N.L. father hopes human rights victory for his deaf son will help families everywhere

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The family of a young deaf boy in Newfoundland is hoping their successful human rights case against the province's English school board will spark change for deaf students across the country.

In a decision dated Wednesday, the province's human rights commission ruled the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District discriminated against Carter Churchill, who is now 12, while he was attending an elementary school between 2016 and 2020, spanning kindergarten to Grade 3.

The decision says the district failed to provide adequate supports for Carter, who is non-verbal and has cerebral palsy, and those failures caused him "irreparable damage," including a significant language delay.

Todd Churchill, Carter's father, said in an interview that he and his wife, Kimberly, are broken and exhausted after years of fighting for their son.

They first filed the human rights complaint in 2017, and Todd Churchill said the victory will set a precedent for other families like his who are struggling to get proper school supports for their deaf children.

He says the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District has 30 days from the decision date to file an appeal.

Chief adjudicator Brodie Gallant also ordered that the school district pay the Churchills close to $150,000 in compensation for damages and legal costs.

"I am concerned by the potential long-term, perhaps permanent, impact upon Carter's future prospects for independence," Gallant wrote in his decision. "I am concerned by how his exclusion, social isolation and language deprivation have impacted his sense of identity and self-worth as well as his concept of the world around him."

Churchill said Carter was put into a class with other deaf children in Grade 4 at a different school, where he was taught in American Sign Language and given learning supports. Carter is now in Grade 6.

Churchill said he hopes the provincial government will issue a formal apology in the legislature for Carter's treatment by the school system.

"But more importantly, they should say, 'Our priorities are wrong. And we're going to take action, as a priority, to fix the mistakes,'" Churchill said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2023.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press