reduced in B.C. and students have to wait up to two years for an assessment, the union said.
- With files from John Ward in Ottawa
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