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A Disability Back-to-School Guide
September often brings with it a slew of back-to-school guides. It comes with tips for everything from how to handle your kindergartener’s first day of school to entire books full of transition tips for those just entering their first year of college or university. Being a student with a disability in post-secondary education can be pretty confusing, and even though most schools are willing to walk you through some of the basics, there are lots of things that sometimes need to be learned from experience. So, just to add to the pile of back-to-school guides out there, here are some tips on how to navigate the strange world of accommodations in post-secondary education.
1) Register with the accessibility office in your school. This is the step that schools are usually pretty good about telling you about. Every school will have a slightly different procedure. Most accessibility services in schools are usually pretty medically-based. Be prepared to have to show medical proof that you are disabled, and many schools will want the doctor/other medical professional to tell them the accommodations that you need. This is problematic on lots of levels, but for this post I’m going to focus on how to make the system work for you rather than challenge why it exists as a whole. If the accessibility office will not give you the accommodations that will work best for you, ask them why, attempt to find some kind of compromise. Bring the issue to the manager’s attention if necessary. If you know that the accommodation is something that will help you succeed, it is important to ask for it and fight for it.
2) Inform your teachers about your disability/accommodations. This part is essential. Just because you have registered with the accessibility office doesn’t meant that you are automatically accommodated in your classes. Most schools have a policy that students with disabilities are responsible for informing their professors, and until the professors are informed they are not obligated to accommodate you in any way. Most schools do this by providing students with information sheets to give to their professors.
There are lots of important things to know about this. Students do not have to tell their professors what their specific disability is if they don’t want to. Students should be giving this information to professors as soon as possible. It is a lot easier to make the case for an extension on an assignment if your teacher knows this is one of your accommodations at the start of the semester as opposed to handing in the piece of paper to the professor while asking for an extension on the assignment due tomorrow. It can definitely be awkward to identify yourself this way, especially if you have had negative experiences when people find out about your disability, but by identifying yourself you are protecting yourself. The piece of paper is kind of like a contract between you and your professor; you fulfill your role as a student by telling them what they can do to help you learn, and they fulfill their role by fulfilling the guidelines put out in the document as best as they are able to.
Another thing to know is that the piece of paper the accessibility office provides is usually incredibly general. This means that it usually isn’t a good idea to just hand the piece of paper to the professor and walk away. Sometimes it is really important to have a conversation or provide more information about what the things written on the paper really mean. For example, one of my accommodations reads “Sign Language Interpreter,” and that is the extent of the information that my professors get about my accommodation. However, as most professors have not worked with sign language interpreters before, there are lots of things that they need to be made aware of to make the process go smoothly. What I have done and have found to be pretty helpful, is I have created basically a form letter that is kind of a how-to guide for my accommodations and I make it a point to send it to each new professor that I have, and if I have professors again multiple times, I check in with them at the start of the term to let them know about anything new regarding my accommodations.
3) If things change, let the accessibility office know. They can work with you to update your accommodations, find ways of adding more supports if what you have previously agreed upon isn’t enough, etc. You may have to get more documentation for this step, but again, the goal is to better help you to be successful as a student.
So far, all of this stuff is what any school will tell you to do, so what happens when you have done everything that you are supposed to, but things still aren’t working out?
4) Talk to the professor. Sometimes the ways that you aren’t being accommodated can be worked out in a simple conversation. It is best if you are able to name what the problem is, and if you know something that will be helpful to you, offer that as a potential solution. If you aren’t able to exactly identify what the issue is, a good professor will be able to work with you to help you figure it out.
5) If after attempting to resolve things with your professor, you are still unhappy with how you are (or aren’t) being accommodated, there are lots of ways that you can get support. One method is to meet with the head of the department/program co-ordinator. They may be able to help mediate the situation between you and your professor or offer other support through the program. Another option would be to ask for assistance from whoever you are working with in the accessibility office. They are able to meet with professors, explain specific accommodations and point them in the direction of resources so that they can better support you.
6) If those options don’t work out, there are still lots of options available to you. One thing to do would be to contact the human rights office at your school. You have a right to an accessible education, and if you are not being properly accommodated, that is a human rights issue. This office can often investigate the situation to determine if discrimination is taking place, and if so, provide remedies to that situation. If you are going to contact the human rights office it is important to make sure that you are keeping records and proof of the situation; for example, writing down summaries of conversations between yourself and the professor, the date the conversation occurred, who else was there and heard the conversation, etc., keeping any emails that you and your professor exchanged on the issue, and making note of when the discrimination is happening and how it is happening. This is usually more of a legal type of process at most schools, which is why a more legal style of proving what happened is required.
7) Contact your student union. Student unions can be a great place to find support. Most student unions have a students with disabilities group that provides support to disabled students. The student union will also be able to talk you through processes of complaining and also direct you to the school ombudsperson, should there be one (yet another person who may be able to help resolve the situation).
8) Schools always have an appeals process. Should the situation arise where your lack of accommodations results in a grade that you feel is unfair, you have the right to appeal to have your grade reviewed/work re-marked etc. Again, this is a more formal process, so similar documentation to contacting the human rights office would be required. This is where they are going to be really checking that you have followed procedures, so that is why it is so important that you follow the first few steps above in order to make sure that you are protected if the situation ever comes to this.
The most important thing to remember is that as a disabled student, the school has a responsibility to accommodate you, and you have the right to be included and accommodated in your classes. So long as your professors are informed of the disability and the appropriate accommodations, it is their responsibility to ensure that the class is accessible to you. If there are issues that come up, or you find ways that you are not being accommodated, it is your right to ask for them to be fixed, and if they are not, it is your right to escalate the situation until someone is willing to resolve it. If no one at the school level is willing to resolve it, there is always the option to take it to the human rights commission of your province, as education is one of the areas protected under the human rights code. Reach out to supportive friends, peers and professors and make sure that you are supported through the process. It can be super hard to speak out and say that a situation is inaccessible, but taking action to make sure that your education is accessible to you is one of the most important things that you can do for yourself. After all, no one is going to look out for your future and education if you don’t.