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


In January 1997, the National Educational Association of Disabled Students received funding from the Trillium Foundation and Human Resources Development Canada for a new project, "Working Towards a Coordinated National Approach To Services, Accommodations And Policies For Post-Secondary Students With Disabilities: Ensuring Access to Higher Education and Career Training." This project focuses on a review of services, accommodations and policies in place at post-secondary institutions for students with disabilities. The aim is to develop a "best practices" model for these institutions that will provide policy makers, university and college administrators, campus service organizations and students with a tool for examining and improving the existing network of policies and programs for students with disabilities.

Services, accommodations and policies that support persons with disabilities at post-secondary institutions are critical factors in ensuring access. Students and graduates with disabilities who participated in the NEADS 1996 Employment Opportunities survey indicated that the services available to them at post-secondary institutions were an important factor in the choice of which college or university they attended. Moreover, for many, access to support services throughout their studies was critical to their ability to finish a program. (NEADS 1996) Lack of policies and programming to support inclusiveness presents a barrier to full access by limiting the range of choices open to those with disabilities. A coordinated national approach to services, accommodations and policies represents a step toward ensuring that the widest range of possible choices remains open to all students.

The NEADS project focuses on two principal areas:

a) Determining the level and type of services, the types of accommodations and the direction of policy with respect to students with disabilities across Canada. NEADS has, in the past, surveyed institutions with respect to the measures undertaken to assist students with disabilities. This project seeks to continue and further refine this work by developing a standardized checklist of physical adaptations, equipment and programs. Standardized information allows for comparisons across institutions and provinces and will assist us in determining to what extent provinces and institutions are equipped to meet the needs of students with disabilities and to what extent each institution is able to meet the needs of students with different types of disabilities.

b) Evaluating service provision, accommodations and policy. The current research also seeks to measure levels of satisfaction with respect to service provision, accommodations and policy among students with disabilities and college and university service providers. Because the aim is to specify a "best practices" model we want to determine: what features of access are deemed most successful or least successful; what problems have been encountered; and what modifications to existing policy and programming might make them more successful.

Our project addressed the issue of access by surveying students and service personnel throughout Canada. In documenting and evaluating the services, accommodations and policies of Canadian post-secondary institutions, the information that can be provided by both groups is useful. The two groups may have different perspectives, conditioned by their experience within the institutions where they work and study, but they are both involved in constructing and ensuring access and in this sense they are partners. Recognizing that the two groups would have distinct types of information to offer, two separate versions of the survey were designed, one directed at students and the other at service providers. At the same time it was recognized that both groups should be asked to evaluate their institutions in the same way, and thus both were asked to provide rankings and reflect on the various features of accessibility available at their institutions.

The rest of this introductory chapter outlines some of the issues that need to considered in the analysis of services, accommodations and policies to support access at the post-secondary level. Subsequent chapters describe the groups who responded to our survey; their evaluation of the features of access available at the institutions where they work or attend school; what kinds of insights into best practices may be derived from their assessments of what features are most and least successful; and what recommendations might be made on the basis of these insights. Appendices include a detailed description of the project, discussion of the methodological procedures adopted, information about the distribution of questionnaires and copies of the questionnaires in English and French.

Students with Disabilities at the Post-secondary Level

Some general awareness of the population of students with disabilities at the post-secondary level may be derived from the 1991 Health and Activity Limitation Survey (HALS), a national post-censal survey of approximately 35,000 Canadians with disabilities and 113,000 without disabilities. The data collected was used to construct population estimates, and, based on this data, it was estimated that in 1991 of the roughly 18 million residents of Canada between the ages of 15 and 64 who were living in households (as opposed to institutions), about 2.2 million were people with disabilities. Thus, roughly 13% of working age adults are people with disabilities.

Based on HALS data, Statistics Canada estimated the number of post-secondary students with disabilities enrolled in 1991 to be 112,200, or, approximately, 7 percent of the total student population in that year (Statistics Canada 1993). This percentage may have increased over the past eight years, but no subsequent studies have been conducted. In a study of accessibility at Canadian universities, Jennifer Leigh Hill (1992) noted that the previous decade had witnessed dramatic increases in the number of students with disabilities pursuing postsecondary education and predicted that further increases were likely. In the intervening years, however, overall levels of enrolment at Canadian post-secondary institutions have declined (Statistics Canada 1997). Statistics Canada figures for the 97/98 academic year indicate that approximately 1.3 million students were enrolled (full-time and part-time) at post-secondary institutions throughout Canada. If 7 percent of the total student population is potentially comprised of students with disabilities, this yields a total population of approximately 96,000 for the 97/98 academic year.

