Working Towards a Coordinated National Approach To Services, Accommodations And Policies For Post-Secondary Students With Disabilities

Conclusion: Recommendations for Best Practices

  • Disability service provision must be fully supported by post-secondary institutions and governments with sufficient financial and human resources to meet student needs. Accessible post-secondary education begins with a commitment of funding through enhanced federal transfer payments, an allocation of funding to colleges and universities from provincial governments, and a commitment by individual schools to support and enhance physical access and services and accommodations for all students with disabilities.
  • Among this group of respondents accessibility appears to be very important when considering which post-secondary institution to attend, but it is clear that the academic programs offered at an institution were of greater importance in general. Meeting the academic objectives of the disabled student population in Canada requires as wide a network as possible of accessible post-secondary institutions, and adequate funding to meet the needs of these students.
  • Students with disabilities need to have access to services and programs that may not be available to them in their home province. These students must be able to receive the best and most appropriate education regardless of their geographic location. Therefore, supports to students should be fully portable and students should retain the right to move from one province to another in order to obtain an education.
  • The rates at which respondents to this survey had accessed publicly-funded, provincial bursary programs directed at students with disabilities varied considerably from one province to the next. Students in some provinces may not be making full use of such programs and may, in fact, need to be made aware of their existence and the rules for accessing such funds. Uneven access to public funds across provinces needs to be avoided at all costs in order to ensure that all students with disabilities have as wide a range of choices in terms of postsecondary education as do students without disabilities. While many disability service providers who responded to this survey indicate that they try to assist students in accessing funds for which they are eligible, it should not be the sole responsibility of a disability service provider to communicate this information to students. Institutional staff whose primary responsibilities include providing information on financial aid must be capable, at the very least, of providing information on government-funded aid programs for students with disabilities. They should be able to answer students' questions, or direct them to sources where they can obtain the necessary information. Governments, for their part, should strive to simplify the language they use in describing their programs, and make this information available in print and through provincial government web sites, as well as in alternate formats. While these issues are complex and in many instances involve provinciallfederal cooperation, there needs to be a concerted effort to make provincial programs more uniform in terms of what they fund and to whom they provide funds.
  • Other evidence from survey respondents suggests that eligibility criteria for funding may prevent certain students from using funds to purchase equipment or services they deem necessary for a variety of reasons. Students with learning disabilities, in particular, should be targeted with information on financial aid programs, since they often have difficulties finding support for their studies.
  • Sign languageloral interpretation, material in alternate formats, attendant care and provision of technology are just some of the supports that many post-secondary students with disabilities rely on in order to reach their academic potential. These supports can be costly, and publicly-funded aid programs, in many cases, do provide specific envelopes of funding ear-marked for these services. However, many funding programs place definitive ceilings on the amount of funding provided to students per term, without regard for specific situations. Each student is different, and a student may require one support, or a combination of them, for which the cost may exceed the allotted amount of money for the number of courses helshe may choose to take. For example, one student may need both sign language interpretation and note-taking supports for more than one course per term, while another student may need brailled textbooks for two courses, and note-taking assistance for another course. The examples and situations are endless. What we recommend is a more flexible funding system, one that recognizes that each program of study has unique demands, requiring different forms of support, depending on the individual student. Specific support funding of this kind needs to be flexible enough to mirror the actual realities that students face, and should not be based on presumed needs and a calculation of average costs.
  • Responses to questions asking students to rate features of accessibility elicited a high rate of non-response. Clearly, some students were unprepared to answer questions about services and facilities that they would not use, but many students indicated that they were unaware of the availability of certain supports/services that they would use. Often they were uncertain about how to access services or programs that might be useful to them. A gap exists in terms of awareness of what aids to accessibility are available. Students need more and better information on the aids and services they may need to complete their studies. Post-secondary institutions cannot merely react to requests but must be actively advertising the services/supports they provide to students with disabilities.
