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 Strategist in Student Learning Support at Ryerson; currently Coordinator, Student Transitions and Retention in Student Affairs Special Projects

With more Accommodation Facilitators, what could it be like at Academic Accommodation Support (AAS)? To what could we aspire, and achieve?

To tackle these questions, to dream big, and to envision enacting what we long to do at AAS, I reached out to twenty experts on and off campus. I asked for their suggestions and insights. Some chose to offer their names, others preferred to remain anonymous, but what each of these educators gave in response were their heartfelt hopes, unedited frustrations, and indeed, big dreams.

I asked, if given a chance, how could we swim, soar, and thrive at AAS? What follows are curated possibilities. What follows are hopeful voices, imagining. What follows is what our friends, colleagues, mentors, critics, and champions had to say when we asked them—what if?

From High Stakes to High Touch

Currently, we are guided by urgency and reactivity: seeing the greatest number of students, creating the shortest wait time, and allowing for the fewest number of complaints. With an ever-quickening pace and ultra-efficient student-facilitator meetings one after another, the AAS experience cannot nurture high touch, skill-development based or mentoring interactions with students. And yet, AAS is capable of rich student development; critically important as, while numbers increase, in terms of the academic experience, “students with disabilities remain on the periphery of higher education.” (Kimball p. 92)

A Ryerson Counsellor with the Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC) urged, “it’s important to highlight what’s happening at AAS. There is a deep and high need for services of AAS. Not only has the volume of registrants continued to grow. Students often require time sensitive registration and registrants can experience emergencies that require urgent interventions from AAS. Given the high and overwhelming demands on the service at AAS, there is risk of limited availability and flexibility, and small windows for drop-ins to respond to urgent and time sensitive issues. This could be concerning since there is also very little flexibility to the academic calendar year for students; students can lose an exam, semester, or year. This could also negatively impact students’ health and well-being. So this is an emergency that we need to address.” And this is certainly a common, if not daily, experience for the AAS team: reacting to emergencies and urgent needs. This counsellor spoke of how the CSDC tries to meet their own challenge of high volume and intensity: “The CSDC holds two emergency on-call hours per day and is also piloting a new model of offering same day appointments to try to accommodate time sensitive issues. It would be of great benefit if AAS had additional resources to accommodate volume of registrants and more same-day urgent requests. AAS staff is amazing in that students seldom hear a “no,” and that AAS staff, on regular basis, tend to absorb these emergencies and urgent requests into their already packed schedules—but at the potential risk for burnout”.

From Reactive to Relationship-Building

With more capacity, we could move into a model of “intentional contact with students with the goal of developing a caring and beneficial relationship that leads to increased academic motivation and persistence.” This kind of relationship-building and guidance zeroes in on the core of what students are struggling with and suggests appropriate interventions.

Interestingly, research makes clear that relationships are crucial to academic success. And this is certainly no less true for students with disabilities. “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).

“Determining accommodations is an ongoing personal dialogue,” explains Dr. Jesmen Mendoza, a psychologist at the CSDC. “Using a transactional framework to have these discussions is ultimately unsatisfying and nominally meets the needs of those needing accommodation. Meeting the needs of students with disabilities means being prepared to have substantive dialogue. It is in the University’s best interest to understand that AAS facilitators have intensive conversations that are built on a covenant. To offer true accommodations implies that more time (and by extension more facilitators) are needed for each student seeking out support.”

Relationship-building was an ongoing theme through these interviews. One colleague, for example, highlighted the necessity of fostering relationships, particularly in connection to mental well-being. Relationships are crucially important to students’ “academic experience, their mental health, to building trust, and ultimately to ensuring that they will reach out when things become too difficult.”

Deepened and Enduring Connections with Faculty

Increasing capacity could also help AAS deepen relationships with faculty. More facilitators could result in getting to better know the unique rhythms of, for example, FCS coursework and FEAS assignments, gaining in-depth understanding of requirements, tailoring accommodations, and working with instructors to implement them. Through increased contact with faculty, we imagine that facilitators could become entrusted delegates to answer disability and curriculum questions in the faculties. One high school teacher with whom I spoke reminds that “faculty at high schools are trained in working with and supporting students with disabilities. But at universities, they’re not.” AAS could not only pick up this thread but become agents of implementing in accessible teaching practises.

A Ryerson Counsellor with whom I spoke said, frankly, “in some cases there can be a faculty mistrust of AAS services, a misperception of registrants as having an advantage. Facilitators could and should educate around this. And to do so requires more than one conversation. Put simply, AAS needs to have more proactive, instructive, and ongoing conversations with professors.” This education would include teaching how to make appropriate referrals, implement accommodations, and enact Universal Design of Learning.

“Collegial interactions with faculty streamlines problems,” highlights Dr. Diana Brecher, Positive Psychology Scholar-in-Residence with Ryerson Student Affairs’ ThriveRU program. “Having a quick chat or check in between a professor and a facilitator can prevent a situation from becoming adversarial or ending up in crisis. Facilitators should be on a first name basis with the deans and teaching chairs. After all, we are colleagues together in the education of Ryerson students!”