HALS data is now eight years old and this poses limitations on its continuing usefulness. Still other limitations are posed by the way the HALS data was gathered and compiled. For instance, breakdowns of the population by types of physical disabilities is provided: thus some attempt was made to measure how many people in Canada have mobility, agility, visual, hearing and speech impairments. Those with learning disabilities, mental health conditions and certain other medical conditions, however, are not separately counted but are combined under the heading "other", making it difficult to determine the level and extent of these kinds of disabilities within the general population. Moreover, there are no breakdowns provided that would allow comparison of the incidence of different types of disabilities among those who were enrolled in post-secondary education programs. In other words, there is little national statistical evidence to examine in determining how specific types of disabilities may affect the decision to pursue post-secondary education.

Statistics Canada did report that increases in the overall population with disabilities between 1986 and 1991 could be attributed to changes in their own survey methods which resulted in "a more comprehensive enumeration" of those with learning disabilities and mental health conditions. They went on to note that "an increased awareness of disability in society" may have led to a greater willingness on the part of Canadians to report their limitations. Thus changes in the attitudes of society at large may lead to a greater willingness to report a disability of any kind and, in particular, learning disabilities and mental health conditions.

We would also argue that changes in attitudes over the last eight years have affected the rates of representation of people with disabilities at the post-secondary level. In particular, those with learning disabilities, mental health disabilities and medical conditions may have shown an increased willingness to identify themselves to their institutions. Changes in attitude within the post-secondary environment have also led to greater attempts to include and provide for the needs of students with disabilities and this has also undoubtedly affected overall levels of representation of such students at the post-secondary level.

Post-secondary Institutions in Canada

Regional distribution of institutions, their size and type (and the inter-relationship of these factors) are all important elements in the consideration of accessibility at the post-secondary level. Students with disabilities in all provinces and territories should have access to the wide range of institutions (and the range of academic choices they represent) at the post-secondary level in Canada. But the choices confronting students vary from one province to the next.

Some rough indication of regional differences may be gathered from examining the distribution of post-secondary institutions and full-time students throughout Canada. The most recently published official estimates (Statistics Canada 1997) indicate that there were 293 post-secondary community colleges and universities operating in Canada in 1996. Of these institutions, 216 were community colleges (this number includes Cegeps, university-colleges and technical institutes but does not include "trade-level" educators), while 77 were universities. Although community colleges are more numerous, the bulk of the post-secondary student population was registered at the university level. Some 60% of all full-time students at the post-secondary level in 1996 were registered at a university. One obvious inference that may be drawn from this is that universities are likely to be larger in terms of their full-time student population than community colleges. While this is generally true, there are also other factors affecting the distribution of students.

Jurisdictional figures reveal an uneven distribution of post-secondary institutions in terms of the numbers of full-time students served across provinces and territories. Thus, for example, 24 institutions in Nova Scotia -- roughly 8% of the total number of institutions in Canada -- served 32,687 students, or roughly 3% of the total full-time student population in that year. Two community college institutions located in the Territories served 861 students in 1996. While these two institutions represent .6% of the total number of institutions, the number of students represents approximately .09% of all full-time students at the post-secondary level.

Clearly regional concentrations of population and historical developments affect the distribution of students across institutions and provinces. The most marked difference exists in Quebec where 90 college-level institutions (largely CEGEPs) served a full-time student population of 171,997 students. That is, roughly 30% of dl post-secondary institutions in Canada served 18% of the full-time post-secondary student population. Here the difference can be attributed to the development of a unique system for the delivery of education.

Students registered at the college level in Quebec in 1996 represented about 45% of all fulltime college-level students in Canada. Those enrolled at colleges in Quebec may pursue career-based programs as they do in colleges in other provinces, or they may pursue a program of preparation for university entry. While the latter is not an entirely unlikely outcome of the pursuit of college studies in other provinces, most of the students in other provinces enter universities after completing high school studies. A program of high school studies of shorter duration in Quebec is combined with one- or two-year programs at the college level and Quebec students generally enter university after completing some college studies. Thus, in Quebec, more full-time students were registered at the college level than at the university level. This relationship was reversed in all the other provinces where more students attend universities than attend community colleges.