  • Many students indicated that they had learned about disability service provision at their institution from information provided with their admissions package. Yet not all service provider respondents to this survey were able to supply literature about disability-related services, and it is uncertain whether all students receive such information even at the point of admission. While communicating information to either a prospective or current student about the full range of programs and services available to them, an institution should be providing specific details about any specialized services/supports that are available to students with disabilities. Such information should be included with course calendarslcatalogues, acceptance packages, Internet web sites, and any other means an institution uses to inform students. It should also be made available to relevant community service providers, and those at other educational institutions to ensure the widest coverage possible. By making these details as widely available as possible, students are not obligated to self-identify themselves before receiving information. Moreover, an institution should strive to provide anylall forms of such communications in alternate and/or accessible formats, so that students with disabilities may inform themselves without the assistance of someone else. In the case of information provided on web sites in particular, every attempt should be made to conform to guidelines of universal accessibility. Information should be easy to find, and should not require a time-consuming search. Institutions should provide complete details about: 1) the types of services/supports available to students with disabilities on campus; 2) the eligibility criteria for each type of servicelsupport available; and 3) information on who to contact, and where to go if the student would like further details. Such knowledge may aid a student in making educated decisions about where they will ultimately pursue their course of study. Where available, students should also be directed to any pertinent documentation that speaks to their rights as students with disabilities at the institution.
  • Many service providers indicated that they had good safety, emergency and evacuation policies and procedures in place. However, student respondents to the survey were, for the most part, largely unaware of such policies. As part of an overall orientation to services available to students with disabilities, a detailed explanation of safety, emergency and evacuation procedures is necessary to ensure the safety of students with disabilities.
  • Disability service provision needs to address the range of disability needs -- physical, health and learning related. Fewer participating institutional respondents indicated that they could accommodate those who are deafhard of hearing, and those who have medical and mental health disabilities at their institutions than indicated they could accommodate students with other types of disability. Yet neither the potential costs or service requirements would seem to justify the failure to accommodate in these instances. Whatever the reasons for this, we feel it is important that all institutions should be fully inclusive and accommodating. Institutions should be working towards recognition of all students with disabilities, regardless of the numbers of students being served.
  • Past or current enrolment trends of students with disabilities should not guide the degree to which an institution will commit itself to adopting accessibility as a priority on its one or more campuses. Students should not be discouraged from attending an institution of their choice based on the lack of accessibility features and services. All post-secondary institutions should be constantly reviewing and updating their policies and attempting to improve the level of accessibility on their campus(es) (in consultation with students themselves), both in order to attract new students, and to keep current ones. Institutions have much to learn from each other and national-level organizations, such as the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), and the Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC) could provide their members with mechanisms for discussing the issues and exchanging relevant information. The Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-secondary Education (CADSPPE), and the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) are invaluable resources in this regard.
  • There is no doubt that, among other things, documentation of disability from a relevant specialist does serve as a key assessment tool in deciding what accommodations might be most useful for students. There are, however, legitimate reasons why a student may not possess up-to-date documentation, not the least of which is the cost of being testedlretested and the lack of available facilities to be testedlretested in close proximity. The out-right refusal of service because of dated documentation falls outside the spirit of supporting students with disabilities, and exercising a less rigid approach in such cases would be helpful. Students and service providers need to work together to advocate for better access to testing. Providing on campus testing, or sharing such a service that may exist at a nearby institution would at least be a step in addressing this problem. Equally important, government agencies providing funding to institutions need to be made aware of the reality that students with disabilities face. At a minimum, provincial health-care plans should make some provision for assistance to persons seeking diagnosis and attestation of disability for the purpose of pursuing post-secondary education.
  • Institutions in Quebec are not provided with funds from the Minister of Education for the accommodation of students with learning disabilities. Many service providers attempt to extend services to include students with learning disabilities nonetheless, and many remain hopeful that this oversight will be addressed. Students with learning disabilities themselves need to be heard, and they are encouraged to join in the work of both the provincial affiliate group for students with disabilities (Association quebecoise des etudiants handicapes au postsecondaire - AQEHPS), and the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS), as they advocate for recognition of, and full support for, students with learning disabilities in Quebec. There is also an important role with regard to issues such as this for the Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-secondary Education (CADSPPE).