Lauren Wilson, Manager of Ryerson’s Learning and Teaching Office, believes that with increased facilitator-faculty alignment, “there could be non-reactive, comfortable check-ins. Professors could come to facilitators with their specific questions, like how to improve the accessibility of a 200 question multiple choice exam or oral presentation. Facilitators could offer outreach, orientations, and become point people to empower faculty. Facilitators could come to know the intricacies of accommodations and assignments of particular schools and departments, help collaborate on alternative assessments, and even help instructors with large class sizes get to know their students better, and with that deepen empathy and understanding. And perhaps most importantly, facilitators could help faculty understand what certain accommodations are for and how they’re arrived at. Facilitators could function as consultants for faculty, answering queries like how to keep the integrity of an assignment or learning outcome, all the while meeting a student’s accommodations.”

Professor Wendy Freeman, teaching chair of the Faculty of Communication and Design offered how “as a faculty member and as a program director, I have relied on the advice of accommodation facilitators when challenges arise for students. Timely access has been challenging at times due to overwhelming need.” In asking Freeman what if, she described how “AAS facilitators are an important resource for students at Ryerson. Faculty rely on their expertise and experience to support students. This partnership is essential for healthy and successful students. Ready access to facilitators for students is vital.” Deepened faculty-facilitator relationships, Freeman noted, would enable insight about specific accommodations and how they can be implemented. “In FCAD programs,” Freeman noted, “standard accommodations do not always fit neatly into our assignments or teaching methods. Having facilitators who can work directly with our learning community would allow us to meet the distinct needs of FCAD students.”

Increasing Capacity for Interventions

“What’s crucial for AAS,” notes another long-time mental health expert on campus, “is timely interventions for students, real service, not just notional or transactional.” Yet another colleague noticed the same, “there is seldom a chance to intervene. For example, coaching students in how to talk to professors, skills for the workplace, and reaching out to students before they fall further.”

One high school guidance counsellor describes how “we’re never going to close the skill set gap without intervention.”

And Natalie Roach, Ryerson’s mental health coordinator and former AAS facilitator, notes “AAS Facilitators need to have space and protection to be able to intervene. To catch things before they happen.”

We could then lift out of what so many refer to us as the on-campus accommodations factory.

Tuning in to Transition

A Ryerson counsellor stressed that the work of facilitators is and should be more than the transactional. In particular, facilitators could be engaging in “more collaborative program creation around empowerment.” Students with a disability “can be overwhelmed about what will happen after school and concerns about employment,” and as such “AAS can share their expertise in collaborating with the Career Centre on closing that disability-related employment gap. This could be a valuable role of AAS.”

Larry McCloskey, Director of the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities at Carleton University, and co-originator of the FITA (From Intention to Action) program, sees the role of facilitators as far beyond accommodations: not only are facilitators “important people in the lives of students with disabilities,” facilitators are involved in the “success or failures” of students. What’s more, he says, “facilitators have a direct impact on the future employment experiences of students. Students’ realizing their employment potential is directly attributable to the services we give. We need to be helping students reach gainful employment.”

Modelling Wellness to Students

“The job of a Facilitator, given the volume of registrants, can be like a revolving door,” states a Ryerson counsellor. It also can be a vulnerable role given the intensity and complexity of the emergency situations. It can carry the risk of burnout, and has potential to negatively impact health and wellness. Recognizing potential risk factors and prioritizing and investing in a plan that allows for pacing, self-care, and highlights staff wellness will be critical. This will also model wellness for students.

Creating Barriers

Another colleague felt that AAS is actually creating barriers by not having a more fulsome facilitator team. “If you think about Universal Design of Learning, we are agents in making accessibility, but right now there simply aren’t enough facilitators. A three week wait for a student to see a facilitator is, simply, a barrier.”

Natalie Roach explained that “students are being asked to wait, for an email reply, an appointment, a follow-up phone call, sometimes even for an answer to a basic question. Yet these are not conditions that are conducive to supporting wellness for students. We are exacerbating stress through repeated waiting periods.”

Another Ontario PSE mental health expert and educator colleague states, “it is irresponsible to keep doing intake, to allow more students to register, without more facilitator capacity. Especially in light of increased mental health awareness.”

Larry McCloskey says frankly, “this is a phenomenon, not a ripple, it’s not just at Ryerson, and it won’t level off.” AAS is not treading water alone; we are all in the same lake, the same sea. The opening line of a recent Walrus Magazine article points out that, “[c]olleges and universities from St. John’s to Nanaimo will be welcoming record numbers of students with disabilities this fall.” One high school special education specialist with whom I spoke describes it as a “tsunami.” A head of guidance at another Toronto high school notes how “anxiety is becoming more and more common. Students are now coming with medical notes and requesting accommodations for mental health needs. And, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is becoming more common as well. These students require environmental accommodation due to sensory and social skills needs, as well as learning and assessment accommodations. The load is heavy. There are no limits to equity.”

