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.

Reflecting on the Our Time to Swim series, I am inspired to consider the future of disability support services. Ryerson’s disability service office (DSO), Academic Accommodation Support (AAS), has made great gains to our services, but as discussed in Deena’s article Turning the Tide, sometimes this has been at the expense of support that features the time and resources needed for direct student contact. So despite maximizing our processes and service flow, the work still feels like swimming upstream—with currents pushing us back at each turn.

Sarah articulated well this upstream struggle and the toll it has taken on our staff who face these waters. In response to these challenges, I offer a simple vision for DSO work: increase our capacity for more person-to-person connection within the service delivery model. I see three key ways to make this work:

  1. Move toward a high-touch model; find ways (and means) for staff to connect directly with students and stay connected with them as they transition in, through, and out of post-secondary.
  2. Offer integrated support for students with disabilities in which accommodation planning and facilitation, academic strategies, supportive counselling, and disability-related advising are readily available within the high-touch model.
  3. Create purposeful collaboration between stakeholders, most notably faculty and DSO staff, in order to foster strong and positive working relationships which embrace the accommodation process such that the planned variation to curriculum delivery, classroom activities, and evaluation—all the “stuff” of academic accommodation—is integrated, as fully as possible, into the curriculum.

I am focused on person-to-person connection because of the complexity of problems faced by DSOs. The intersection of priorities that present within our work—the legal, clinical, ethical, and academic—make it highly complex. The problems we encounter include conflicting and often moving parts; the variables are affected by decisions made (or not) at each juncture in the process, over a course of time, and the problems are influenced by impacts on and from the parties, environment, context, and situation.

The tough work in a DSO is helping to facilitate the resolution of such problems, and this is difficult to achieve when the service offered is highly transactional and lacks individualised and personalized support. In fact, over-reliance on transactional processes often exacerbates complex problems for students because transactional decisions (made at one point) become, themselves, new variables that influence the other factors in play moving forward. When considering a student’s postsecondary involvement and their curriculum experience as a whole, each step—each decision—has an effect on their global course of study.

By including a well educated and trained support person to assist with the navigation of problem solving, within disability-related academic accommodations, great value is added to the process. They can help guide and adapt to the changes that continually occur; they can act as a partner and help the parties—the student and their faculty members—navigate their way through the often turbulent waters of complex problems.

For example, consider a student living with ADHD, who is navigating her studies after abruptly stopping her medication. What would that experience be like? What challenges might she face when trying to prepare assignments or study for tests? Or, how about the Nursing student who has to adjust his accommodation plan while working at his placement. How will the Nursing Department respond to such a request while he is in the midst of his placement? What rules and regulations at the facility may impact his ability to complete the posting when they get the new information?  

As I explore the three principles of high-touch service, integrated support, and intentional collaboration, I’ll draw on these examples to demonstrate how each can affect students, staff, and faculty.

High-Touch Model

The first principle is to create high-touch service through increased person-to-person contact. The ability of DSO staff to develop relationships with students and faculty, and in turn build common understanding and trust, leads to high impact support which best addresses individuals’ needs, even when the stakes are high.

We know from preliminary (unpublished) results of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Transition Project, conducted by York University and Algonquin College, that students living with ASD prefer and will seek out in-person contact for information and support, as opposed to accessing it through some kind of media. Similarly, when students living with mental health disabilities can connect to a community while pursuing their studies, they often experience a strong protective factor. Further, reading Michelle’s article and her experience with high-touch support and the turn-around she experienced when she combined strong self-advocacy skills with AAS support is also telling. From her story, we see that her endeavours to get what she needed were boosted when she engaged with, and was engaged by, high-touch support.

Tiered Support: Simple, Complicated, and Complex

In terms of the student experience, I imagine a DSO with tiered support based on three categories of problem- or question-types: simple, complicated, and complex. At each level the meeting with a student would see an increase in the engagement of resources paralleling the degree of complexity—most importantly time.

Tier 1: Simple

At the first level, for simple questions or problems, brief drop-in times would provide immediate access to more basic information, Q&A, and support. We do this now and the reason to continue, and not to rely too heavily on web offerings or commit department dollars to further webpage or app development, is because many students seek the assurance that is available (and unavoidable) with the custom tailoring offered with face-to-face connection; even when problems are fairly straightforward.