Many of the universities in Canada are located in Ontario -- 21 of the 77 universities or 27% -- and these served a large portion of the university-level population in 1996. Roughly 40% of all full-time university-level students attended an institution in Ontario. Among the 21 institutions, most (1 1) had student populations in excess of 10,000. In other words the bulk of full-time university students in Ontario were attending institutions that, in the Canadian context, would be classified as large. This was also true of university students in Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia. Half of all colleges in Canada in 1996, on the other hand, served full-time student populations of less than 1,000 students (1 15 of the 216 college-level institutions in Canada).

The size, type and location of an institution will have some impact on the kinds of resources it can provide to students with disabilities. The decision to remain in one's province, city or town of residence will affect the range of choices available to a student. Often such decisions are conditioned by factors over which students with disabilities in particular have little control: financial resources; the portability of certain types of funding; and the availability of community and family support. At the very least, students with disabilities need to be aware of the consequences of such decisions.

Practices of Accessibility

Creating accessibility at the post-secondary level for students with disabilities is an ongoing process. Post-secondary institutions in Canada have been engaged in this process for a number of years. Much of the effort of creating accessibility at the post-secondary level has been undertaken by institutions in the absence of legislated or juridically enforced orders. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the various provincial charters prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, and post-secondary institutions have been mindful of the obligation to create an accessible environment dictated by these charters. Challenges have, however, recently been launched under the Charter in British Columbia. As students gain greater awareness and confidence, this process will likely intensify and may result in the need for more formalized commitments on the part of institutions.

Currently, the extent and nature of services, accommodations and policies for post-secondary students with disabilities varies from one institution to the next. Because the nature of access is not guaranteed in legislation (or in provincial policy for the most part), institutions that are increasingly under financial pressure can choose to impose limitations on their commitments to accessibility. Funding cuts in the 1990s and consequent increases in tuition levels in many provinces have, to some extent, undercut the notion of commitment to universal access to post-secondary education in Canada. It is thus all the more important at this juncture to specify what practices underpin accessibility for students with disabilities and to assess their worth.

Guaranteeing accessibility means providing a barrier-free physical environment and supportive learning environment. Most basically, a barrier-free physical environment includes accommodations and modifications that allow students with different types of physical disabilities to access their classes and other facilities necessary to successfully complete research and study. No aspect of institutional life should, however, be inaccessible to students with disabilities. Accessibility in those institutions that provide students with the opportunity to eat, to purchase books or to live on campus, for example, includes the necessity to provide accommodations and modifications to the physical environment in these areas. Physical accessibility also includes access to the equipment that allows students with different types of disabilities: 1) to read and communicate effectively; and 2) to gain full access to the academic materials and opportunities made available to all students.

Services and accommodations that support the learning process are equally important. These supports include outreach activities and assistance prior to the point of acceptance and registration, as well as the provision of learning assistance throughout the duration of a student's stay. Learning assistance includes human support (in the form of note takers and tutors for example), the provision of academic materials in appropriate alternative format, and other services that enhance students' abilities to succeed in course work. For some students, learning assistance can also mean modifications -- to programs, course work or the standard processes of evaluation -- that take into account the effects disability may have on a student's ability to perform to his or her full potential.

Support, broadly understood, must also include the factors that shape institutional consciousness of disability and its ramifications. A supportive learning environment includes but is not limited to programs that support instructors and ease the process of communication between student and instructor, programs that involve or educate the wider campus community, and the development of policies and articulation of commitments on the part of administration. Post-secondary institutions are not autonomous, so a supportive learning environment also necessitates links with the community at large, with other institutions and with agencies that support the work of creating accessibility.

This project focuses on understanding how the barrier-free physical environment and the supportive learning environment that students with disabilities need can be achieved in postsecondary institutions. While we have some awareness of the services, accommodations and policies that may be necessary to meet this objective, we focus in this project on the evaluation of those features. What works well? What features are critically important? We turn to students and service providers for the answers.

In understanding how an accessible post-secondary environment may be created, we also feel it is important to examine how regional variations, size and type of institution may affect the ability to serve students with disabilities. We also recognize that students with disabilities is not a uniform category. Many different kinds of needs exist and institutions may be better at accommodating some than others. Our recommendations will attempt to focus on what is being done, what can be done better, and how the varied needs of students with disabilities can be accommodated within widely varying institutional contexts.