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OPINION: Disabled students deserve adequate support Educators need to re-evaluate their idea of accommodations

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Photo By Cindy Cui / Photo Editor

It was my second year of university and I was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with my studies because I was having traumatic flashbacks every day and night terrors every night. I was seeing a counsellor and a doctor to address my poor health. Despite this, my marks continued to slip.

Luckily, I was able to register with Student Accessibility Services when I realized I needed some extra help with school. This lifted a lot of weight from my shoulders, as I was able to access lecture notes through the SAS website and spread out my tests over a longer period of time. However, it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. 

One of my accommodations under SAS is for instructors to provide an alternative to missed classwork. Knowing this, when I was unable to write a midterm due to my disability, I emailed the instructor to let them know. 

In their reply to my email, I was told, “We do not offer an alternate date to write the midterm. If you are unable to write the midterm today, you will need to use a [McMaster Student Absence Form]. Using an MSAF will move the weight of the midterm to the final exam making the final worth a total of 94%.” 

Despite having SAS accommodations, I was rejected of the accommodations that were supposed to help level the playing ground when it came to succeeding in courses. I remember being upset and frustrated because I’ve always had the impression that educators should be focused on helping their students succeed. Because of my instructor’s response, this situation dragged out for over a month as my assistant dean had to talk to the instructor to advocate for me. Meanwhile, I was constantly studying for a midterm whose date was unknown to me. Since I was having difficulties rescheduling my midterm, I fell behind in class and ended up dropping the course.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, educators must accommodate their disabled students. Furthermore, accommodations should be unique and individualized — meaning, “blanket” accommodations that are meant to cover all disabilities often don’t work because disabled students have different needs. Educators should be cognizant that an accommodation, which may seem helpful in their eyes, may not actually be helpful for a student. As a result, they could be putting undue stress on the student who needs the accommodation.

Saying that I can use an MSAF to redistribute the weight of my midterm is not an accommodation. I don’t know about you, but having a 96 per cent exam doesn’t exactly exemplify a good ‘accommodation’. In fact, I’d argue that most non-disabled students would find a 96 per cent exam overwhelming. Maybe someone else might be okay with this accommodation, but it just wasn’t going to work for me. And that’s okay.

The unfortunate thing is that even with SAS, I still faced many barriers in receiving adequate accommodations. However, many disabled students go through their undergraduate career without SAS because registering can be a long process. For example, SAS registration requires medical documentation from a doctor, meaning that a formal diagnosis is necessary even though many conditions can be difficult to diagnose or may be highly stigmatized, which may result in the lack of diagnosis. 

The unfortunate thing is that even with SAS, I still faced many barriers in receiving adequate accommodations. However, many disabled students go through their undergraduate career without SAS because registering can be a long process. For example, SAS registration requires medical documentation from a doctor, meaning that a formal diagnosis is necessary even though many conditions can be difficult to diagnose or may be highly stigmatized, which may result in the lack of diagnosis. 

Instead of focusing on formal diagnoses, instructors should concentrate on providing support to students who need it. Evidently, there can be many complications that prevent someone from receiving disability status at McMaster. As a result, disabled students can fall behind in their coursework just because they cannot provide an accommodation letter from SAS to their instructors.

Even when you do have SAS, advocating for your accommodations can be taxing. Meeting up with your professors to discuss accommodations can make you feel vulnerable. Emailing professors every time you’re absent from class and having to reschedule several midterms after a flare-up can be exhausting. 

Even after all of this, you may still face resistance regarding your accommodations. I have faced the risk of my SAS accommodations expiring even though my disability is permanent. As a result, I had to get medical documentation again to verify that my disability wasn’t going away anytime soon. I’m not the only person who has faced this problem — I’ve heard from many peers that they’ve faced a similar situation where their SAS status expired and they were unable to access accommodations when they needed them most.

The accommodation process is made more complicated by negative perceptions that students who ask for course accommodations are “cheating the system.” Of course, there’s always the possibility that there will be a student who asked for an accommodation they don’t actually need. But, more often than not, it’s because they really need it. A student’s SAS status shouldn’t be the only reason why an instructor should provide course accommodations. If students are reaching out to you about how they might need some extra help in class, consider giving them the support they need to succeed in your course.

Often times, accommodations can be easy to arrange. Providing a student with notes, lecture slides or an extension for an assignment doesn’t usually require extra effort on the instructor’s behalf. However, it’s important to note that even if the accommodation isn’t ‘“convenient’” to provide to a student, they still deserve to be adequately accommodated. To ensure that accommodations are properly handled, there should be a clearer follow-up process of accommodations within each faculty. Students should know who to go to when something isn’t properly handled, as well as be able to access support from their faculty during this process.

Because at the end of the day, educators should be concerned about a student’s success — not their disability status.

 

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Author: Steffi Arkilander

Steffi is in her third year of Health Sciences. During the school year, you can find her hiding out at Innis Library and off-campus coffee shops, where she spends a bit too much time watching bad TV shows and playing Pokemon Go. She enjoys hikes, plants, frogs and empowering other voices through opinions pieces.