Friday, December 15, 2017

Education barriers: Is Camosun doing enough for students with disabilities?

March 16, 2016 by Greg Pratt, managing editor

“It basically made me feel like shit.”

After years of hearing concerns from students about how Camosun College deals with students who have disabilities, I’m finally sitting down face to face with a student and getting their story, and this is how that student—who has autism—explains to me they felt after a run-in with a teacher at Camosun.

“I was under the impression that colleges were supposed to make exceptions and understand that everyone can’t write like the teacher,” the student—who has requested to remain anonymous—says. “But I was proven wrong that day.”

The day in question: the student had received an assignment back from their teacher. The assignment was written in a manner that made it easy for the student to read and write their work, due to their autism. The teacher had made a comment on the assignment about the student’s writing style that the student found unfair.

“When I brought it up with my teacher she basically told me that just because I have a disability, that’s no excuse why I can’t live up to her standards. She proceeded to call my writing style ‘childish.’”

The student says they didn’t say anything back, and “stormed out” of the classroom; they felt awkward going back to the class. “I kind of didn’t want to,” they say.

“I filed a complaint with the disabilities office [Camosun’s Disability Resource Centre] and they said they couldn’t do anything, because it was technically in the course syllabus that I had to write like the teacher,” says the student, “although there was nothing in there like that. All it said was that your writing had to be legible and interesting, which it was.”

The Disability Resource Centre (DRC) is where Camosun students with disabilities can get assistance during their time at the college; the DRC gives the student official documentation regarding accommodation to give to instructors. The DRC offices are ground zero for the debate about whether the college is doing enough for students with disabilities.

UNDER-RESOURCED AND STRETCHED THIN

Even though we hear a lot of students with disabilities talk about how they feel the college isn’t doing enough for them, they are often quick to point out that the staff at the DRC is not to blame, and that it seems to be more because of the DRC being strained for resources.

Camosun student Kaitlin Woods uses the DRC and says they are doing a great job, although she acknowledges that they are under-resourced.

“They have more on their plate than they can handle,” she says, “but I have to say that they have been amazing and I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”

Woods says that she has been referred to as “excitable” and was once asked to come back when she had “calmed down” by a teacher, although she says that wasn’t meant to be hurtful or discriminatory. She says that the DRC does a good job at creating a space on campus where people with disabilities can feel comfortable.

“I have suffered from both ADHD and myoclonic epilepsy for over 10 years,” she says, “so when I was finally well enough to go back to school I was terrified. I have to say that I was trying to stop my teeth from chattering the first time I went to the Disability Resource Centre, but sitting there in the waiting area I saw the sign they had made that said, ‘All disabilities are equal. Not all are visible.’ I relaxed a lot, feeling that I was in a safe space, and the people I dealt with were absolutely amazing.”

Some Camosun College students feel the institution could be doing more for students with disabilities (photo by Jill Westby/Nexus).

Some Camosun College students feel the institution could be doing more for students with disabilities (photo by Jill Westby/Nexus).

DRC acting chair Michael Borins says he would agree with the DRC being under-resourced and stretched thin with what they have, but he says that Camosun does a good job helping the DRC. (Borins says that last year the DRC saw 1000 students, roughly split between the two campuses; he says that they see a 10 to 15 percent increase in students using the DRC annually.)

“I think the college, given the resources they get from the government, does its very best to try to provide funding to our department,” he says. “Even in times of cutbacks elsewhere, the college has tried to allocate new resources to our department.”

The list of tasks that the DRC handles is a large and varied one, and Borins says that over the years, they have overspent their resources “significantly” and the college has done everything it can to make it possible for the DRC to continue to function.

“We run huge deficits in terms of our testing budget, and the college absorbs as much as they can to enable us to provide the services that we need to provide and are legally mandated to provide. In terms of the college, they’re doing everything they can. There are only so many resources available, generally, at the postsecondary level, directed to students with disabilities at postsecondary institutions.”

The DRC at Lansdowne (there is a location at Interurban as well) is moving into the Alan Batey Library and Learning Commons building in May, something that Woods is concerned about.