For example, drop-in meetings offer immediate information and problem-solving that is individualised, like a student having a question about the process for a particular accommodation that is specific to their context. “Does my assignment extension accommodation include lab reports?” or “I missed a studio session due to a flare and subsequently didn’t complete the project—how do I approach my prof about this?” The facilitator would need to ask some questions in order to provide an answer that is specific to the situation—which isn’t available on the web or in the AAS Student Handbook. By providing the “human element”, AAS helps create a welcoming environment that builds trust and comfort during a moment that can be infused with stress and anxiety for the student.

Tier 2: Complicated

This first tier of support, however, is not sufficient for students facing more complicated problems. At this level of interaction, a greater investment in time is required in order to direct and tailor information and support, while providing a welcoming space for confidentiality. One of the issues that leads to this more complicated nature of support is the need to create conditions that foster trust in order to provide a safe space where a student can relay their story and identify their needs. Staff can then ask questions to deeply comprehend the issue and come up with a solution while simultaneously building or maintaining trust, rapport, and the student’s confidence in AAS and its process.

For example, the student who discloses she has stopped taking ADHD medication abruptly because she doesn’t like the impact on her thinking is making the kind of disclosure that requires knowledgeable and nuanced support: in terms of a referral, should she be directed to a medical consult or perhaps counselling; in terms of advising, why and how to apply the accommodations in place for her ADHD, and what strategies will best support the academic (and cognitive and emotional) challenges she will likely face based on the decision. In this case, a conversation would call for delving more deeply into the issues presented and a capacity for more comprehensive problem-solving and referrals.

Tier 3: Complex

As a final tier, cases that require more support due to their complexities—cases that involve multiple parties and numerous “moving parts”—call for a high dedication of resources. This might look like AAS negotiating changes to our Nursing student’s placement accommodations when he experiences an unexpected flare in his medical condition (i.e. adding new accommodations that were not reflected on the original accommodation letter). More parties need to be involved beyond the AAS facilitator and student, including the Nursing faculty advisor, placement coordinator, and placement preceptor—each with their own interests, operating procedures, and regulations. The complexities are such that calling a meeting, in order for the parties to address the issues and come up with a creative plan which addresses everyone’s needs, is best.

It’s also an approach which requires the availability of a facilitator to support the accommodation piece. Most students will seek and benefit from the attendance and support of their facilitator—as will the Nursing department. AAS staff are knowledgeable, highly skilled, and familiar with the legal requirements and best practices for effective accommodation in both academic and placement settings. With AAS’ involvement, the experienced facilitator can get into the the kind of creative problem solving best suited to serving all parties. The student is represented and can trust that their voice will be heard and their interests considered fairly, and the department and placement can trust that their needs—the degree requirements, placement parameters, and their ongoing need to consider public safety—maintain their integrity. If AAS staff can be made available, they will provide the high-touch support to both student and faculty.

Integrated Support

The work of complicated and complex problems, the mainstay of DSOs, demands not only the dedication of time and resources, but also a mixture of supports; combinations that are able to adjust, with agility, to the myriad variables that present themselves, as problems rarely have only one facet. This mixture of support needs to include: academic accommodation planning and facilitation, the “bread and butter” of facilitator work; the provision of disability-related academic advising, to capture the kinds of questions and problems students present with; supportive counselling, to bridge any possible referral to direct counselling; and academic strategy support, to help the student develop and implement “tools” to best approach their studies. These supports in their more pure forms are beyond facilitating accommodations and currently exist as referrals to separate support staff, and need to stay as such. We need, however, to be able to swim with a variety of strokes.

Our student with ADHD is a good example of how combined support would provide the most appropriate service. She needs to figure out how to apply her accommodations in a way most appropriate to her new needs (around the impact of dropping her medication). But this is not first and foremost. She would also benefit from supportive counselling as she is encouraged to follow up with her doctor and, perhaps, a referral to counseling. She would benefit from speaking about the short and longer term impacts on her studies and getting some advising around these aspects. And she would benefit from some academic strategies to get through the period of transition, such as mapping out new blocks of study times to work around any cognitive impacts from the change.

When these supports are combined, there is a more scaffolded approach for the student. We don’t intend to replace the more in-depth needs in each of these areas—AAS cannot be a substitute for medical advice, counselling, or academic advising, as each has fulsome knowledge in their area of expertise—but by providing a broader net of support to catch the key elements related to academics, AAS can provide layers of assistance, appropriate to what is being presented, that so often underpin the actual academic accommodation; thus making the accommodation more accessible to the student.

