It took a viral Twitter thread criticizing the University of Guelph before administration made accommodations for a student with a disability, shining a light on a broader systemic issue.
Brittany Hannah, a mature student studying psychology and sociology at the U of G, posted a series of tweets sharing her experience as a student with a disability struggling to get academic accommodations for the school year. The post blew up, triggering more than 600 retweets.
Hannah was in an ATV accident last October, leaving her with an injured spine and ankle. She now uses a wheelchair and is unable to attend class on campus.
Since July, she has been advocating for herself to be accommodated for a required class in September. Because she had a surgery scheduled for that month, she knew she wouldn’t be able to bear weight on her right ankle.
“I've been registered as a disabled student with the school, who has accommodations, my entire degree. This isn't new,” Hannah said, in an interview with GuelphToday. “There was an additional thing added that I needed to be accommodated for and this is the one that has been met with the most pushback, I would say.”
During the previous winter semester, a teaching assistant offered to stream the lecture through Zoom so Hannah could attend virtually. This wasn't something offered by Student Accessibility Services (SAS) at U of G, which works with students registered with disabilities.
“I think a lot of disabled students during COVID really benefited from the whole online and hybrid model that schools had to take on,” said Hannah, who has since moved to a more accessible living situation in Waterloo as she recovers.
After Hannah took to Twitter to describe her situation and express her frustration, her tweets caught the attention of the university, which commented on the post to say the school was looking into the matter. She has since received an accommodation: professors will post the slides online and a note-taker might be assigned to her.
It is wildly unfortunate that it took this tweet blowing up for any accommodations to be recommended to me. I hope that faculty are reading the stories in this thread and seeing the horrors that students face everyday. The school should be ashamed. This doesn’t end with me.— Brittany Hannah (@beeehans) September 15, 2022
Hannah said the university needs to reflect on its policies and issue a statement to take accountability.
U of G associate vice-president academic Cate Dewey, who is responsible for the content and administration of all undergraduate programs, said the school does what it can to help its students succeed.
“We understand that each student has their own specific needs, and we’re very committed to creating and maintaining an equitable learning environment for individuals that have disabilities," Dewy said in an interview.
“I would say that the team there is incredibly caring, experienced and compassionate. They're a phenomenal group."
Kinnery Chaparrel, who recently founded the organization University of Guelph Disability Community, applauded Hannah for having the courage to share her experience because for every person who speaks out, there are many others who aren’t able to.
“As someone who has been in and out of university for over a decade now due to my disabilities, I have witnessed and experienced more instances of inaccessibility than I can name,” said Chaparrel, in an email.
Hannah's situation is not new.
Professor Shoshanah Jacobs said they would typically advocate for at least a dozen students in situations similar to Hannah’s each year, but that number has more than doubled recently.
“The university leadership is really good at creating policy and forms that are not at all navigable by people," Jacobs said. "That increases stress. If you don’t tick the right box, they send it back, or they reject it, and don’t advise you or help you do it."
Assistant professor Adam Davies has also noticed a similar trend with the students they work with.
“I think a lot of students are being left behind right now," Davies said. "There are a lot of students who are not getting the assistance to ensure their inclusion on campus."
The Human Rights Code mandates that students have a right to accessible education, and that they can access their education without discrimination.
Indeed, denying someone accommodations or discriminating based on disability is an Ontario Human Rights Code discrimination.— Adam Davies, PhD (they/them) (@adamwjdavies) September 17, 2022
As such, the university has a policy in place stating it will provide “reasonable accommodation, short of undue hardship.” The policy includes things like audio or visual recording and virtual lectures.
But there is a catch: several types of accommodations are listed as “supplementary,” and are left to the discretion of each individual instructor, rather than SAS. (Supplementary accommodations include memory aids or calculators for exams, additional time for assignments and alternate exam scheduling, advanced access to information about readings and assignments, and alternative methods of assessing "essential requirements.")
Davies says professors have discretion because of the faculty association’s collective agreement, which “enshrines instructors’ ability to run their course as they see fit … and that includes how they design the class.”
In other words, if a professor doesn’t want to record a class, they don’t have to.