  • Students value the role that disability service providers often play in the context of ensuring accessibility. While disability service providers may work within the framework of other offices or perform other tasks depending on the size of their constituency, ideally they provide a valuable integrative function, working to ensure that accessibility extends beyond the doors of their office. In educating the campus community, providing assessment and advice, and advocating accessibility in a variety of contexts, disability service providers are critical to the establishment of an accessible environment. It is not, however, the sole responsibility of one department or individual to advocate for, and commit to accessibility. Rather, efforts should be made to ensure that the entire campus community, from the student union president to the staff at the physical plant, plays a role. Issues of access for students with disabilities are the responsibility of everyone in the community, not a select few.
  • One aspect of disability service provision that the majority of students with disabilities rely on is access to academic accommodations. Extended time for exams, in particular, was of critical importance to our student respondents. While less frequently mentioned by respondents, the provision of exams in alternate format is also a critical facet of accommodation and students should not be charged for services related to the provision of exams or tests in alternate format or at alternate times. Individually-based assessments of extended time that can take into account specific disability-related needs and feedback from instructors are preferred over standard formulas. Students, however, should be made aware of what criteria are used to assess time needs prior to the administration of an exam. Students should not be made to feel that decisions have been made arbitrarily without reference to their specific needs, and there should be an environment that fosters frank discussion at all times.
  • Academic accommodations policies according to our service-provider respondents generally are aimed at guaranteeing a fair process of evaluation in exams and often assignments. Students, however, seem less satisfied with other forms of accommodation such as program changes or alterations in time limits on program completion. These aspects of student need should be recognised and incorporated into policy, taking into account problems of a disability-specific nature.
  • Academic accommodation should also include provision for the timely delivery of academic materials in suitable alternate formats to students who require them. This involves both in-class (textbooks, hand-outs, and overheads, as examples) and out-of-class (library research, for example) material that supports students' learning and research efforts. In many cases, this involves the cooperation of faculty who decide what textbooks will be used in courses. Students also have a responsibility to articulate their needs to individual instructors. A student with a disability should at no time, however, be left in poor academic standing because of the lack of availability, or the late delivery of academic material in a suitable alternate format.
  • Faculty are increasingly becoming aware of the needs of students with disabilities, as the numbers of these students increase in all programs of study. However, many still resist the need to accommodate and do not act in ways that aid the process of learning for students with disabilities. Professors and departmental committees need to understand the consequences for students who need material alternate format of waiting until the last minute to assign instructors or choose a textbook or reading materials for a course. There is still, moreover, a need to sensitize professors to the existence of "invisible disabilities," which are unfortunately still not totally understood or widely recognized. Colleges and universities should provide training on diversity issues, that includes disability awareness, to all staff. Additionally, service providers and student organizers can broaden contact by providing disability awareness training at departmental and faculty meetings, as well as within the meetings of the wider governing bodies of the institution. Because the majority of students with disabilities do come in contact with their instructors more often than they do other staff on campus, it is necessary that everything be done to break down attitudinal barriers, and to facilitate the best atmosphere possible for both parties.
  • Students with learning disabilities are a growing category of students at the post-secondary level. At least one service provider respondent indicated that hisher institution specializes in providing services to students with learning disabilities. Another service provider reported a program of advocacy for students with learning disabilities that begins at the point of application for admissions. Many students with learning disabilities receive services through learning support service centres and disability service offices, but some service providers are still in doubt about what the best strategies will be in assisting such students. Instructional strategies that address the needs of students with learning disabilities need to be more broadly taught through in-service programs. While faculty members in all disciplines are sometimes resistant to the notion that they need to alter their teaching style, the experience of some of our student respondents suggests that those who teach in vocational programs may need particular attention, because these instructors often have little formal training in teaching to begin with.
