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.

by Deena Kara Shaffer, at the time Learning and Transition Facilitator in Student Learning Support at Ryerson; currently Coordinator, Student Transitions and Retention in Student Affairs Special Projects

“Why do I do this work? It’s personal; I went through university as a student with a disability and never reached out for support. One, because I didn’t know how, and two, because I was afraid. My goal in this work, from Faculty orientations to helping with our transition programming, is to help bridge the gap for students in understanding how to access accommodations.” – Leanne Wharmby-Patrick, accommodation facilitator

Academic Accommodation Support (AAS), Ryerson’s disability services office (DSO), is grounded in an anti-oppression, social justice framework. What we do is to promote “socially just” pedagogy “to increase disadvantaged learners’ capacity to exercise learner agency” (Hempel-Jorgensen, 2015, p. 531). The undercurrents of our work include:

  • combatting instances of ableism (Mladenov, 2016);
  • posing questions about who gets to participate in post-secondary education, and do so fully;
  • ensuring disability is present and considered in conversations about intersectionality;
  • creating programs to support students with disabilities as they transition into, through, and out of their post-secondary experience, as well as into flourishing employment.

The frontline AAS team comprises accommodation facilitators (disability advisors) and specialists in intake and triage, assistive technologies, mobility- and sensory-related disabilities, and learning strategies for complex learners. Daily, this team faces paradoxes of decision-making. Often, we are caught amidst a multifaceted landscape of maelstroms and squalls, spillways and levees: we are more than just service providers and yet are in the work of high stakes service provision.

“Why do I do this work? I do this work because I wish to be one less barrier for a student with a disability. For many students, living with a disability is difficult. Add to this, complex histories of not being believed or being told that they’re just not trying hard enough. Add to this, navigating the paperwork and deadlines of registering for support at any disability services office. In the face of these, I wish to make a student’s academic experience a little friendlier and smoother. To make the barriers a little less steep. To be an ally who listens, believes, and never thinks that the student is trying to swindle the system or take advantage. To sit with the student. These are why I am an accommodation facilitator.” – Kate Cressman, accommodation facilitator

The AAS team, and facilitators most of all, walk a tightrope between academic integrity and essential course requirements, individual accommodations, and hoped-for aims like high-touch, proactive advising. We are also caught between paradigmatic tensions; between believing in a social model of disability, which emphasizes contextual barriers, yet require students to provide medical documentation to register. To shed light on these intricate, in-between spaces, we want to share with you the undertides and undertones of facilitating academic accommodations.

“Why do I do this work? I strongly believe in inclusion and feel honoured and deeply satisfied in working with others to overcome barriers and develop the skills, connections, and ways of being that will see them succeed in their education and in the world beyond.” – John Woodley, accommodation facilitator

We embrace the view of disability as “situated in culture and context” (Cory, 2011, p. 33). This is the heart of the social model of disability. A person with a disability does not have a “problem” or “deficiency”; instead, it is the culture, context, or environment that is problematic or deficient. According to this social model view, “We [a]re not disabled by our impairments but by the disabling barriers we fac[e] in society” (Oliver, 2013, para. 1). To give an example, “the problem…is not that a person using a wheelchair cannot walk, but rather that the designers of a campus space failed to put in adequate ramps and elevators. The solution is no longer focused on an individual but is systemic” (Cory, 2011, p. 33-4). And in this lies another tension: working to overcome barriers within a larger system fraught with barriers.

“I like the challenge of breaking down barriers. I love enabling an opportunity for growth and learning in professors as we help to explain accommodation and student need. Likewise, I love helping students feel empowered in their understanding of how they can use accommodations to support their learning, and to reframe that it is not a bad thing to receive accommodations, but rather the mark of a good student who cares enough about their education and learning to do everything they can to support themselves.” – Leanne Wharmby-Patrick, accommodation facilitator

One way we try to reduce barriers is to teach and model shifts in language, aligned with Words With Dignity. You will often hear AAS staff remind, “It’s not AAS student, but AAS registrant.” After all, registering with our services is but one characteristic of a student’s experience. We most often will also say, “Student or person with a disability” instead of “disabled.” Yet this too is not without tensions and complexities, paradoxes even. A push back to the social model of disability is that it overlooks the individual experience. Some people living with disabilities explain how embracing language like “disabled” is truer to their experience, as disabilities are individually experienced, felt, and lived through. In every interaction, however, we create space for students to choose and use the language that’s best for them, chosen by them. The social model ultimately helps to guide our work in that it urges blame or fault not be placed with the person, but rather with the context.

