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Success in STEM

Academic Rights and Advocacy

Building a Case for Academic Rights

In Canada, we are fortunate to live in a country where legislation has made it possible for all people to have equal rights regardless of race, age, gender, language, place of origin, or disability. However, while these rights are available to all and enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there is no specific legislation or guideline outlining exactly how to grant these equal rights. In the case of education accommodation, a person can’t be denied the right to an education based on the fact that they have a disability, but there are no prescribed or enforced methods through which the accommodations must be made.

Here, we will look at the ways in which a person with a disability can advocate on their own behalf, so that they can exercise their right to an education.

Much of what we present here applies to taking courses at the undergraduate level, since our research indicates that it is at this stage that the loss of students with disabilities from science and technology related fields becomes most pronounced. However, we recognize that an undergraduate student in the sciences may also have co-op, internship, fieldwork and lab-based research opportunities as part of their program as well – and, indeed, graduate programs in STEM fields are, for the most part, significantly “workplace” oriented. In these cases, the materials presented in the employment-related sections of this guide are extremely relevant and applicable, and we refer the reader there for details.

Of course, the style of advocacy that is advisable depends on both the course being taken and the disability of the student in question. A student with a learning disability in a history course will require a very different set of accommodations than a person using a wheelchair would in a chemistry course.

The first step on the road to accommodation should be to identify the source of the mismatch between the needs of the student and the demands of the course. To achieve this, it would be ideal if the student and instructor could meet briefly, either after a lecture or during the instructor’s office hours, so that the concerns of both parties could be explained and addressed. For example, if the instructor has never taught a student with a particular disability, or indeed any disability, they may not know what to expect from having a student with a disability in their course. It may be necessary for the student to explain the typical procedures for assignment and exam accommodations, or any other special considerations that the student typically receives for their education. Likewise, the student may have concerns about the course content or presentation requirements, which the instructor could explain in greater detail than is available in the course outline or on the course website.

If this initial meeting goes well, and the channels of communication remain open, the student with a disability should be able to complete the course as effectively as any other student in the class. In any case, it is advisable for students with disabilities who require accommodations to be successful in their studies to register with their campus Disability Services Office so that the support of that office is available should the student need it.

Unfortunately, seeking accommodation for a class doesn’t always go smoothly. There may be times when either the instructor or the Disability Service Office can’t or won’t provide the services needed. This can be extremely frustrating for a student, but it is important that he or she remembers that a student with a disability has a variety of options to ensure that they can successfully complete a course. If the issue is getting sufficient access to course content, in-class notes or supplemental material, making contact with other students in the class and asking them to help with course material may be the simplest solution. If a student requires more complex technical assistance, or help with course content or software, he or she may want to see if there is funding available to hire a tutor or assistant who can help outside of class time. Often, drawing on the resources of the community of students and staff can relieve minor oversights in accommodation. For this reason, the Disability Services Office on campus is there to provide support, adaptive equipment, advice on accommodations matters and other assistance.

At the NEADS 2008 conference in Ottawa, entitled “Learning Today, Leading Tomorrow,” Daniel Zingaro spoke on the issue of getting technical or mathematical material prepared in accessible formats. He outlined issues surrounding getting such material converted into alternate formats, and suggested an innovative yet practical solution. Daniel, a visually impaired student, holds a B.Sc and M.Sc in computer science and is now working on his M.Ed at OISE with the University of Toronto. Daniel has worked as an assistive technologist, and has designed accessible computer games programmer through his own company ( He has authored a textbook, “Invariants: a Generative Approach to Programming,” published in 2008 by College Publications. Here is an excerpt of the report of his presentation:

“Typically, there is a long wait after sending the request to the publisher to obtain the electronic format of a textbook. It is easiest and quickest for a publisher to send a PDF file. Once received, the file must be converted into an accessible format. Scientific materials are particularly hard to make accessible because of their special symbols, formulas, tables, and charts. A screen reader can directly read a PDF file loaded into Adobe Acrobat. It can sometimes be easy to navigate through tables, but no changes can be made and it is hard to search for text. An alternative is to extract the text directly from the PDF file. Various programs can do this, including Adobe Acrobat Reader, Adobe Acrobat Professional, and Xpdf. Once the text has been extracted, a student can add notes and clean up the text.

