A new study aims to challenge how accessibility and accommodations are understood at postsecondary institutions. Released in October, the Landscape of Accessibility and Accommodation in Post-Secondary Education for Students with Disabilities report says that accessibility remains “silo’ed” within postsecondary education.
“Accessibility and inclusion efforts in the postsecondary environment have lagged behind the evolution of the student experience and are limited to the academic (classroom and online learning) environment,” reads the report, published by the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS).
Founded in 1986, NEADS’ mandate is to support access to education and employment for postsecondary students and graduates with disabilities across Canada. The Social Development Partnerships Program of Employment and Social Development Canada funded the Landscape project in 2016 to help inform the federal government’s new national accessibility legislation, known as Bill C-81, An Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada. The bill went through its first reading in June 2018 and was referred to committee in September for further study.
“We recognized that it was very important that postsecondary students and graduates with disabilities have a significant input into the consultations relating to a federal disability act,” said Frank Smith, NEADS’ national coordinator.
Beyond the opportunity to influence new federal legislation, there were more pressing reasons that necessitated the report, said Mr. Smith. “[NEADS] started in 1986 – that was before most students were using computers, the internet, social media. It was a time when, if you were a blind student, you got your books on tape,” he said.
“What has happened since then with technology, online learning and distance education has really helped to level the playing field for many people with disabilities who, without technology, would not be able to fully participate,” Mr. Smith continued. However, technology has also introduced new challenges: with more students with disabilities able to participate on campus, is the accommodation process working for them the best that it can? How is the rest of campus life meeting their needs? This rapidly shifting learning dynamic hasn’t been studied with this kind of national scope, Mr. Smith explained.
“We often don’t look at … whole systems across a nation,” said Christine Arnold, one of the co-investigators for the Landscape report and an assistant professor in the faculty of education at Memorial University (the two other co-investigators were Michelle Pidgeon, an associate professor of education at Simon Fraser University, and Deanna Rexe, vice-president, academic, at Assiniboine Community College). “I don’t know that we’ve seen this comprehensive of a scan across the entire country looking at the policies, programs and the literature,” said Dr. Arnold.
The project was a collaborative effort between researchers at SFU, Assiniboine and Memorial, along with a team of 15 graduate students with disabilities. The report and its recommendations came from a substantive literature review, environmental scans, data analysis from surveys like the Canadian Graduate Survey, as well as consultations with students, service providers and educators at various conferences across the country.
The report makes numerous recommendations for policy changes at the federal, provincial and institutional levels (the latter includes service providers, teaching staff and libraries).
These include: “Mandate accessibility of features, methods, applications and protocols used by persons with disabilities in navigating education and employment,” meaning that accessibility shouldn’t be limited to certain areas of education and employment; and “Mandate postsecondary institutions to outline a nationally accepted set of essential requirements for all their programs of study,” which aims to eliminate the current regional and provincial disparities that exist with respect to policies and practices around accessibility and inclusion.
Across all recommendations, some themes emerged, said Dr. Arnold. First and foremost was the limited amount of research previously done in this area. “We found there were gaps – gaping gaps at times,” she said.
Identifying those gaps was a key step before more original research could take place, Dr. Arnold added. “We know there’s real appetite to do this work and we know that it’s becoming increasingly important … as we open up access for students and we’re trying to accommodate more students and try to make sure they’re successful.”
Dr. Arnold cited the example of student transitions – within institutions, between institutions and from postsecondary education into the job market – as an area that’s of particular interest to her, and yet a literature review she conducted yielded little research. “How do our services allow our students to make those transitions successfully and where do we fall down?” she asked.
Dr. Arnold also said more effort needs to be focused on the retention and attrition of students, making sure that they have supports they need and know where to find them. “A lot of the literature focuses on support for students with disabilities with regard to their coursework – their academics, making sure they’re proceeding in their program – but there’s this whole other dimension of student life,” she said.
Acknowledging this, the Landscape report suggests that accommodations need to be built into programs and initiatives that fall under student services or student affairs. “Co-curricular experiences, work-oriented learning, experiential learning, leadership opportunities – all of these need to have accommodations built into them,” she said.
Jay Dolmage, an associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo who researches disability accommodations, said the NEADS report reveals a culture that’s failing its disabled students. “Offices of disability services, especially in Canada, are doing a good job within the parameters – they’re often really underfunded and understaffed. But, there’s also a cultural stigma against disability that makes it difficult to do that job effectively,” he said, noting that, according to the multi-year accountability agreements published by each university, fewer students are seeking accommodations from one year to the next.
Dr. Dolmage added: “Universities map disability as a legal requirement and as something that needs to be medically verified, but they might not necessarily recognize disability as an important source of diversity or as a culture.” Mr. Smith at NEADS agreed: “That medical approach doesn’t speak to the individual learning path or requirement of the student who happens to have a disability.”
Fundamentally, said Dr. Arnold, the report and its recommendations are rooted in a push for universal planning in education. “There are always going to be specific accommodations,” she said. “However, if we can be more universal and plan for those in advance, we would be doing ourselves a great favour and our students would be able to see themselves in the programming. Seeing yourself there and knowing you’ll be comfortable is honestly at times half the struggle.”
Beyond just accommodating students with disabilities, Saint Mary’s University in Halifax has a history of actively and warmly supporting and encouraging. The Atlantic Centre for Students with Disabilities was one of the most prominent student service features on the campus in the 80s and 90s. It has grown into the Fred Smithers Centre and retains its reputation for creating positive learning environments for students with disabilities. Saint Mary’s was an early adopter of adaptations like braille signage. And now, our Saint Mary’s University Entrepreneurship Centre, in partnership with our Enactus team and Service Canada, delivers a program called Access-Ability which helps youth living with disabilities achieve gainful employment or start their own business. This program was recently recognized the top youth employment program in North America: https://www.smu.ca/academics/sobey/access-ability-best-in-north-america.html
At University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, we are delighted to read this article and the work of NEADS. Inclusive access to university campuses is vital for people with disabilities to grow, as all students do, academically, socially, and in their personal development. They find their voice! We have to resist the temptation to isolate people with disabilities by steering them towards online degrees and ensuring our campuses are physically accessible as well as making accomodations in exams and other assignments. Full access to campus ensures they can participate fully in the opportunities the university has to offer. It may be obvious to say, but all students benefit from inclusivity. Therefore, making investment in the physical accessibility of campuses is a great social investment. This carries forward and helps to support the vision for a society where the proportion of our future leaders with disability matches their proportion in society as a whole.
The Landscape study is a welcome and much needed window into gaps in the student experience for youth with disabilities across academic ecosystems. Emerging outcomes from our recent engagement in two WIL and experiential learning pilot projects that connect students with disabilities at the high school and college levels for WIL opportunities with our network of inclusive employers, are pointing to the need for a more integrated and universal approach to the student experience for youth with disabilities. Our academic and employer partners have been interested in pursuing disability inclusion training and learning opportunities based on inclusive design principles that can support more integrated approaches at all touchpoints impacting the student journey – from the decision stage in the admissions process, to the academic experience and accessing coop and WIL opportunities, to the student-employer job experience beyond graduation. Of particular interest, the language and accessibility of communications that organizations are using in their internal and external outreach, identifying organizational barriers such as bias, attitudes and misinformation regarding disability, and “accessibility” barriers in programs and technology that may be limiting access to important coop and WlL opportunities, and to building a seamless and successful employment experience between students and employers.