“I enjoy collaborating with students, faculty, and the university community to ensure students with disabilities attending Ryerson have an equal opportunity to access our educational environment.” – Karen Stevenson, accommodation facilitator

The social model also underlies why we believe in Universal Design of Learning (UDL). How, with increased funding and more facilitators, AAS could participate more robustly in UDL conversations and curriculum on campus and beyond . UDL arose from “the disability rights movement, which began in the 1960s” with the aim of “ensuring equal opportunity and eliminating discrimination based on disability;” for “people with disabilities the actual design of built environments and information technologies is a part of the discriminatory practice” (Maisel, 2012, p. 15). A pillar of UDL is its intention of non-discrimination. Another is the reduction of barriers. If services, practices, places, and spaces were designed with the priorities of non-discrimination and reducing barriers that limit access, then functionality would improve for most people; “a usable world for people with disabilities would become the norm” (Maisel, 2012, p. 28). UDL can enable all students—all people—with disabilities to participate, and in ways that “reduce stigma and the need for accommodation” (Cory, 2011, p. 33).

“The population of students we meet with speak of their past experiences with barriers and their own struggles to overcome these. To be one less barrier for a student navigating their academic career provides me with the opportunity to create hope and openness with students, while supporting them through my role.” – Sarah Kloke, accommodation facilitator

Universal Design of Learning is commonly defined as the “design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design,” (Mace, 1985) and emerged within the context of architecture and physical design (King-Sears, 2009). But this definition has evolved; the European Institute for Design and Disability (EIDD) offers Design for All (DfA), promoting “design for human diversity, social inclusion and equality”. Effectively designed universal solutions do not call attention to themselves as being anything more than easier for everyone to use, which is exactly what they are. Designs that were developed with consideration for the needs of a diverse population work for men and women, children and elders, small people and large, and people with temporary or longer-term disabilities. They work when it’s dark, noisy, wet, or when we’re tired. Everyone benefits. (Story, 1998, p. 4)

Providing equitable and dynamic opportunities for students to access and participate in the post-secondary landscape is something I’m incredibly passionate about. To share a metaphor, I help students narrate their educational stories to ensure their plot lines are seamless. – Mandy Sandhu, accommodation facilitator

There are some individual needs—some disabilities—that come with localized experiences, like pain. Others come with adaptive requirements; for example, blind students or those with low vision and the use of braille or the software JAWS that can read out text, just as sign language interpreters for students who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing. But ramps installed before doorways, a frequent example of UDL, benefit not just those with mobility devices but also those pushing strollers, holding bags of groceries, or holding the hand of another. In a parallel way, professors who electronically post their lecture notes benefit not just those students who require notes for disability reasons, such as those with dyslexia, but all students requiring help to see and learn from model notes. In the classroom, assessment situations, and in practicums, when UDL is prioritized barriers diminish, the need for individual accommodation minimizes, facilitator intervention fades, and a student’s access to their academic experience broadens. UDL in the teaching environment looks like inclusion to the greatest extent by which particular accommodations are considered beforehand and implemented for all. To design according to UDL is to imagine “the greatest diversity of your student body, with regard to race, class, gender, sexual orientation or identity, religion, ability, and age—and designing for that” (Cory, 2011, p. 33) rather than a so-called “typical” learner. Curricular UDL—broadening course goals, instructional methods, planning, and assessments—fights against this notion of an average student (Meyer, Rose, Gordon, 2014). UDL moves the locus from average to all, or as many as possible, after which adaptation or accommodation is necessary.

I believe in choosing a career which directly aligns with my own intrinsic values. Support, hope, openness, relationship-building—these are all pieces of my character which I also believe are representative in the work we do with students. I continue to be inspired by the students I work with and the opportunity created through this bi-directional learning also means that the rapport I build with students is that much stronger. – Sarah Kloke, accommodation facilitator

A student may never be aware of what’s underneath the surface of facilitating academic accommodation, and if we are able to do our best work, they won’t, instead able to focus on their studies and academic success. They will remain supported, yet blissfully unaware of the tensions, paradoxes, and paradigms; the ebbs, ripples, and crosscurrents that define their postsecondary experience: the social model of disability, Universal Design of Learning, equality and equity, accommodation and accessibility, and the spirit of social justice at the heart of DSO work.

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