In these new waters, and with the acknowledgement that resources (i.e. funding to hire more staff) will not likely match the projected growth of students seeking academic accommodations, other ways to structure high-touch, integrated support need to be explored. For example, interns and peer support workers could support students at the first tier level. Long established at Carleton University, interns have played an important role in their service delivery. More recently, the From Intention to Action (FITA) model (also a Carleton brainchild) is offered as a way to address the needs of students through supportive counselling, strategies, and advising (important to note, this model is for students facing various challenges, but not diagnosed with a disability). These are areas to explore because they offer kinds of staffing models that provide connection at an initial level which establishes relationships and create high-touch service. It is also an opportunity to embed the collaborative approach.

Purposeful Collaboration

The final principle is intentional collaboration. Along with service that fosters connection, is diverse in its capabilities (and nimble in response to the needs presented), the best approach to support students facing complicated and complex problems is one which emphasizes bringing relevant stakeholders and their interests and concerns together for decision making. It is about having the right people in the room when tackling tough problems that reside in largely grey areas. For DSOs, the most important stakeholder to have at the table (alongside the student, of course) is faculty.

One key challenge we face is the tension created when a student’s accommodation plan conflicts with an aspect of the course curriculum. AAS strives to hold the balance between the need for academic accommodation on one side, and the assurance of academic standards on the other. Though generally not an issue, and certainly not mutually exclusive, they do often butt up against each other. This tension is heightened by the all too common lack of time and resources to delve into the negotiation space needed for stakeholders to generate a plan that will maintain the integrity of both priorities. The pitfalls to this include misconceptions about the limits of accommodation or “lack” of information (i.e. the nature of the student’s disability, which is held confidentially by AAS), which require a level of trust that is best built through connection and education. Challenges are exacerbated when a wave hits from the side—a new variable or complexity arises, or a stakeholder works from incorrect information or, more likely, wrong assumptions. The key component needed to generate a solution is collaboration.

In the case of our Nursing student, it was only when all of us were sitting at the table that important details were uncovered, allowing us to most efficiently focus on solutions. Having AAS articulate key aspects of the students needs while maintaining the necessary confidentiality, hearing about the rules and regulations of the placement facility, and better understanding the Nursing Department’s policies and procedures all contributed to a problem-solving dynamic in which concerns could be addressed and the priorities were balanced in a way that a solution could be agreed upon. Working collaboratively meant we could move with the variables and consider how best to negotiate through the often competing priorities. It was through the in-person connections that communication was made most clear and provided the highest kind of support. This happens when parties get around a table and articulate their interests and fears in a way that allows movement towards solutions.

The Waves Roll On…

These three principles that contribute to support based on personal connection are by no means new; there are many examples in our work already. Their proper implementation, I argue, is a way forward that will exemplify the exceptional experiences Ryerson strives to foster for students, allow AAS to alleviate the cases of burnout in our staff, prepare a holistic structure capable of supporting the rise in accommodation seeking students in the next few years, and allow AAS to remain an exemplary DSO in higher education. I would be remiss not say outright that this means acquiring sufficient resources to truly (and healthily) put such a level of service in place.

Assuming we have the means to proceed with developing structures for high-touch, combined support with an emphasis on collaboration, the next step is to investigate how other high-functioning and successful DSOs are implementing them. Specifically, how do other postsecondary institutions successfully put these, and other, elements into effect and how might Ryerson do something similar?

Let us continue the conversation and doing what we do to its greatest effect. The vital role played by DSOs, despite often being unrecognised, ensures students with disabilities can access their education and perform to their full abilities. Although Our Time To Swim is finished—the work is not.


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  • John Hannah

    I’ve been re-reading this superb series. It highlights the heavy and challenging stuff of academic accommodations in higher education – a seething broil of processes and principles and features of the human experience bumping and grinding up against each other. It makes me think of geologic processes, full of heat and pressure and time and change. And through those processes, earth gets shaped. Similarly, the landscape of education gets shaped by the collision of several tectonic plates – accessible education, human rights, academic integrity, money, time, human resources, ego, history, stubbornness, tradition, bigotry, inertia, competition, fear. We are naïve to think we are close to a perfect system of education for those folks living with disabilities. We are not. So, what do we do in the meantime in our pursuit of being better? We talk. We talk about it all. Get all of it on the table, acknowledge the elephants in the room, and find the common ground we all occupy together – our collective desire for accessible education with dignity and integrity for all. This series is doing just that. Bravo.

    So, what of these neglected elephants? Let’s hear from others on this. This series is a superb bit of thinking and writing. Let’s do it justice by carrying on the conversation. The elephant for me? Controversial and contentious, for sure. But I wonder about potential cost of an accommodation process – not financial costs, but human. Does blind adherence to an accommodation process ever hinder the development of resilience, confidence, self-efficacy?

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