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Solving disability-related disputes

By PHILLIP TODD | FEB 11 2008

Queen’s University is hosting a one-year pilot project that offers any Ontario postsecondary student, educator, administrator or disability service-provider a free, low-stakes, first-stop consultation and mediation service to help resolve disability-related disputes.

The Postsecondary Accessibility Consulting Team (PACT) opened its doors to clients last November after five months of stakeholder consultations across the province. The service – accessible in person, over the phone or online – is averaging about one case a week, though promotional efforts have not yet begun, according to PACT coordinator Barbara Roberts.

Typical cases stem from disagreements over whether or how to accommodate learning disabilities, attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, psychiatric illnesses, chronic illnesses like cancer and diabetes, vision and hearing loss, and other physical disabilities.

The informal and confidential resource enables people to ask questions about disability and rights documentation, financial aid eligibility, and training and skills development and to consult examples of successfully resolved cases. PACT also offers to mediate disputes.

“The philosophy of the service is really to offer people a process to find their own solutions,” said Ms. Roberts. “We’re hoping the minute a student or staff member anticipates a situation that may need resolution, they’ll call us.”

Of the more than 25 consultations to date, only five used direct facilitation or informal mediation, Ms. Roberts said. Two-thirds came from universities and the remaining third from colleges.

The project is an initiative of the Regional Assessment and Resource Centre, a regional resource for learning disabilities funded by Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

In part, Ms. Roberts explained, the project aims to reduce the number of serious disputes brought to the Ontario Human Rights Commission as official complaints. “Students have taken human rights complaints forward more often in the last five years than they had in the past,” she said.

In an informal survey she conducted during the stakeholder consultation period, Ms. Roberts found that nine of the 12 schools that responded said that parents or students had sued or threatened to sue over accommodation questions; one school declined to answer that question.

“A university that has had to respond to even one such complaint knows it’s worth examining the process of how they came to face such a complaint,” said Ms. Roberts.

The National Education Association of Disabled Students is supporting the PACT initiative. “This is the first project of its kind that I’m aware of that’s offering to bridge the gap,” said the association’s national coordinator Frank Smith.

When a conflict first arises, Mr. Smith explained, students may find that the most obvious places to turn to for help – such as the student union, university ombudsperson, or the on-campus disabled students association – may not be able to offer the objective, professional and experienced guidance that PACT offers on these issues.

When a conflict grows into a serious dispute, a person typically has two options open to them: seek resolution within their institution through the academic appeals process, or go to the provincial human rights commission, said Ms. Roberts. Neither process is as uniquely suited as PACT to strike a balance between academic integrity and human rights concerns, she added.

“It’s very difficult to find a venue where the academic issues and the human rights issues are both equally understood and accommodated. By the time the students have gone [down] either of those paths, things have gotten pretty adversarial.”

Under the current mandate, funding for the project runs out in June, one year after it began. Ms. Roberts said she hopes the project will be renewed for another year.

“What we’d like to do is develop a workable model and then take another year to implement it on a wider scale,” said Ms. Roberts, noting that there has been interest from institutions outside Ontario.

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