Conference addresses ‘difficult conversations’ about barriers to learning CBC News, Posted: Jun 24, 2023
A group of academics who took part in an event at King’s University College on Friday said there’s still more work to be done when it comes to accommodating the unique needs of students with disabilities.
The National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) and Western University’s Society of Graduate Students held a mini-conference with a focus on increasing accessibility and accommodations for disabled students in post-secondary education.
The meeting included two separate panels: one of professors, and another of students.
CBC News asked some of the student participants to share their stories about how disabilities have shaped and challenged them during their academic careers, and what needs to be done to improve student accessibility.
Mohler is a research consultant with NEADS.
She lives with a visible, visual disability (glaucoma) and much of her academic and professional work as a consultant is focused on accessibility issues. Mohler said post-graduate students with disabilities are often expected to perform without accommodations at the same level as able-bodied students.
“We hear a lot of discourse about how accommodations are seen as giving somebody an upper hand … as opposed to just levelling the playing field,” she said.
Mohler said grad students often struggle to access funding that would help them to publish their work and share it with peers through travel.
“A conference like this opens up space to have difficult conversations and disrupt norms in higher education about how, where and when we learn,” she said, adding the conference also provides a platform for students to network with peers who’ve faced similar challenges.
Rye is a library and information sciences student at Western who calls herself a “triple threat” because she lives with cerebral palsy, a spacial learning disability and a mental illness.
Rye is a wheelchair user and said physical barriers to accessing spaces have been a constant challenge throughout her time as a student. She said there’s often a lack of accessibility accommodation for graduate students compared to the supports that exist for undergraduate programs.
“There’s not much communication between accessible education and my program and so I end up having to coordinate that myself,” she said. “We are willing to learn, we are able to learn, we just need accommodations.”
Rye regularly uses a shuttle service that allows students with mobility challenges to travel between King’s, Western and Brescia. One problem she’s run into: The service doesn’t operate in the summer.
“It’s a big issue for graduate students,” she said.
Rye said she finds that even newer campus buildings often fall short of full accessibility for wheelchair users. Her program requires her to visit the Faculty of Information and Media Studies building, which opened to students in 2017.
“There’s no buttons on the exterior doors, no buttons on the bathroom doors,” she said
Western computer science student Jonathan Alexander said he’s struggled to get academic accommodations for his diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He also suffers from anxiety and depression.
“Things to do with time management, getting things in on time and concentration, those can be a big problem for me,” he said.
Alexander said he’s faced challenges getting professors to extend submission deadlines.
“The first step in making a change is awareness and hopefully this event will help raise awareness,” said Alexander.
Moore is a graduate of Western University with a PhD in philosophy of physics.
He’s also on the autism spectrum, which he said has made it difficult for him to take part in the social aspects of student life.
“Changing people’s deeply held attitudes about social interactions isn’t something that’s easy to do,” he said. “In trying to get accommodations with the disability office. I’m hoping that what I have to say here will benefit other autistic students.”