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.

When I arrived at Ryerson in 2009 as the new director of Student Learning Support, I had never before been responsible for a disability support office (DSO) for university students. Like many student affairs professionals and other community members, I had worked collaboratively and closely with a campus DSO for many years—but I’d never been inside that work, understanding fully what’s at stake for students and faculty alike, the legal element and all the complexities that entails, or the feeling of being present to a student with a complex and urgent student accommodation issue or a mental health crisis.

Now I’ve been “inside” for almost nine years and I still feel privileged to be here with Ryerson as it works hard everyday to make our exceptional educational experience accessible to all Ryerson students. Speaking just for myself, DSO work is unfailingly challenging—intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. At the same time, and for the very same reasons, leading a DSO has been one of the most satisfying professional and educational experiences I’ve ever had. I’m always learning something as a result of being attendant to the lived experience of disability. In many ways, I have the very best job on campus and I’m regularly grateful for this.

Over the next week, and with some follow up articles in the spring, #RyersonSA will bring you Our Time to Swim: the Future of Disability Support Services at Ryerson, a story about Ryerson’s DSO unit and the students, staff, and faculty who interface with this vitally important campus function. Our series title, Our Time to Swim, is an intentional reference to the aspirations and concrete priorities outlined in Ryerson University’s current Academic Plan, Our Time to Lead (2014-2019). As Ryerson endeavours to become a post-secondary leader, by mobilizing efforts to enhance student engagement through exceptional experiences, so too does our campus DSO—Academic Accommodation Support—have aspirations for being better.

The purpose of this series will be to bring you inside academic accommodation work. What does academic accommodation support for students look like? How can we describe contextual factors to this work—policy, legal requirements, institutional requirements, the status of academic accommodation work in public schooling and high schools? How are students experiencing this service? How does DSO work impact staff and faculty? Finally, what do these questions about what’s inside and where we are say about how we should move forward as an institutional initiative? We hope to guide and generate conversation about how we can be better and more exceptional for our campus community.  

As you will learn, Ryerson’s academic accommodation function is at a critical juncture in its history. We find ourselves in deep and churning waters—as an academic unit, as well as a community with and for students with disabilities. We are afloat, but we need to swim; both for and with our students, to make Ryerson fully accessible and fully exceptional. The time is now to reflect, ask questions, and decide on what’s next.

To this end, a start: I offer you two voices from Academic Accommodation Support staff, which speak to the waves and forces that impact Ryerson’s involvement in campus academic accommodation supports.

The AAS front desk staff work quickly, transactionally. Professional, yes, but transformative? Not yet...

Proactive Support > Transactional Experience

by Marc Emond, Assistant Director Academic Accommodations & Learning

Every day, the Academic Accommodation Support (AAS) team navigates a myriad of intersecting yet often competing priorities; these include students’ needs, university policies, academic standards, and Ontario Human Rights Commission obligations, including the new, pressing, and process-changing mental health guidelines.

Even with this level of complexity, the AAS team fulfills its duty to accommodate students with disabilities. With efficiency and speed, and whatever high-touch care we can provide in our circumstances, the work of AAS is accomplished and Ryerson’s legal requirement is met. Our work with students is meaningful and students have indicated so much to us in yearly surveys we send out before the end of each winter semester. But it’s important to try to define the scope and volume of the AAS response. Our growing numbers are telling, and speak to a student, faculty, and staff experience of treading water, certainly not swimming.

Based on our yearly current growth rate of almost 12% (11.8%), in the 2018/2019 academic year, the number of students registered with AAS at Ryerson is projected to break the 3000 students mark; to be precise, we’ll have 3,119 students registered with us. That means AAS will be serving a student population equivalent to the entire undergraduate population at OCAD University in 2016.

In 2008/2009, we were serving fewer than 1000 students per year. 3,119 students is a threefold increase in the number of students with disabilities seeking direct academic accommodation support, from our unit, in ten years. Over that same decade, our full-time professional staff complement of student accommodation facilitators—our front-line support to this population and their instructors; the people that do the work—has risen by just 1.5 people.

With that same yearly growth rate projected at 12%, student accommodation facilitator caseloads will reach an untenable 600 or more students—per facilitator—in a year’s time.

Caseload projections per facilitator (11%, 15%, 20% projections) — 2016: 499, 514, 536; 2017: 558, 591, 643; 2018: 624, 679, 772; 2019: 697, 781, 926; 2020: 780, 898, 1111.

