One principle underlines all of OUSA’s advocacy work:
All willing and qualified individuals in Ontario must be able to access and excel within the post-secondary education system.
This includes students from marginalized groups, like those with disabilities.
Unfortunately, students with disabilities continue to be underserved by their universities. They access and complete university at lower rates than those without disabilities; they are likely to experience more exclusion, marginalization, and difficulty than their peers; and their experiences of discrimination can be compounded by other characteristics, including the type of disability they have. Among Ontarians with disabilities, those with physical disabilities are the most likely to attain postsecondary credentials, yet learning disabilities, mental health disabilities, and chronic illnesses are the most common among university students.
Understanding that many of our members may be struggling to persist through their undergraduate programs, we undertook an exploratory primary research study to learn more about the barriers they face. Specifically, we wanted to learn about the lived experiences of attending university in Ontario for students who identify as having one or more disabilities. This research illustrates the nature of the barriers these students face while, at the same time, elevating their voices within OUSA’s policy and advocacy work.
The study used mixed methods to explore student experiences; thirty-three students’ responses were included in this research. The majority of survey respondents (19 individuals) indicated having psychiatric disabilities and thirteen indicated having more than one disability. Our survey results are not representative of all of Ontario’s students with disabilities, but they do identify the environmental barriers that inhibit students’ academic success.
Most influential were informational barriers that limited students’ access to support services; this was demonstrated in both the interview transcripts and survey responses. We found that these students received very little (if any) information about disability or accessibility services prior to attending university. Once they began their studies, they did not receive much more information.
Respondents also reported experiencing attitudinal barriers, shown in resistance to their accommodations, requirements to disclose their disability inappropriately, and general ignorance of disability issues. Lastly, both learning materials and physical classroom environments received only poor or fair accessibility ratings. All of these barriers impeded respondents’ participation and engagement with their academic environments and, ultimately, negatively impacted their success.
Looking at the findings holistically, the barriers described by the students who participated were largely rooted in their environments and not in themselves. This is perhaps our most significant finding and should give direction to future researchers. According to our results, social models of understanding disability are more beneficial in university settings than medical models.
Our participants experienced challenges when they interacted with their campus communities and overcoming these challenges requires campus-wide participation.
We would like to present our Experiences of Students with Disabilities at Ontario’s Universities survey report as a contribution to the literature on barriers experienced by students with disabilities in post-secondary environments, as well as a contribution to the evidence-base that drives public policy decisions. Building inclusive and accessible communities requires the guidance of students with lived experiences as well as a community willing to take responsibility for supporting all of its members. This survey report helps move public discourse regarding post-secondary accessibility one step-forward, keeping students’ concerns at the forefront of the discussion.
You can read the survey report in its entirety here.