“The current location is private and discrete with multiple entrances, which makes me and other people with disabilities feel comfortable and safe, and not at all like we are under scrutiny or being watched,” she says.

However, Borins feels that the move will be a good one, as the DRC will be able to work more closely with other learning services in the library.

“The idea is that all the other learning services are there and we would be working closely with them,” he says. “The idea is: we’re open, we’re accessible, we’re with other learning supports; that’s the decision around location. I can certainly appreciate that some students would like it to be more hidden. I think we don’t feel like we need to be hidden away, but we also want to make sure that confidentiality and people’s anonymity is respected, so we’ll do everything we can.”

Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) students with disabilities director Zack Snow says that a move to a more public place “would make things a lot more difficult” for the DRC, echoing Woods’ concerns over privacy.

“It’s more inclusive, but you want people to have privacy,” he says. “With my constituents, from what I’ve heard, 50 percent of them want to have privacy and 50 percent of them want to be included, so it’s a really tough thing to do, to meet all people’s needs. It’d be really good to have it in a place like where the math help centre is [in Ewing]; somewhere like that would be a really good place for the DRC.”

Snow says that he too has had experiences like the anonymous student we spoke with. Although he says that 90 percent of his teachers have been “nothing but really helpful,” he says he’s had three teachers in the past four years at Camosun who have given him trouble and made him feel “not good.”

“I have dyslexia, and I have trouble reading and writing,” says Snow. “When I was thinking of going into the Nursing program, I failed a test because I wasn’t able to write out the biological words for the organism I was working on. My teacher told me I can’t have help, and if I want to go into the Nursing program, I’m not going to have help on the floor, so I have to be able to do this test without help, and he had to mark the questions wrong because I didn’t spell the words right. It upset me; I was really upset.”

AN INCONSISTENT ISSUE

Camosun student Rachael Grant is registered through the DRC; she also used to be the CCSS students with disabilities director (Grant is currently the CCSS women’s director, as well as a student representative on the Education Council board at Camosun). She says that because Camosun doesn’t have a set policy regarding how instructors should accommodate students with disabilities, she has seen a frustrating amount of inconsistency.

“I did have a teacher mention once that giving me accommodation wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the students in the class,” says Grant. “That was a really frustrating thing to hear. I come to this institution already set back several steps compared to many folks here; I have a lot of trouble reading sometimes, I have difficulty concentrating, I have difficulty participating in classroom dynamics in a variety of ways that many folks don’t. These accommodations are here so that I can participate in a space where, without them, I wouldn’t be able to. So to hear that being accommodated would put me ahead of other folks is just so far from the reality of the situation. To have there be that much of a lack of understanding on the part of my teacher is really disheartening.”

Camosun vice president of education John Boraas confirms that Camosun does not have official policy in place (Boraas also adds that if a teacher is not complying with the DRC accommodation requests, the student should let the DRC know).

“There is not,” he says in regards to if Camosun has an official policy for instructors to follow regarding accommodation. “The critique is absolutely valid. We’ve just hired somebody in the policy area and that is high, high, high on the list.”

Grant says that even with the official documentation from the DRC, there is still a lot of room for variation in regard to how individual instructors accommodate students.

“When you get registered with the DRC, you get assessed for what accommodations you might need,” says Grant, “and that’s officially documented and you’re given a piece of paper with what accommodations you may require, and you’re expected, as a student, to have a conversation with your teacher about what you need based on that printout that they give you. And how a teacher accommodates you based on that is very much up to the teacher.”

The DRC’s Borins says that if a student feels an instructor is not following the DRC documentation, the DRC are always open to help.

“Instructors are obligated to act upon and provide the accommodations that are stated in the letters,” he says, adding that there are some situations where there can be discretion and negotiation involved. “If any student comes to us and says the instructor isn’t giving extra time on exams, we would work with the instructor and student to ensure that happens.”

Grant says that this inconsistency, as well as the stress of having to approach the teacher on the first day of class to talk about accommodation, can get in the way of what she’s actually at Camosun to do: get an education.

