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Essential skills need to be more transparent, say student services staff

Universities have made great strides in accommodating a range of disabilities among students over the last decade. But once students go into the field, they often encounter more barriers than they did on campus.

BY PEGGY BERKOWITZ | JUL 08 2013

Some university offices for students with disabilities are encouraging academic program directors to be more explicit about the skills that students who take the program will need if they plan to pursue a career in that field. In making the essential skills more transparent, their goal is to allow students to know whether they have the capacity to succeed before they register for the program.

While the impetus is coming from students with disabilities, the resulting clarity could help all prospective students who are making important decisions about what program to choose at university.

At a recent national conference for student services professionals, a panel of faculty and staff from McGill University focused on issues that often emerge during field placements for students with disabilities in professional programs. The annual conference is convened by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services and attracted more than 600 professionals.

Tara Flanagan, assistant professor in McGill’s department of educational and counselling psychology, noted that in today’s university environment students are expected to graduate with practical experience and that their CVs must be more skills-based than in the past. Many programs require students to do field work or practicums and these can have a big impact on their future career.

Dr. Flanagan said that students at university are evaluated by professors in a culture that supports diversity, “but that culture might not exist” in the work world. Moreover, students with disabilities are often unprepared for what they would encounter during field practicums, expecting the culture to be just like campus.

“We noticed in our programs that issues that had been remedied in the educational environment were still alive in the work world,” she said. “Students who did well on campus were failing in field placements.” Even in the field of education, where one might expect an accommodating environment, students with disabilities who did well on campus were getting poor evaluations in the classroom practicums.

Issues like these led to a three-way collaboration at McGill between Dr. Flanagan of the department of education and counselling psychology, Fiona Benson, director of the office of student teaching in the faculty of education, and Frédéric Fovet, director of the office for students with disabilities.

One step was to survey three groups – students with disabilities, field supervisors and academic program directors – about barriers faced by students with disabilities in field placements. In the student survey, they found that 17 percent had changed courses because of barriers they encountered in field placements, and 4.5 percent had changed their degree path for the same reason.

Some barriers can be adapted to accommodate students’ needs, but others are insurmountable for certain people, said Mr. Fovet, director of the office for students with disabilities. It should be mandatory for university programs to make core requirements public, said Mr. Fovet, “because what we are seeing at the moment are tragic stories related to a program.”

An audience member recounted such a situation: A first-year medical student at her university was overwhelmed because he hadn’t realized that he would have to memorize Latin terms and work with more than 500 biological species, since these program requirements had not been spelled out. The student, who had a learning disability, had to decide whether “to jump or push forward.” If the student decided to abandon the program mid-stride, this would have dire consequences for the medical school, too, as the student represented half-a-million dollars in funding, she noted, and he couldn’t be replaced partway through.

The school “finally ‘got’ that disability isn’t only about wheelchairs,” said the audience member, with obvious frustration. The problem, she argued, is broader than building awareness in schools and programs, since national professional accrediting bodies often want to keep the skills requirements in general terms. “That’s because they see themselves not as educators but as gate-keepers,” she said.

During the session, several positive experiences also emerged. At one university, the director for an academic program had difficulty articulating what skills a student would need to take a specific course. So the office for students with disabilities, with cooperation from the faculty member and student, hired an occupational therapist to watch the teacher in class and provide a factual report of what the student would be required to do.

At Carleton University, the Paul Menton Centre for students with disabilities has put essential program requirements into guidelines for program development; when academic units develop new programs, they consult with the centre. Boris Vucovic, disabilities coordinator at the Menton Centre, said that recently the department of earth sciences was discussing with the centre the essential requirements for a geology field placement. At first, the requirement for a geology student to be able to clamber over rocks to examine them in the field was felt to be essential. But, as the department chair and faculty went through the process, they realized that being in the physical environment isn’t essential for some earth sciences careers, such as building spatial maps which require advanced cognitive skills and sophisticated software applications.

“In the end,” said Mr. Vucovic, “just going through the process of what is essential, they felt they had improved their program and at the same time opened the doors for students who previously couldn’t take the program.”

The McGill presenters discussed the shared responsibilities that lead to a successful field placement for students with disabilities.

“Oftentimes, you end up feeling intense responsibility for the well-being of students when the responsibility should be shared among partners that include the employers, especially in the education partnerships,” said Dr. Flanagan. “The program directors have responsibility, so do the students and so do the field placement companies.”

The McGill surveys found that students were not well prepared for the transition to a work environment and often were unsure about how much to disclose about their disability. The team has started offering workshops for students before the field placements, and these are always well attended. “Our perspective was to put the emphasis back on the student and let them have a reflective exercise … to see where their strengths are and how they could best fit in the [work] environment,” said Mr. Fovet of McGill.

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