It’s important to note that in the 2011/12 academic year, there was a 22.5% increase in registration from the year prior. We are in a period that can only be described as exponential growth:

8-Year projection based on 11.8% average growth (budget year: number of students registered) — 2008/09: 1044; 2009/10: 1148; 2010/11: 1304; 2011/12: 1597; 2012/13: 1510; 2013/14: 1790; 2014/15: 2006; 2015/16: 2233; 2016/17: 2496; 2017/18: 2790; 2018/19: 3119; 2019/20: 3487; 2020/21: 3898; 2021/22: 4358; 2022/23: 4873; 2023/24: 5448.

This exponential growth, and the accompanying pressures, has negative impacts. Recently, a team diagnostic of AAS staff, conducted by our human resources department, revealed that staff are experiencing symptoms of burnout and exhaustion. During Fall 2016—for the first time ever—due to lack of facilitator time in a regular work day, returning registrants in AAS had little to no face-to-face time with facilitators. It was only possible to offer returning students limited,  “first-come, first-served,” short drop-in appointments, phone calls, or email contact, so as to keep the scarce facilitator time available for new registrants and crises.

We want a better future for AAS at Ryerson. A relatively recent HEQCO report indicates that the population of students with disabilities in Ontario postsecondary institutions is growing and that these same students have persistence and education attainment rates lower than their peers without disabilities. Given this context, we’re concerned that ours is a student population receiving largely brief, transactional experiences, often with only a single appointment available to ask questions and explore the functional impacts of their disability on their academics (unless there is a critical intervention needed). Our facilitators, regrettably, have little time to contribute the fullness of their expertise to students or in the workplace. Our goal is to have proactive reaching out and ongoing guidance for students over the semesters. With vision and support, we hope to get there.

The long hallway in AAS, each facilitator's door firmly closed.

A Way To Open Doors

by Deena Kara Shaffer, then Learning & Transition Programs Specialist

“Ongoing and proactive contact with a significant member of the post-secondary institution is the most important factor in persistence, particularly as it supports motivation and belongingness” (Heisserer & Parette, 2002).

Passing by the AAS offices on the Student Learning Centre’s fourth floor, the most notable feature is a hallway of closed doors. Contrast this with the open welcome of many other staff or faculty doors on campus.

The work of AAS is a uniquely confidential, sensitive, and thoughtful mosaic. Student experiences encountered in a single day can include psychosis or Borderline Personality Disorder; mobility impairments including limb loss, blindness, and acquired brain injuries; PTSD and histories of sexual trauma; newly diagnosed learning disabilities; stories of inaccessible learning experiences; tearful moments of distress; and suicidality.

AAS staff are well-trained in de-escalation and problem-solving, but with record high caseloads, student appointments now look like quick transactions of accommodations, rather than the more meaningful (and hoped-for) lasting relationship-building and mentorship. Our doors are seldom open to receive students eager simply for guidance navigating their disability/ies, or to collaborate with campus colleagues to proactively develop programs to serve the rising tide of students. This is a missed opportunity with particular poignance as our registrants, due to disability/ies, often require or would deeply benefit from enhanced services beyond matter-of-fact accommodations.

“It took far too long to be properly registered. A lot of stress and issues resulted.” – AAS Registrant, from a recent Academic Accommodation Support satisfaction survey

The 12% average, year-over-year growth in students supported by Academic Accommodation Support is just part of what we live and breathe in AAS. Registrants are also navigating their postsecondary experience with complex and compounding disabilities, as highlighted by an average 21% rise in students registering with multiple disabilities over the past two years. These increases have resulted in 25% of respondents on a recent student survey reporting dissatisfaction with how long it took to meet with a facilitator. Similarly, 22% of respondents were dissatisfied with how long it took to have their accommodations put in place.

These statistics come as little surprise as 48% of respondents noted that it took between 15 to 22 days—or more—from initial point of contact with AAS to having their accommodation letter that confirmed their accommodations ready for sharing with instructors. This means students are waiting to get accommodations, worrying about their academic performance, feeling anxiety and stress about the requirements of a course in relation to their disability, and working unnecessarily hard to get their needs met. We need and look forward to a more holistic way of responding to students when they approach us for help.

Moving Forward

Last week, a student with a disability and a long time registrant with AAS impressed upon me the value of the human element in helping students succeed at Ryerson. She was mentioning individual staff to me, singing their praises, and we both reflected on some difficult conversations and experiences she had navigating as a person with a disability on campus.  Together, we were writing her story as a student with a disability—a story of difficulty and achievements, not quite finished.

The AAS story, too, is not quite finished, and together we can give it a truly Ryerson resolution.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Rachel Barreca

    I know I am going to learn so much about the important work you all do. Much respect to you, my colleagues.

  • Christina Halliday

    Hi everyone, this is just one DSO story… What about others? What about critical views of the story emerging from Our Time To Swim? Feel free to share :). Dialogue means learning…

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