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Academic Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Last January, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) created headlines across the province with a precedent-setting decision related to academic accommodation for students with disabilities. It began when a PhD student at York University was seeking an academic accommodation, and was required to relay her Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM) diagnosis. She refused to accept this – she knew that a label was not necessary to receive appropriate accommodations. Eventually, the OHRC intervened and released new academic accommodations for students with mental health disabilities.

After several weeks, the case’s media attention faded away. For those of us involved in this file at post-secondary institutions however, the conversations had just begun. 

One of the first noticeable shifts was when public universities and colleges in Ontario were asked to comply with new guidelines – medical documentation without DSM diagnosis – by the beginning of the 2016 – 2017 academic year. Yet that was not the only major ask of the OHRC. Just as significant for students with disabilities was the OHRC’s requirement for post-secondary institutions to:

  • Allow students to request interim accommodations pending medical documentation
  • Allow students with both temporary and permanent disabilities to receive accommodations
  • Consider retroactive accommodations
  • Not require students to reveal medical information or seek accommodation directly from instructors or teaching assistants

Although these new guidelines were not as widely publicized as the lack of requirement for DSM diagnosis, each is extremely important to ensuring proper academic accommodation for students with disabilities. By allowing interim accommodations, students will now be able to access accommodations while they wait for their medical documentation to become available. By accommodating students with temporary disabilities, these students will now be able to receive fair accommodations alongside students with permanent disabilities. By considering retroactive accommodations, we ensure that students who were unable to proactively become accommodated are treated fairly. In addition, by not requiring students to seek accommodation directly from instructors, no student will be put in a situation in which they feel obligated to divulge private medical information.

I applaud all of these changes. Yet with these positive steps, there will inevitably be more work for Offices for Students with Disabilities (OSD). These offices will now become responsible for interim accommodations, students with temporary disabilities, retroactive accommodations, and seeking accommodations from instructors on behalf of students. At the same time, the population of students with disabilities in post-secondary is growing. At McMaster, my own institution, the number of students registered with our OSD increased by almost 200 students over the past two years. As student populations grow, and the responsibilities grow – the resources have not. 

It’s time for the province to newly invest in funding for OSDs. These offices are essential for students with disabilities to succeed and receive equitable opportunities on campus. When they lack resources, wait times become longer, case-workers become buried, and students with disabilities lose out. In the Premier’s recent mandate letter to the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, she noted the need to remove non-financial barriers for marginalized groups accessing post-secondary education. Overburdened OSDs are a tangible barrier for students with disabilities. By allocating funding specifically to these offices, we will know that the OHRC’s positive recommendations can be smoothly implemented and the ever-growing number of students with disabilities on campus will ultimately benefit.