A new study aims to challenge how accessibility and accommodations are understood at post-secondary institutions. Released in October, the Landscape of Accessibility and Accommodation in Post-Secondary Education for Students with Disabilities report says that accessibility remains “silo’ed” within postsecondary education.
“Accessibility and inclusion efforts in the post-secondary environment have lagged behind the evolution of the student experience and are limited to the academic (classroom and online learning) environment,” reads the report, published by the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS).
Founded in 1986, NEADS’ mandate is to support access to education and employment for post-secondary students and graduates with disabilities across Canada. The Social Development Partnerships Program of Employment and Social Development Canada funded the Landscape project in 2016 to help inform the federal government’s new national accessibility legislation, known as Bill C-81, An Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada. The bill went through its first reading in June 2018 and was referred to committee in September for further study.
“We recognized that it was very important that post-secondary students and graduates with disabilities have a significant input into the consultations relating to a federal disability act,” said Frank Smith, NEADS’ national coordinator.
"Beyond the opportunity to influence new federal legislation, there were more pressing reasons that necessitated the report," said Mr. Smith. “[NEADS] started in 1986 – that was before most students were using computers, the internet, social media. It was a time when, if you were a blind student, you got your books on tape,” he said.
“What has happened since then with technology, online learning, and distance education has really helped to level the playing field for many people with disabilities who, without technology, would not be able to fully participate,” Mr. Smith continued. However, technology has also introduced new challenges: with more students with disabilities able to participate on campus, is the accommodation process working for them the best that it can? How is the rest of campus life meeting their needs? This rapidly shifting learning dynamic hasn’t been studied with this kind of national scope Mr. Smith explained.
“We often don’t look at the whole systems across our nation,” said Christine Arnold, one of the co-investigators for the Landscape report and an assistant professor in the faculty of education at Memorial University (the two other co-investigators were Michelle Pidgeon, an associate professor of education at Simon Fraser University, and Deanna Rexe, vice-president, academic, at Assiniboine Community College). “I don’t know that we’ve seen this comprehensive of a scan across the entire country looking at the policies, programs, and the literature,” said Dr. Arnold.
The project was a collaborative effort between researchers at SFU, Assiniboine, and Memorial, along with a team of 15 graduate students with disabilities. The report and its recommendations came from a substantive literature review, environmental scans, data analysis from surveys like the Canadian Graduate Survey, as well as consultations with students, service providers, and educators at various conferences across the country.
The report makes numerous recommendations for policy changes at the federal, provincial and institutional levels (the latter includes service providers, teaching staff and libraries).
These include: “Mandate accessibility of features, methods, applications, and protocols used by persons with disabilities in navigating education and employment,” meaning that accessibility shouldn’t be limited to certain areas of education and employment; and “Mandate postsecondary institutions to outline a nationally accepted set of essential requirements for all their programs of study,” which aims to eliminate the current regional and provincial disparities that exist with respect to policies and practices around accessibility and inclusion.
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