“What is this collective agreement that they have that says that a professor is allowed to deny someone's medical needs, that they need to be able to attend class like an able-bodied person?” Hannah asked.
Therein lies the problem, according to Chaparrel.
“Accommodations shouldn't be up to individual professors; accessibility should be embedded into the university from the ground up,” Chaparrel said.
Chaparrel said the university needs to commit to listen and learn from the disability community.
The simple solution for a case like Hannah’s, Davies said, is to “have a Zoom camera going during class and record the lectures, then post them afterwards. It’s definitely manageable because we’ve been doing that over the last few years with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
But instructors, who Davies said are often overworked and underpaid, “might not necessarily desire to put in the extra effort needed for accommodation.”
Jacobs said professors might be reluctant to record their lectures for privacy reasons, or for lack of training resources, while Davies believes a lot of the reluctance to accommodate students also stems from structural ableism.
“When people whose minds and bodies operate outside of the taken-for-granted norm of higher education, people often don’t know how to respond to that, are not willing to put the energy into making their classroom more inclusive,” they said.
The university structure needs to be revamped so professors have training on equity and inclusion, said recent U of G graduate Emily Kerr.
Kerr graduated in the spring of 2022, but struggled with mental health issues. Sometimes it was difficult for Kerr to attend class.
Kerr was given accommodations from SAS to allow for extensions or flexible deadlines for assignments and extra time to write exams.
“I wish that more students knew cognitive and mental well-being disabilities were something that you can actually get accommodations through SAS,” said Kerr.
“I think that that is where most of my issues and like the particular experience that I share with Brittany, that tends to be where a lot of frustration and non-accommodation comes from," they said. "It's not on the side of SAS, it's on the side of teachers."
They feel there is a systemic problem within the post-secondary education system where it breeds insensitivity because professors are not held accountable.
It's also difficult for students to advocate for themselves because they are at the lowest part of the hierarchy at the university, said Kerr.
Kerr isn’t the only person who has believes there is a divide between students and professors.
A mechanical engineering student at the U of G, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said it is increasingly difficult to communicate with professors.
“Everyone should have an equitable access to education. No matter the barriers,” the student said.
“A lot of the legwork is done by the student, which can be difficult when you're dealing with, you know, a full course load as well as your disability.”
The mechanical engineering student said asking for accommodations was too much to deal with on top of their busy schedule.
At a minimum, SAS could provide an email template students can fill out for how to ask professors for accommodations or even have SAS communicate directly with professors about a student’s needs, they said.
In one instance, a calculus professor who knew about the student's ADHD diagnosis, which led to a slower processing of their working memory, suggested they have an aid sheet for tests and exams.
An aid sheet would have prompts and equations to help trigger their memory and would be verified by the professor to maintain the integrity of the exam.
When they asked SAS for an aid sheet as an accommodation, the request was denied.
"At the university level, this amounts to reducing academic standards, which is something we are not able to support," SAS said in an email from the university sent to the student.
“For SAS to say that it wouldn’t be acceptable in a higher institution, it felt very discouraging,” the student said.
Both Davies and Jacobs agreed that part of the problem is that SAS is under-supported, which “leads to our disabled students being under-supported as well.”
Currently, around one-third of students are registered with SAS, Dewy said. And not all students necessarily know how to register, which means some will be missing opportunities to be accommodated from the get-go.
“So we probably need to continue to work to educate students and to educate our instructors about Student Accessibility Services,” Dewy said.
Jacobs said there is also a lack of resources for faculty to support students who need these supplementary accommodations.
“Faculty end up having to volunteer their time to do all of these things, and have no idea how to support students (in this way).”
“Ultimately, these problems lie within the university leadership not wanting to invest in the resources that students need,” Jacobs said, adding that there are solutions to these problems that don’t interfere with academic freedom. “There has to be a financial investment in supporting students with disabilities.”
When asked if they had plans to further invest in relevant resources, Dewey said the university “spent a huge amount of money during the pandemic preparing classes, changing the technology, so that’s available,” and that every classroom is equipped for recording lectures.