Changes are making higher education possible for those who would have been
shut out only a few years ago
Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 27, 2008
A couple of decades ago, Will Parkinson would not have been a candidate for
a university education.
Although he had no problem with reading, his spelling and grammar were poor
and he struggled to put his thoughts on paper. By the time he left high
school, he was doing well in math and science, but his writing was at a
Grade 8 or 9 level.
Students like Mr. Parkinson are one of the fast-growing segments of the
university and college demographic.
Two decades ago, about 90 per cent of Carleton University’s 200 or 300
disabled students had visible disabilities such as mobility problems. The
number of disabled students has grown to about 1,300, but now more than half
have invisible problems, like learning disabilities.
The numbers are growing for several reasons. Legislation, including the
Human Rights Code and the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, require
post-secondary institutions to make accommodations for disabled students,
and the province provides the funding.
At the same time, growing numbers of parents are refusing to allow their
children to drift into low-paying jobs. They’re willing to spend, or find a
way to fund, the $1,800 it takes for a psychological assessment to figure it
Technology, like the computer that helps Mr. Parkinson write essays and
exams, or simple accommodations, like lighter course loads, are making
higher education possible for people who would have been shut out only a few
Meanwhile, universities and colleges, which face stagnating or declining
enrolment as the baby boom echo clears the school system, are looking to
learning-disabled students as a growth market.
With a disabled population of about 5.5 per cent — the provincial average
for post-secondary schools is about 3.9 per cent — Carleton University has
one of the highest proportions of disabled students in the province. Still,
that doesn’t reflect the entire potential market when one in 10 people in
Canada has a disability.
“We’re not even up to the national average. There’s still room to grow,
and that’s a good thing. We’re competing for students,” said Larry McCloskey,
director of Carleton’s Paul Menton Centre, which helps find supports for
students with disabilities.
Disabled students must meet the same admission standards as other students.
“They’re good students,” he said.
Every year, between 50 and 100 students arrive at Carleton with suspected
learning disabilities that have not yet been confirmed, said Dr. Nancy
McIntyre, co-ordinator of the university’s learning disabilities program.
Yesterday, 150 high school students with disabilities and 50 educators
gathered at Carleton to hear about post-secondary options. The program will
be repeated in May at Algonquin College.
Brianna Knowles, 17, a Grade 12 student at Lisgar Collegiate, has dyslexia
and problems with reading, writing, comprehension and short-term memory. In
high school, teachers sometimes manoeuvre around her difficulties by reading
her questions and allowing her to answer orally.
Ms. Knowles plans to be a marine biologist and has investigated several
universities. Some have already offered to provide her with a note-taker and
a tutor. She’s determined to go.
“I’ve always worked really hard,” she said. “There’s no reason
for me to change that.”
A long-term study of almost 100 students with disabilities who have
graduated from Ontario universities and colleges has produced some good
news, said Mr. McCloskey.
The study, now in its fifth year, found that only about half of the disabled
graduates had disclosed their disabilities to employers, 93 per cent
reported having good relationships with co-workers, and about three-quarters
said they were satisfied with their jobs.
However, they also reported lower salaries. The median salary for university
graduates two years after graduation is about $39,000. For disabled
students, it was about $31,200.
Now 22, Mr. Parkinson is in his fourth year of geography and geomatics and
is considering a master’s degree. Access to a computer has made higher
“It’s hard to imagine what might have been,” he said.