With the beginning of fall comes the start of a new journey for many students. Among them is my little sister, who is starting her first year of university. Over the weeks leading up to the first day of school, I watched her worry and stress over which classes she needs to take, where to buy her textbooks, and how to adapt to the online classroom like everyone else. Of course, being now a veteran of this process, I helped her out as much as I could, guiding her away from the overpriced textbooks and bestowing upon her the sage wisdom of avoiding 9:00 a.m. lectures as much as possible.
However, there was one thing I couldn’t help her with, an issue that only she could understand and plan for: her dyslexia. Along with her dyslexia, she also struggles with a weakness in her short-term auditory memory, meaning she has trouble paying attention and remembering information she receives orally. Now, this makes lectures particularly challenging because most instruction is given orally, regardless of slides, as they often do not contain all the information conveyed in lectures.
If classes were in person, my sister might have had a note buddy to help her fill in the gaps in her notes. However, we are in an online learning environment, and the only classmate she has is her green Triceratops plushie named Tristan and, unfortunately, Tristan doesn’t have any thumbs. So, what’s her solution? Along with communicating with the Accessibility Centre, she also emailed all her professors to request closed captioning for lectures. Most professors either agreed to her request or offered their notes as an alternative.
Yet, one professor’s reaction to including a simple thing as closed captioning was concerning. Not only did he refuse the request, but he also implied that this was a tactic to skip class and that she should change out of his section of the course to another professor. As I went into older sister mode and raged behind her, my sister quietly opened up her schedule and changed her class, all too familiar with this type of dismissal from a teacher.
I know my sister isn’t alone in struggling to receive accommodations or having her accommodations request denied, especially when the entire university learning experience has shifted online. There are professors out there who don’t understand that turning on live captioning, posting their notes, or providing more breaks can make students with disabilities feel acknowledged and valued.
Moreover, when students take the initiative and have the courage to communicate the tools or different approaches they need, professors must believe them. Asking for accommodations isn’t a ploy to slack off or take advantage of the system. It’s an attempt to level the playing field so that students with disabilities can have the same opportunity for success as non-disabled and neurotypical students.
I recognize that most instructors are supportive and accommodating—this is not to bash or devalue the work they do. In fact, when I asked the Director of Accessibility Services, Elizabeth Martin, at UTM to comment on how instructors and teaching assistants (TAs) were being prepped for accommodating students in an online learning setting, she conveyed that there was a great deal of work put into ensuring that instructors and TAs were prepared and that students continue to get the support they need. Director Martin also stressed the importance of reaching out to the centre if students experience difficulties or have questions.
To students, I’m sure you’ve heard this advice repeatedly and are probably tired of it, but you need to advocate for yourself because no one else understands your needs like you do. As someone who has been by my sister’s side as she finds her voice, I know how hard it is to push through the anxiety and fear of being ridiculed or doubted, but know that it is your right to be accommodated and respected.
To illustrate the severity of this issue, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has recognized that, “‘Disability’ continues to be the most often cited ground of discrimination under the Code in human rights claims made to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, with significant systemic issues being raised in disability and education claims.”
Moreover, OHRC states, “Statistics Canada reports that Ontarians with disabilities continue to have lower educational achievement levels, a higher unemployment rate, and are more likely to have low income than people without disabilities.” This is not to say that students with disabilities can’t achieve success, but to demonstrate the pervasive barriers and discrimination holding students with disabilities back in a system catered to non-disabled students.
As the OHRC states, there is a duty to accommodate students with disabilities, both physical or psychological, and it means that all students with disabilities must be treated with dignity, respect, and the recognition of their inherent worth as a human being. This duty encompasses the empowerment and integrity of students with disabilities, and it is harmed when students are ignored, devalued, or marginalized. My sister is lucky enough to have been able to find better instructors that acknowledged this duty to accommodate, but other students aren’t as fortunate. So to the entire UTM community, whether you be a student, instructor, or TA, recognize and treat accommodation as the crucial duty it is, for the sake of individuals like my sister, but also for the betterment of the broader educational community.