By Dania Ali
Although academic accommodations usually focus on students who can’t make it to class, some students are facing barriers in using or asking for academic accommodation directly in the classroom.
“The expertise that comes from lived experiences is not welcomed, and that can be really challenging and alienating in a classroom,” said Tobin LeBlanc Haley, a postdoctoral fellow at Ryerson’s School of Disability Studies.
Students can request accommodation for many different reasons. Student Learning Support’s Academic Accommodation Support handbook lists permanent or temporary disabilities like learning disabilities, sensory impairments, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, chronic health issues like epilepsy and migraines, mobility issues and mental health disabilities as possible reasons students request accommodations.
“A lot of the discourse around mental health in university, is that there is this crisis on campus. There are many issues which affect students now, such as ableism, transphobia, financial stress. We are living in distressing times,” LeBlanc Haley said.
According to Ryerson University’s Senate Policy 159, academic accommodation refers to “a planned variation in the way a student with a disability receives course curriculum and materials, participates in course activities, or demonstrates mastery of course content and skills through evaluation and assessment.”
“The expertise that comes from lived experiences is not welcomed, and that can be really challenging and alienating in a classroom”
Other than excusing students from class physically, accommodations can include things like access to the test centre, instructors creating an academically accessible classroom environment, and receiving support from the deans, school chairs and directors in implementing these accommodations. Some students with mental health needs face barriers in the lectures.
First-year creative industries student Ella Richards* uses Ryerson’s academic accommodation support for her anxiety and dyslexia. Richards says she found it difficult to access these resources at first and found some policies confusing.
Richards applied for academic accommodation in September 2016, and found the services helpful but the system flawed. “I understand that counsellors are under stress because there are a lot of students to accommodate for, but they need to figure out a way to give some more time to individual students,” she said.
One of Richards’ accommodations is being able to submit alternative formats for in-class presentations, such as writing an essay instead. However, Richards said “it was not available for every class and not every professor was aware of the accommodation needs.”
A lot of the courses Richards’ takes are presentation-oriented due to the nature of her program. She said this is a big barrier for her and prevents her from performing to the best of her academic abilities.
“I can put in 100 per cent effort, but it doesn’t matter, if at the end of the day that is what my marks are based upon,” she added.
Arts and contemporary studies student Hallie Ebanks was only made aware of Ryerson’s Academic Accommodation Support Office through her mother’s research, but chose not to apply because of previously poor experiences with accomodations in high school.
“Because of my social anxiety, I find it nerve-wracking to talk to professors, as I don’t always know how to approach them. Also, in high school, your teacher knows you. But a [university] professor is teaching so many students that he or she feels like more of a stranger,” Ebanks said.
“I understand that counsellors are under stress … but they need to figure out a way to give some more time to individual students”
LeBlanc Haley said one of the major barriers is not getting representation as an individual with mental health accommodations within the classroom in things like textbooks and course outlines.
“As a student, I never see myself reflected in the material that I am reading, and that can be very alienating,” she said.
“We are here, as contributors, in the university. We are not a problem to be solved,” said LeBlanc Haley.
According to Policy 159, instructors have an obligation to “collaborate with Academic Accommodation Support in structuring an appropriate accommodation plan that meets the needs of the student with a disability and satisfies the essential academic requirements of the respective course or program.”
“Even recognizing these students in saying that he or she will work their best to work with them and have them be successful in the classroom is helpful,” said Ebanks.
Richards said that accommodation support in the classroom needs to be seen all the way through. “I understand students have to do some of the things themselves to get in tune with how the real world works, but sometimes you just don’t where to start.”
“We are here, as contributors, in the university. We are not a problem to be solved,”
She also said that the accommodation services offered needed to be better advertised on campus. “If you don’t know that it is available, then how can you ask for it? How can you want to ask for help, when you don’t know what to ask for?”
The Academic Accommodation Support office is involved in the implementation of Policy 159, which, according to John Turtle, the secretary of Ryerson’s Senate, is slated for review.
“It will be the focus of a discussion at Senate at their May 1 meeting, followed by community consultations, comparisons with other universities, etc. over the coming months,” Turtle told The Eye over email.
*Names have been changed to protect identity