Students feel unsupported by Academic Accommodation Support during online learning

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By Sarah Tomlinson

As Ryerson students deal with the third semester of online learning under the added stress of the pandemic, some students say the lack of communication between them and the facilitators at Academic Accommodation Support (AAS) has increased their level of anxiety. 

Second-year RTA media production student Lina Elsaadi said she started using AAS at the beginning of the winter 2020 semester. Since then, she has gone through four different facilitators.

“For somebody with disabilities, that’s a very difficult thing to do,” she said. “If it was somebody else, with worse disabilities, with worse communication, would they be able to advocate for themselves the same?” 

AAS provides academic accommodation and related support to students with disabilities at Ryerson, according to its website. Through the program, students submit documentation and attend a one-on-one meeting with AAS to have their disabilities assessed. Then, they are assigned a facilitator who approves the accommodations, which they then send to their professors. 

“They have notes, they have case files, but it’s just very tough to open up and relive all of that”

Elsaadi said she was assigned to her first facilitator for a couple months but had to change facilitators because her initial one went on maternity leave. Months later, she was again assigned to a new facilitator for unknown reasons. As a result, Elsaadi said she experienced a lot of anxiety and frustration. 

“I got placed with my first facilitator, and I explained my entire life story, about my disabilities and how they affect me. I just wanted to get the help I needed and be done with it,” she said. 

“And then you switch facilitators, and you find yourself having to explain everything all over again. They have notes, they have case files, but it’s just very tough to open up and relive all of that.” 

In a statement sent to The Eyeopener, AAS said the turnover rate has not drastically changed with the onset of the pandemic. However, they said the office has been much busier as many students are facing different and sometimes more complex challenges than they may have in the past. 

Jessie*, a fourth-year social work student, said she changed facilitators right before the onset of the pandemic. This led to some disagreements between her and her facilitator. 

After submitting the updated accommodations her doctor had approved, she said her facilitator denied them in a “condescending way” saying that she needed to find her own strategies to resolve her exam anxiety rather than being accommodated. 

“The entire point of my accommodations is to assist me in coping with my anxiety for academic purposes. I have not reached out to her since. This left a bitter taste for me to use AAS,” she wrote in an email.  

In a statement to The Eyeopener, AAS wrote that while it does take into consideration the input from health care providers on the nature of a student’s disability and its impacts, they also take into consideration the student’s previous experience in education as well as their specific learning environment here at Ryerson. 

“Balancing these pieces of information allows us to develop an accommodation plan most suitable to the students’ unique needs for their program at university,” AAS wrote. 

“When it’s so independent and AAS is constantly switching up who you have to talk to, I don’t know how many students will keep up that communication” 

Similarly, Shannon Schaefer,** a fourth-year journalism student who’s been using AAS for two years, also said she stopped using AAS altogether when she switched facilitators. With managing online learning and external circumstances related to the pandemic, she said she didn’t have the will to to reach out independently to her new facilitator for support. 

“The fact that everything’s online now and it’s someone new that I have to go and meet, it’s more work,” she said. “When it’s so independent and AAS is constantly switching up who you have to talk to, I don’t know how many students will keep up that communication.” 

AAS said it acknowledges the difficulties students encounter when switching facilitators. However, when it does happen, the organization said students are informed of their next steps and are never left without support. 

At the start of each semester, students using AAS are required to submit a renewed accommodation plan to their instructors, according to AAS’s website. Elsaadi said she reached out to her facilitator to have her accommodations updated but received no response for several weeks due to a malfunctioning component of AAS’s portal. 

Therefore, she ended up having trouble getting her accommodations approved by a professor. 

“At the end of exams, one of my profs wasn’t honoring one of my accommodations. So I called AAS a million and one times and no one got back to me,” she said. By the time they did, Elsaadi said they had already assigned her to an interim facilitator while her new facilitator was being trained.  

“They never told me who my new person is. I don’t know when I’m expecting to be able to get in touch with them or not.” 

Likewise, Jessie said not all her professors remember to allow some of her accommodations, like needing extra time to write exams.  

“This can be stressful because not all professors remember to do this and watching the clock run out is very anxiety-provoking,” she said.

AAS said students should reach out to their office for support if they encounter any challenges with implementing accommodations in the classroom. Moreover, they said students should follow up with another email if they don’t receive a response within a few days. 

“It can take a few days to respond to emails, as we support all students with disabilities at Ryerson,” AAS wrote. “There are deadlines each semester to request changes to an accommodation plan, so keeping track of those dates is important as well.” 

Freya de Tonnancour is a third-year photography student who has been using AAS services since 2018. Although she said she never experienced any turnover or miscommunication with AAS, she thinks facilitators should communicate more with professors to ensure they allow their students the accommodations they need. 

“None of my teachers were aware I had accommodations. I’ve had to drop classes because teachers would not respect the accommodations and or not reply to my emails concerning accommodations,” she said. “I think AAS should be improving enforcement. I think they need some sort of input where they can actually help students deal with their profs.” 

Moving forward, Elsaadi said AAS needs to improve their communication with students. 

“If they are communicating with their students, going out of their way to make sure that the students experiencing high turnover are getting the help they need, this wouldn’t be as bad of an issue,” she said. 

Jessie also said AAS should advertise their online resources more effectively. “If they are holding appointment bookings for writing support, math support and language support, they should advertise that. These services were very helpful and many students would benefit from them; we just don’t know if or when they are happening,” she said.  

In light of the pandemic, Elsaadi said AAS is more important for students than ever before. 

“Communication has been very hard between students and professors. A lot of students have invisible disabilities,” she said. “AAS can act as a proxy to help students, who might feel exhausted, advocate for themselves.”  

*The individual’s last name was omitted to protect the source’s privacy 

**Shannon Schaefer has contributed to The Eye in a volunteer capacity

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