The Carter Churchill Story
By Kristin Snoddon, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, School of Early Childhood Studies, Toronto Metropolitan University
The case of Carter Churchill v. Newfoundland and Labrador English School District has been called a test case for the standard of education provided to deaf and hard of hearing learners in Canada. This case has received international coverage from the Daily Moth (https://www.dailymoth.com/blog/carter-churchill-human-rights-hearing and https://www.dailymoth.com/blog/parents-of-deaf-child-carter-churchill-gets-victory-in-discrimination-case) and other news sources.
Carter is a deaf child with cerebral palsy who uses American Sign Language (ASL) as a first language. At seven months of age, he received bilateral cochlear implants. Carter began to receive early intervention services from an itinerant teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing employed by the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District. However, due to a subsequent transfer of services from the Department of Education to the Department of Health, only auditory-verbal therapy (AVT) was made available as a language development service option for children with cochlear implants.
Two years before Carter began kindergarten, an audiologist and AV therapist on his team sent letters to the district requesting support to facilitate his language development through sign language. However, the district should have taken action in response to these letters. In kindergarten, neither the classroom teacher nor student assistants assigned to Carter were proficient in ASL, and he received only a limited number of visits from an itinerant teacher.
In May 2017, when Carter was still in kindergarten, his parents filed a human rights complaint against the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the English School District. This complaint alleged that Carter experienced discrimination based on disability in the delivery of educational services because the Department of Education and the School District had failed to implement appropriate accommodations for Carter.
In November 2019, following a mediation process facilitated by the Human Rights Commission of Newfoundland and Labrador, the district filed its response to the complaint and denied it had discriminated against Carter. In January 2020, Carter’s parents filed a rebuttal, and in 2021, the complaint was referred to the Board of Inquiry for adjudication. In 2022, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development was dismissed as a respondent from the complaint. This means that the provincial government was dismissed as a respondent, and the complaint was limited to the school district, which is responsible for the administration of all English-language education in the province from kindergarten to grade 12.
From August 29-September 9, 2022, a nine-day Human Rights Commission of Newfoundland and Labrador hearing occurred in St. John’s. The hearing was open to the public and live-streamed, and sign language interpreters and live captioning were provided. The parents of Carter Churchill paid for transcripts to be issued from the hearing and published them on their website: https://www.carterchurchill.ca. As an expert witness for the parents, I attended the first week of the hearing and wrote a report on inclusive education for deaf children.
On March 1, 2023, the Human Rights Commission of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Board of Inquiry decision was released. This decision found the school district failed to provide reasonable accommodation and discriminated against Carter during the first four years of his education, from kindergarten to grade 3. During these years, Carter was academically, socially and linguistically isolated in his classroom and school.
Carter’s case reveals the significant gaps in services to deaf and hard of hearing children that followed the 2010 closure of the Newfoundland School for the Deaf. Carter was not the only deaf child in the province who had been identified with similar language delays and educational needs. These needs included access and exposure to native ASL users, opportunities to participate in and observe conversations in ASL, and interaction with other children who are ASL users to mitigate the risk of academic and social isolation and mental health problems. These language development needs are in accordance with the sign language rights in education framework outlined in Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the World Federation of the Deaf’s (WFD) Position Paper on Inclusive Education. Both of these documents were referenced during the Board of Inquiry hearing.
In 2017 and 2019, a roster of itinerant teachers submitted proposals to the district for an ASL satellite classroom for Carter and other students. However, these proposals were rejected by senior administrators due to a perceived lack of resources and a perceived conflict with inclusive education policy. In the adjudicator’s decision, he found that these were not valid concerns. The ASL satellite classroom was finally implemented in 2020, when Carter was in grade four, and continues to the present day.
The school district’s resistance to taking proactive measures that would enable Carter to have access to ASL in education was flagged by the adjudicator as indicating a systemic problem. However, the adjudicator’s decision did not order systemic remedies because Carter’s current programming under the satellite classroom model was seen as reasonable as required by law. This means the case may have a limited impact for other deaf and hard of hearing children.
For parents of deaf and hard of hearing children, filing formal human rights complaints against educational authorities is a significant undertaking. Carter’s parents incurred human and monetary costs and endured years of waiting for a legal outcome; Carter was in grade six when the decision was released, five years after his parents filed their initial complaint. At the outset of the hearing, Carter’s parents presented evidence of legal expenses amounting to $98,891. The adjudicator ordered the school district to compensate the parents and that Carter be provided with reasonable accommodation to ensure he receives an education in ASL.
The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has yet to issue a statement in response to the Board of Inquiry decision. All deaf and disability advocacy organizations need to include deaf children’s right to education in sign language (ASL, Langue des signes québécoise, and Indigenous sign languages) in their current agendas. This will help to ensure that the mandates of the UN CRPD and WFD policy statements are fulfilled in education for all deaf and hard of hearing children.