Ryerson alum fills gaps for students with disabilities through BeyondAbilities

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By Darya Soufian

A 2021 Ryerson disability studies graduate has launched a new organization in an effort to cater to the different needs of individuals with disabilities.

BeyondAbilities provides a wide range of programs and services for all age groups, as well as for specific needs of different disabilities.

Some of the programs include online English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, tutoring, resume building, support for mothers with disabilities and more. All of BeyondAbilities programming is provided virtually, not only due to the pandemic but also for accessibility and to protect immunocompromised people in the disabled community.

The programs are run by experts with lived experiences and knowledge about disability studies.

During the pandemic, BeyondAbilities founder Ghofran Alyass said she discovered that her community has faced isolation as a result of not being able to engage in activities with each other.

“We can often be tempted to go outside and forget about the virus but that’s not a decision I want others in my community to make,” said Alyass. 

Alyass has a physical disability and is a wheelchair user, which has helped her understand the needs of others with disabilities.

From her own experience and from what she heard from her peers in the program, students found it difficult to find someone who could support them in order to reach their goals. 

“Finding someone who has knowledge on the subject of disability is a challenge,” said Alyass. “We need someone who will take in the needs of someone with a disability and their diverse learning styles.”

Up until Alyass’ graduation this year, her idea for BeyondAbilities loomed in her mind. However, it quickly began to unfold as she reflected on her experience in the disability studies program such as her lack of support as a student with a disability. The day after her convocation, she started building the website and moved forward with registering the business. 

“It was an idea that was tossing and turning in my head for years and I wanted to be able to commit time to this,” she said. “Investing in services for people with disabilities takes a lot of time and energy.”

The organization’s mission outlines how equity, diversity and inclusion play a part in its interactions with people with disabilities. 

“It is created based on the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion, which we work toward at BeyondAbilities on a daily basis to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities,” said Alyass. 

“Finding someone who has knowledge on the subject of disability is a challenge”

“Our focus is on all these principles but especially on inclusion because we believe people with disabilities are people first and deserve to be included in all aspects of this society.” 

Although BeyondAbilities is not affiliated with Ryerson, Alyass still continues to support the school community with specially-designed programs to help students with disabilities reach their full potential. 

“Ryerson did have tutoring and writing support that was offered virtually but there is so much more that can be done in terms of providing that service,” said Alyass. 

She said she booked numerous online writing support appointments through the Learning Support program at Ryerson, but they put strict time restraints on the appointments and didn’t make full use of the allotted time, often calling her or joining Zoom calls 15 minutes late.

“The only explanation I would get is ‘that’s the way we work.’ I didn’t get my full time or the support I needed so I found that to be very stressful. I felt alone at times.” 

As Alyass pursues her masters in social justice education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, she hopes people can see the “ability within the disability.”

“I want to shift away from that narrative of struggle and sadness because there is so much that is enriching in being a person with disabilities. We have so much to contribute and so much to share. It’s just a matter of being given the opportunity,” she said.

BeyondAbilities started a GoFundMe to support the access fund they’ve created to help students register for school programs they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.

“To me, it’s beyond just numbers and it’s beyond telling me how much you need this. I want to know what kind of difference this program they’re registering for will make in their life.”

Andrew Smith, co-president of Ryerson Best Buddies, an affiliate group that helps students with disabilities form friendships, said he hadn’t heard of an organization like BeyondAbilities until recently.

Smith, who has White-Sutton syndrome, a form of autism, said he is interested in applying to the BeyondAbilities access fund to help him register for a program he likes. 

The criteria to apply, which can be found on BeyondAbilities’ website, requires applicants to have a limited income of less than $25,000 a year or receive social assistance to be able to apply for monetary support.

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