  • Students with learning disabilities and service providers would benefit from exchange of information on software with those who have been using and studying its effectiveness. Some students with learning disabilities have found software products that work for them but have trouble accessing funds for purchase. Disability-related need in this instance should not be treated differently from other recognised needs. Programs for the purchase of adaptive equipment must be open to students with learning disabilities, and mechanisms for exchanging information on the software appropriate for students with varying types of learning disability should be developed by service providers and other relevant personnel.
  • Adaptive technology is widely used by student respondents to this survey. Most student respondents expressed a preference for some form of centralized provision of adaptive technology but did not wish to have their needs ghettoized in consequence. An adaptive technology centre that is close to, housed within, or otherwise linked to other facilities (library, alternative format services) and that provides training in the use of technology and software is one aspect of ideal service provision in this instance. If, on the other hand, services such as these are housed within an office that only allows access during regular business hours, students will be less satisfied. Students with disabilities also want to see adaptive technology and physically accessible terminals included in general use computer labs, where extended hours of access and convenient location are more often the norm. To this end, obtaining site licenses for specialized forms of software as well as placing equipment in labs where it is most needed would make sense.
  • Given the dramatically increasing student use of on-campus computer technology and the demand for Internet access, institutions need to identify and direct members of their information systems/computer services staff to understand how adaptive technologies interact with the computer systems available to all students on campus. Since the mandate of any service provision office is not exclusively that of providing computer support, it is important to recognize where expertise lies, and to pool resources so that students with disabilities can have the same access to the Internet and other technologies as everyone else. Moreover, those responsible for making campus-wide computing decisions need to be sensitized to the need to make educated choices in the selection of software that is accessible to all students. Incorporating accessibility for students with disabilities within any campus-wide computer implementation strategy is also crucial.
  • Expense of provision and speed of improvements in the area of computer technology mean additional funding is necessary at the institutional and the individual level. Provinces vary widely in their commitment to providing for such needs, but students, service providers and senior administrators need to look closely at how equipment acquisition is handled and whether it truly serves the needs of all students. Students with disabilities need to be a part of any consultative processes to review the need for, and purchase of specialized equipment, as they will ultimately be the end users.
  • In terms of learning support services, according to our research students frequently have access to and use the services of a note taker. Programs are not always centrally administered and students are sometimes left to recruit their own note takers in class. The use of volunteers and recruits sometimes results in poor quality service that leaves students feeling frustrated. Students and service providers need to cooperate in assessing the utility of such services and whether training, wider recruitment strategies, or other factors might improve service.
  • Establishing the physical accessibility of campuses is an evolving and incomplete project. Few rules can be specified, but planning and greater consultation with students and other partners can prevent problems of oversight, especially in the case of renovations to existing buildings or the construction of new ones. A number of features of accessibility such as accessible residence buildings, public telephones that are wheelchair accessible and equipped for the use of those who are deafhard of hearing, accessible food services and others, are still not widely established and should be a focus of everyone's concern. It is also apparent from student comments that many classrooms are not yet barrier-free and not all students have access to classroom relocation services. This should be an issue that students can raise within the classroom itself. Clearly, all schools should have a definite plan in place with appropriate funding allocated to improve physical accessibility with set times for the completion of projects. In this regard, the establishment and maintenance of accessibility committees with disabled student representation is vitally important.
  • Organized action to ensure representation and integration of accessibility within all aspects of campus life is necessary. Students with disabilities need to be encouraged and supported in their attempts to organize themselves but also to make greater use of the resources that wider student organizations can supply. Campus-based student councils, unions or student societies are in an excellent position to provide the support to ensure that all campus facilities and activities are made accessible and inclusive of students with disabilities. National student organizations like the Canadian Federation of Students, a partner in this project, also provide a wider forum for raising the issue of accessibility.