In Our Time to Swim

Our Time To Swim was a week long series that took Ryerson Student Affairs inside the high-stakes, rewarding work of making education accessible to all students. The series considered how and why disability services support is so important—from legal, ethical, and moral standpoints—and looked to the future of disability support at Ryerson and across Ontario and what will be needed to remain relevant, supportive, and prosperous to students in the coming years. Originally published in Winter 2017.

Academic Accommodation Support (AAS) works with almost 2500 students identifying as having a disability. Students seeking support have a range of disabilities, each with their own unique story. Michelle is one of these students, whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. This is her story.

— Sarah Kloke, accommodation facilitator

Time, Practice, and Support

by Michelle Woolfrey, student at Ryerson University

When I was a little girl and my parents would bring me to Toronto, I would walk around the streets that make up both Ryerson University and the University of Toronto campuses. I knew from the moment I stepped onto either campus that I was destined to end up in the hallowed halls of higher education, however, when I used to dream those big dreams I had no idea that my university experience would end up looking the way it does; that I would have the opportunity to work with and be mentored by so many amazing Ryerson professors and staff.

For those of you who don’t know me: I’m Michelle, a 3rd year Arts and Contemporary Studies Student here at Ryerson. I am also a dog lover, student leader, community activist, and Career Boost student in Academic Accommodation Support (AAS). Another big piece of my identity is my multiple disabilities which include blindness, a brain injury, anxiety, and PTSD. As I’m sure you can imagine this last piece of my identity has made university a very different experience than a “traditional” student.  

In September 2014, as I walked onto the Ryerson campus for the first time as an official student and member of the Ramily, I felt scared. I had one failed attempt at post-secondary already and my confidence was shaken, badly. I was questioning all the things I thought to be true—that I wanted and deserved to be a university student just like all my non-disabled peers. What I didn’t realize in those first few moments was that this time it would be different. This time there was a whole team of individuals who were enthusiastic to help me succeed, and that I would find them in Academic Accommodation Support.

As a well-seasoned university student, I knew the importance of using my disability related accommodations. I also knew what a university classroom was like and the type of support I needed, such as access to PowerPoints ahead of time, extra time on assignments and exams, alternate formats for books, and access to my laptop and specialized software. I also knew that in order for me to have a fighting chance at succeeding I would need to be my own strongest advocate, asking for what I need and searching out all the resources that would help me learn best. What I didn’t know or feel comfortable with was what to do when I ran into a situation where despite my best efforts, my accommodation requests weren’t met.  

As I walked to my first class that September day, I gave myself a good boost of self-confidence. As I mentioned, my previous attempt at university hadn’t gone well and I was determined to make this time around different. In my positive self-talk though, I failed to remind myself that if things didn’t go perfectly, unlike last time, I was not alone; all I had to do was reach out.

In that first lecture, I was met by a professor who was not the most accommodating. It was a large class size, taught in the movie theatre, and they felt they didn’t really have the time to give me the kind of support that I needed. I left that lecture feeling defeated. I had no idea what to do, and I was allowing myself to believe that I was asking for too much. As I continued through the semester with this difficult professor, I was doing okay but I wasn’t getting the kind of marks that I wanted or believed that I could achieve.

Come final grades time I was looking at a transcript report that was less than average. This was incredibly frustrating and disheartening. I knew I could feel good about the effort I put into my performance, as I did all my readings, I attended all the lectures, I participated often, and I sought extra help during office hours and tutorials. I felt like I had put in at least twice the effort as most of my non-disabled peers just to keep up, however, the one piece that was missing was having proper access to my accommodations.

With a little encouragement from friends and family I made the trek to Academic Accommodation Support to ask for help. I wasn’t really sure what I expected to happen there but I was blown away by the reception that I received. From Brenda on the front desk who was personable and friendly, to Maria, the intake administrator who genuinely cared about how I was doing, to Sarah my facilitator who was empathetic and helpful, I found a group of people that wanted nothing more than to see me succeed. They reminded me that I wasn’t asking for anything that I didn’t deserve, and that self-advocacy is a process, no one is perfect at it in the beginning. It takes time, practice, and support to figure out how it all works.  

Going into 2nd semester I decided to make a change. Instead of doing it myself I talked to Sarah. I asked for help with making this semester better. Together we chatted about strategies for talking with professors, and how many/what kind of courses worked best for me, as well as she made sure that I had a fulsome understanding of what the accommodations on my letter meant and what I was entitled to. I can honestly say that 2nd semester went so much better. Despite some personal life struggles, I pulled my grades up, accessed not only the services that AAS offered but also the services of Student Learning Support, and began to figure out that I had a whole team of people in my corner cheering me on.

As I cruised through the summer and into my 2nd year it became clear that there was still some kind of barrier in the classroom to having me succeed to my full potential. Through conversations with Sarah it became clear that the piece that was missing was a sighted note taker. I clearly needed someone who could be there to take notes just for me of all the things I was missing. Reflecting back, needing a note taker makes perfect sense. Sitting in a university lecture is an extremely sighted process, and until I had a note taker I had no idea all the information that I was missing out on. Almost overnight all those little test questions that I had no idea where the professor was getting the material from became crystal clear—it wasn’t that I wasn’t paying attention, it was that I was completely missing chunks of information because they were being presented in a visual instead of an auditory way.

With the implementation of a professional note taker, I saw my grades go from C’s in my first semester to A’s and A+’s in my fourth semester. I cannot explain the extreme pride and pure joy that came with reading my first transcript filled with straight A’s. For the first time in university, I felt like all the time and hard work was paying off. As a student with a disability it is really easy to believe that you’re not smart enough to keep up, but the staff in AAS work hard to make sure that students don’t feel this way, ever. They have the practice of knowing and accessing any resource available to make sure that students with disabilities have every tool they need to reach their full potential.

As I round into the last half of my 3rd year here at Ryerson, I know that for the most part I have the system figured out. I know and understand what my disability related needs are and I know that Sarah and the AAS team is there to help. Sarah and I have developed a system where I get to practice my self-advocacy skills with my professors first but when I run into trouble all I have to do is send an email or stop in to drop-in hours and she will help. I make it a practice these days of staying in contact with her on a regular basis even if it’s just to say hi and update her that things are going great.

I think for me one of my most favourite parts of my AAS journey is unfolding now, as I continue my work as a Career Boost student in AAS. Every day I get to help plan and help support incoming high school students and current first year students with disabilities through their transition into Ryerson, through programs like SHIFT and Portage. It’s such an amazing feeling to be able to help other students understand the process of accommodation so that they don’t feel like they have to fight their own battles (like I did for far too long). It is also a real privilege to get to see the inner workings of such a dynamic department as they continue to educate professors and help students with academic accommodation.

I can honestly say that for me it feels so invigorating to be able to reflect back on that little girl who wanted nothing more than to find her place in post-secondary education and know to my core that every day I am fulfilling those dreams. It has been a lot of hard work, and there have been more than a few tears shed, but I am so proud of myself and thankful to the AAS team for helping me to get to where I am today: headed for law school and a career in disability policy/advocacy.

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