What’s the deal with accessibility?

“A lot of folks without disabilities don't realize is how important accessibility measures and accommodations can be in enabling someone to have a meaningful and successful academic experience.”

Recently, OUSA had the opportunity to provide feedback to the AODA Alliance on their Draft Framework for a Post-Secondary Education Accessibility Standard. This framework is being developed to inform changes to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. For many individuals who do not have a disability, this raises the question: why do we need a legislated accessibility standard for post-secondary students and education?

If you are an able-bodied person, it is incredibly easy to overlook the physical barriers on our campuses. However, it doesn’t take much to recognize that many paths from point A to B require climbing a staircase or opening a door; and sometimes students have to go to a connected building just to find an elevator. These barriers mean that students might pick their program or institution based on their ability to navigate the campus, rather than their program or institution of choice.

I had the opportunity to speak with Vaiva, a student studying social work who is visually impaired. Vaiva spoke about her experiences with our university’s Accessibility Services. She said that they have been quite helpful throughout her university career. However, her success in receiving needed accommodations was dependent on her hard work, dedication, and ability to self-advocate. Vaiva knew what she needed, asked for what she needed, and followed up until she got what she needed.

Unfortunately, not every student has the tools or capacity to be such a strong self-advocate, and not all accessibility services are as helpful. We need to improve accommodation practices on our campuses so they are able to support students without requiring relentless self-advocacy.

One area that is especially under supported is accommodations for neurodiverse students and students with mental health disabilities. Incredibly smart and capable individuals can struggle in school because of mental health concerns like ADHD or anxiety. Stephanie Ye-Mowe, who provided the opening quote, raised an important point: it is easy to think that you are ill-suited to university or a certain life path just because of how your brain works. Don’t get me wrong, skills like focusing for a long time or memorizing material can be useful, but they are not essential. Post-secondary education structures are built around exclusionary societal expectations of what a “normal” student is. We need to start building education so that anyone can succeed. What seems like a minor change can have a profound impact on a student’s ability to learn, grow and succeed.

Accessibility is complicated. It’s difficult to talk about making things accessible because different individuals have different needs, and our unique experiences make it difficult to envision a completely accessible world. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be making every reasonable effort to make post-secondary education accessible to all.