Another secondary school educator highlights “there’s no longer a stigma about having a learning disability, and parents are no longer opposed to arranging a psychoeducational assessment for their kid. In fact, parents are right on board. Add to this the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). AODA is in the law. It is in place. Learning disability is a recognized disability under the law. We can’t say, ‘wait, back up.’ It’s the law.”

A Ryerson counsellor felt it crucial to recognize the current conditions of working in AAS and pointed out “the complexity of mental health issues is staggering. Students registering with AAS are seeking registration based on very complex health issues and needs that require equally complex interventions and accommodations. Facilitators need to have adequate time and resources to respond to these needs”.

But the complexity doesn’t end there. This counsellor also emphasised how crucial it is to also honour the cross-cultural components to registering with our services. There are students that require this service, but don’t reach out because of cultural context. Facilitators could play a bigger role in this important work if they had additional resources to dedicate to this outreach.

Taking Action

“Let’s stop wringing our hands,” urges McCloskey. “We have invited students to register, lowered stigma, welcomed them to step forward and make their needs known. Now we need to be able to accommodate. The students did their part; now it’s on us.”

Dr. Jesmen Mendoza holds that “as our province and our University moves towards inclusive education, this ultimately means that more students with individual needs will inevitably increase enrollment. It is the university’s responsibility to meet this anticipated demand by having more AAS facilitators on hand, to truly embody this ideal of inclusive education for all.”

“The expertise of the Facilitators needs to be out there,” encouraged a Ryerson Counsellor. “Collaborating, co-leading groups, participating on committees across campus. Facilitators’ expertise and specialized knowledge has a lot to offer our students, staff, and faculty across campus.”

Natalie Roach believes in AAS’s ability to offer not just high touch student appointments, but “higher touch campus engagement, like Universal Design of Learning training and increasing the campus’ understanding of disability.”

In speaking with Executive Director of Counselling and Disability Services at York University,  Marc Wilchesky, he informed me that York’s disability counsellors have caseloads of 200 to 250 students, half of those at AAS. While this “is still too busy,” Wilchesky mentions that these numbers at least enable York’s facilitators to engage in “strong career mentorship for students with disabilities, including one on one and workshop learning in which students learn about disclosing disabilities, giving a good interview, and how to make the most of their disability.” This is in addition to what their career centre provides, and is fully run by their disability counsellors. York’s facilitators run and participate on numerous committees, subcommittees, and host events as well—like their one-day career success conference. Facilitators there also lead mindfulness-based stress reduction workshops, provide assistive technology workshops, facilitate coaching for students with autism about how to approach professors and deescalate difficult situations, and collaborate on a non-hierarchal student and staff mental health group. York’s facilitators additionally supervise a distinct mentorship program, and not just participate on one-off sessions but plan and execute in full their summer transition program, Project Advance. These are impressive and impactful, yet perhaps most striking of all were the high touch appointments disability counsellors are able to offer to students. Wilchesky describes how appointments enmesh “crisis containment, emotional support, accommodation facilitation, all the while infused with learning strategies and skill building.” It is no wonder that in a spring 2016 survey, 96% of York students who registered with their disability services office say they would recommend their services.

The Wish List

“I have noticed the continuous strain,” tells Dr. Sarah Thompson, clinical coordinator, Centre for Student Development and Counselling, “as facilitators seek to keep pace with rapidly increasing demands for accommodation support and for test centre bookings for Ryerson students. As a member of the Ontario Counselling Centre Directors group, I am also aware that this challenge is not unique to Ryerson and may require innovative approaches and new service delivery models to solve the challenge of increasing demand alongside more slowly increasing resources. If I had a wish list of initiatives, I’d love to see for our students registered with AAS: daily drop-in times for new registration for students who are realizing, late in the semester, that in fact they are living with symptoms of a diagnosable condition; more daily drop-in times to allow timely access to resolve problems when they first arise; routine supports for staff to identify warning signs of burnout and reduce compassion fatigue given high caseloads, as I am a firm believer that our most valuable resource for students are our staff and the energy and expertise they bring to their engagements; and partnering with various Student Affairs units to offer value-added groups and workshops to students, drawing upon shared expertise across units—for example, students living with ADHD, self-identifying as living with Autism Spectrum disorder, living with chronic medical illness, managing the transition into the workplace, and coping with a new diagnosis.”

Wilchesky states clearly that “we are, or should be, in the business of doing more. There is a reason to do more. A person with disabilities is a person first. A whole person. As such, we offer a holistic approach. It must be more than transactional. Disability service offices comprise teams with depth and richness; why wouldn’t doing more be part of student appointments?”

The answer, over and over again, when I asked what we at AAS could do differently with more facilitators, along with why—why would or should we do more than put accommodations in place—was “why not?” Why wouldn’t AAS do everything we could, from accommodations to skill development, proactive interventions to employment support, transitions to teaching and training? We so very much want to.

Cited Works

Kimball, E., Wells, R. S., Lauterbach, A., Manly, C., & Ostiguy, B. (in press). Students with disabilities in higher education: A review of the literature and an agenda for future research. In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research. New York: Springer.


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