Legal Requirements

Ensuring equality and accessibility in Higher education

As an instructor what are your legal requirements? This module gives an overview of the legal requirements for ensuring equality and accessibility in digital and face to face learning in higher education.  This module will provide you with information on how to:

  • Recognize the legal requirements for ensuring equality and accessibility in higher education.
  • Define human rights principles: Equality and non-discrimination, Duty to accommodate and Undue hardship.
  • Describe the types of discrimination complaints that students can file.
  • Identify other relevant provincial laws and standards.

On this page:

Equality Vs Equity | Discrimination | Accommodations | Human rights & the law | Technology standards | Resources

Equality Versus Equity

Throughout the various modules, we’ve used the terms “equality” and “equity”. ”

Equality” generally means treating everyone the same way and “equity” means giving everyone what they need to be successful. Human rights laws protect the right to “equality”. The courts have interpreted this right broadly, recognizing that people may need to be treated differently to gain access to the same opportunities as others.

Since this module focuses on legal requirements for ensuring accessibility, “equality” will be used in this broad sense.

Students with disabilities have the legal right to equality in higher education. Professors and course instructors have some legal obligations to ensure that students with disabilities can access education on an equal footing with their peers.

Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms protects the right to equality of people with disabilities and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Instead of using the term “disability”, the Charter uses the outdated term “handicap”.

Article 10 of the Charter states that

Every person has a right to full and equal recognition and exercise of his human rights and freedoms, without distinction, exclusion or preference based on […] a handicap or the use of any means to palliate a handicap.”

“Means to palliate a handicap” can include using a wheelchair or other type of mobility aid, communicating using sign language, or being accompanied by a guide dog or service dog. In digital environments, this could include using screen reading software or magnifiers, or being able to navigate with keystrokes.


What is Discrimination?

Discrimination is when a distinction, exclusion or preference nullifies or impairs the right to equality. Discrimination exists when an action imposes a unique burden, obligation or disadvantage on a person with a disability, or limits their access to opportunities and benefits that are available to others. Discrimination does not have to be intentional. Even if a policy isn’t aimed at excluding students with disabilities, it can still be considered discriminatory if it has the effect of excluding those students.


The law recognizes that treating everyone exactly the same way can sometimes create inequality. For example, a rule requiring all students to complete an exam within 3 hours may end up penalizing some students with learning disabilities who require more time to read and process information.

To achieve equality, sometimes we need to treat people differently and accommodate their differences.

Duty to Accommodate

Course instructors have a legal duty to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities. For example, to accommodate a student with a learning disability, an instructor may need to give that student extra time to complete an exam.


What do we mean by Accommodations?

Accommodations aren’t preferential treatment aimed at giving students with disabilities an unfair advantage. The purpose of accommodations is to allow students with disabilities to demonstrate their ability to master the content and skills required to successfully pass a course without disadvantage because of their disability.

There is no set formula for accommodation. Each student’s needs are unique. Not everyone with the same type of disability will require the same type of accommodation. Accommodations should be tailored to meet an individual’s specific needs.

Examples of accommodations in education include but are not limited to:

  • Providing information in an alternative format such as Braille or accessible PDF.
  • Giving a student extra time for an exam or assignment
  • Ensuring digital documents are accessible
  • Allowing a student to be accompanied in the classroom by a guide dog or service dog
  • Making attendance requirements flexible, when possible, if non-attendance is linked to a student’s disability

Accommodations may need to be re-visited over time to make sure they continue to meet a student’s needs. Instructors must accommodate students’ needs, not their preferences. The law does not guarantee a “perfect” accommodation or the right to a particular form of accommodation. If two accommodations respond equally to a student’s needs, the instructor can select the one that is less disruptive.

  • Students must cooperate in the accommodation process.
  • Instructors must make significant, serious and sincere efforts to accommodate students’ needs.

Each student is unique not everyone with the same type of disability will require the same type of accommodation.

Appropriate accommodations must be provided, unless this would cause undue hardship.

Undue hardship is when the burden or obstacle outweighs the good or benefit. Undue hardship is assessed on a case-by-case basis by looking at factors like the cost of the accommodation and the size and resources of the institution.

A degree of hardship is acceptable, but the hardship must not be undue.

Rather than waiting for students to request accommodations, instructors should always try to make their courses as inclusive and accessible as possible. You can make your courses more inclusive by following the principles of Universal Design for Learning.

Whenever possible, you should give students various ways to acquire information and demonstrate their knowledge. This is covered in more detail in the module titled “Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Accessibility“.

What can happen if an instructor doesn’t accommodate the needs of a student with a disability?

The student can file a discrimination complaint. Students have two options:

  1. They can file a complaint with the institution’s ombudsperson
  2. or with Quebec’s Human Rights Commission, which is called the “Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse”.

Human Rights & the Law

Human Rights Commission

The Human Rights Commission investigates complaints and proposes mediation. If the Commission believes a complaint is founded, it can appoint a lawyer to represent the complainant at a hearing before the Human Rights Tribunal.

A judge from the Tribunal renders a decision. Judges can order someone to stop a discriminatory activity and compensate the victim financially.

Instructors are not allowed to retaliate against students who have filed human rights complaints. If you have questions about your legal obligations under the Quebec Charter, you can contact the Human Rights Commission.

Phone number: 1-800-361-6477
Website: Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la Jeunesse

Provincial Laws and Standards

In addition to the Charter, there are a few other provincial laws and standards that you should know about. In 1978, Quebec adopted a law to promote the rights of people with disabilities. This law is called the “Act to secure handicapped persons in the exercise of their rights with a view to achieving social, school and workplace integration”. This law imposes certain requirements on public organizations.

A government institution called the Office des personnes handicapées du Québec (OPHQ) is responsible for enforcing this law. For more information about this law, you can contact the OPHQ or visit their OPHQ website.

Phone number: 1-800-567-1465

Quebec’s Secrétariat du Conseil du trésor has adopted accessibility standards for websites. These standards came into force in July of 2018. They apply to the websites of public organizations, including universities.

Technology Standards and Accessibility

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

The standards for websites in Quebec incorporate the internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium in 2008. The WCAG documents explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities.The guidelines aim to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally.

For more information, you can review the WCAG 2.0 guidelines online.

Web Content Accessibility Deadlines 

  1. All new university websites have to comply with Quebec’s accessibility standards by July of 2020.
  2. All existing university websites have to comply by July of 2022.

Review the module on “Troubleshooting Websites for Basic Accessibility” to learn how to determine if a website is accessible.

Accessible Digital Course Materials

Instructors should always try to ensure that all their materials, including course readings, are in accessible formats. All course materials should be in accessible formats

You can review the modules on making your PDF filesMicrosoft Word Documents, and Course packs accessible.

To recap

  1. Students with disabilities have a legal right to equality in education. As an instructor, you have a legal duty to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities. If needs are not accommodated a student can file a discrimination complaint.
  2. Instead of waiting for students to request accommodations, you should always strive to be proactive and make your teaching and evaluation methods as inclusive and accessible as possible.
  3. Everyone benefits from improved accessibility.

What’s next…

We encourage you to look at the other modules to learn how to incorporate accessibility into your courses and materials. The goal of these modules is to help you become an ally and support students with disabilities.


WCAG 2.0 guidelines online