Who gets access to “disability” language and academic accommodation?
It’s hard work, and not all benefit:
Individualized academic accommodations are not easy to access, and are not equitably distributed across the student population. As some examples:
- The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s (2017b) recent report, With Learning in Mind: Inquiry report on systemic barriers to academic accommodation for postsecondary students with mental health disabilities, makes plain how challenging it can be for students to access their legally-entitled rights to support.
- As Dr. Ameil Joseph exposes in the film clip below, the process of navigating accommodations can place an unnecessary burden of additional work on disabled students and can lead to retraumatization and harm.
- In Dr. Rachel Gorman’s (2013) postsecondary teaching experience, racialized and working class students living with what could be labelled as “disability” are less likely than white or middle class students to name themselves in this way, gain access to medical confirmation of disability, or be recognized by instructors as disabled, resulting in differential access to and benefit from “disability” language, rights protection, and resources.
- During the 2015-2016 school year, 1,822 McMaster students were registered for accommodations through Student Accessibility Services (SAS) and gained support from this individualized model (T. Nolan, Student Accessibility Services, personal communication, June 21, 2016); many more disabled students on campus, and those who would qualify as “disabled” but do not want to or do not know they can identify in this way, have not sought or been able to access formalized accommodation support.
What’s the alternative? Accessible Education!
It is in response to these sorts of barriers that disability activist Sandy Olson (2015) advocates a focus on accessibility in the classroom for the benefit of all students. Olson (2015) articulates how it is not always possible for learners to access the formal medical documentation needed to request disability-related academic accommodations.
Some reasons include:
● Lack of access to adequate medical care;
● Uneasy relationships with physicians, nurses or healthcare workers; and a
● Lack of financial means to afford testing for diagnosis.
Approaching Accessible Education through Social and Human Rights Model approaches prompts us to think beyond individual, reactive accommodations to instead focus on proactively identifying and mediating barriers in our environments to enhance access for all.
Disabled students will benefit from this emphasis, including those who choose not to document or register their disability, as well as those who experience barriers, retraumatization, or harm doing so.
Additionally, students from other equity-seeking groups who have been historically excluded from participating in and succeeding at postsecondary education, will be further welcomed and supported with this more inclusive approach.