However, sometimes these programs cannot extract the text since a PDF is an image, and the PDF font information may not be available. OCR software will give varying results. Typically, these programs produce many mistakes when converting scientific content.

Math and related material are awkward to type using a standard word processor. However, there are mark-up languages that allow authors to enter this information in a text-only format into a computer file.

LaTeX (pronounced laytex) is such a language. It is commonly used by textbook authors, readable with screen readers or other readers, and easy to learn. For example, instead of the square root symbol, the author types “sqrt,” and for fractions, the author types “frac.”

Authors of math and science books send LaTeX files to their publishers, and the publishers use the LaTeX source code to generate the PDF files they need. This means a version of the book probably exists in LaTeX, containing a completely accessible, text-only copy of the book’s contents.”
You can find the full NEADS Conference 2008 report at:
You can watch a streaming video of Daniel’s presentation at:
or download his powerpoint presentation as a pdf file at:

A student with a disability may encounter a situation where an instructor is either so uncomfortable having a disabled student in their course, or so reluctant to allow accommodations on the grounds that it may be seen as special treatment, that proceeding with the course may become very difficult. In a situation like this, it is very important to make every attempt to contact the instructor, try to understand their concerns or misapprehensions, and for the student to do their best to try to put those issues to rest. If these attempts to obtain proper accommodation fail, it may be necessary to involve mediation so that the instructor will have to concede certain accommodations.

Mediation can take several forms. A student can first choose to have a representative from the university’s Disability Services Office meet with the instructor, explain the need for accommodation, and then make a formal request on behalf of the student. If this isn’t successful, the student can approach the department and faculty that the instructor belongs to, so pressure can be applied from above informally. Next, the student can approach the university Ombudsperson’s Office and lodge a formal complaint, which would lead to a more formal investigation into the instructor’s actions.

If all of these avenues to obtain appropriate and necessary accommodation fail, the student can then begin legal proceedings and file a human rights violation complaint. This is an extreme measure, and should not be carried out without first exhausting all other means of recourse, though it is necessary for certain situations. Links to provincial human rights commissions can be found at the end of the “Rights” section of this guide, as well as in the “Resources” section. Students with disabilities have the right to be educated to their fullest potential as any other students, and no amount of professorial concerns will mitigate that right.

One possible downside to going to greater and greater lengths to obtain accommodations from a reluctant instructor is the in-class aftermath. An instructor may end up having to give certain accommodations that they are not happy about, and as a result, their attitude towards the student who initiated the complaint, and subsequent students with disabilities, may be made more negative because of it. On the one hand, we can say that the instructor is still at fault for holding such negative stereotypes or being so unwilling to change, but ultimately, students with disabilities are advocating for the right to be educated and receive quality education. It is important to pick your battles, and remember that if an instructor is reluctant to grant accommodations for whatever reason, a student with a disability has the right to choose how they are educated, even if it means choosing to attend a different section of the same course, or not taking a particular course. If it is a necessary course that must be taken for a program, and there is only one section, then perhaps it may be a better option to take the course through a distance learning program or from another institution. It is very easy to get caught up in a costly effort to enforce accessibility and accommodations in one section of one class, but it is important to remember that there are ways for students to make their feelings known that can have longer term effects.

If a student with a disability chooses to stick it out in a course that is manageable, though not entirely accommodating, many institutions have course evaluation forms that can be filled out at the middle or at the end of each course. These forms may seem like a fairly impotent solution, but they give feedback directly to the instructor, as well as hold influence over their chances at getting pay increases and other work-related benefits. Students can also let each other know about negative experiences they have had with specific instructors, so that enrolment in the offending courses decreases. Students are not just knowledge sponges. They are education consumers, and it is the money spent by students that helps to decide how universities grow and change over time. Taking advantage of the right to be effectively educated is an extremely beneficial course of action, but it is equally important and beneficial to take on the responsibility of making specific educational needs known and helping education providers understand how they can best serve students so that as much quality accessible education as possible can be delivered.


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