“Oh, definitely,” she says. “I’ve definitely found that in certain courses where there are similar loads and requirements, but dependent on the teacher and their flexibility—and where my health is is always a factor—I’m more likely to do well in certain courses with that as a factor. Being accommodated as a student with a disability is so incredibly key to me being successful at Camosun. To have that be hampered in any way is really detrimental.”

Borins stresses that if any student is unhappy with a situation regarding an instructor at Camosun DRC is happy to help.

“There are going to be some students who are dissatisfied,” he says. “We encourage them to come to us.”

FURTHER ON UP THE LINE

There’s a world of difference between Camosun talking about theoretical developments and strategic plans and a student with autism being told their writing is childish by a Camosun instructor.

So we took the anonymous student’s story to Camosun’s Boraas.

He says those are the kinds of situations the college needs to know about, so they can attempt to stop them.

“When dealing with populations of any kind that are struggling, that are marginalized in various ways, the stories are always hard,” he says. “There’s a standard that we should always be responding with. Mistakes happen, and that’s where we need to come back and identify those circumstances and follow up. We are going to move forward with policy changes and do the systemic stuff, but we also need to be sure that when complaints emerge, we hear them and have the chance to make them right. Certainly, that incident doesn’t sound good. That means, yes, mistakes are being made, but if people can draw our attention to those then at least we have a chance to fix them.”

Boraas agrees that the DRC is under-resourced and is stretched thin with what it has, but says that the college is looking into it.

“One of the things that’s underway right now is that we have hired an external auditor, and she is just completing her work,” he says. “And it’s entirely on what is needed for us to move forward with disability resources, policy needs, all those things.”

Boraas admits that there is always room for improvement, but he says he’s proud of how the college deals with students with disabilities.

“We certainly were among the provincial leaders in implementing services for students with disabilities,” he says. “So our history is we were very fast off the mark in creating these capabilities.”

LOOKING AHEAD

The CCSS’ Snow says that Camosun doesn’t do enough for students with disabilities. He acknowledges that the DRC does what it can and agrees with the sentiments that it is are under-resourced for its needs. As for suggestions for the college, he says that collaboration between the DRC and teachers could be a lot better and he mentions the concept of an opt-in program where a student’s disability is attached to their student number so the student doesn’t need to explain themselves to the teacher on the first day of class. He also says that people with disabilities need their own study spaces.

“People with disabilities have different needs; some people use assistive technologies, which are disruptive for other people in the class,” he says. “The college has nowhere private for people with disabilities to study. That’s a major problem. If you have a disability you want privacy to focus on what you’re trying to focus on. There’s nowhere for them; the DRC doesn’t have the space to have people studying in there.”

Grant feels that Camosun does a “fairly good job” of dealing with students with disabilities, given the resources the college has to work with. She’s quick to point out how financially strained the college is, and how strained on resources the DRC is. Regardless, she feels there’s room for improvement, and she’s happy about the direction the college is going.

“I think they’re already starting to initiate having a better articulated policy around how students are accommodated at Camosun,” she says. “It’s really encouraging to see that becoming a priority for them in the preliminary phases of what they’re developing currently. Other than that, I think [they should have] a lot more consultation with students with disabilities; I know it’s something they do occasionally, but I’d like to see more consultation being done. I’m just one person who has a particular subset of diagnoses; there is so much scope and breadth to what a disability can mean for a student, and it’s so important that the college is talking to everyone they can to find out how to best accommodate every learning style.”

Boraas says that Camosun is a provincial leader in terms of dealing with students with disabilities and says that, looking ahead, the college is doing its best to sift through all of these differing opinions, stories, and ideas to try to come up with the best policies possible.

“In terms of us accepting our responsibilities and engaging with them, I’m proud of that,” he says. “I’m proud of what we’ve done with the DRC. Should we aspire to do better? Of course. That’s where this report that’s being developed will help us get an objective view of what has to happen. Obviously we have many different voices of pressure on this one: we have the voice of students, the voice of faculty and staff, the voice of people within the DRC, and each is telling us slightly different things, so we’re trying to get out of it an objective lens on all of this.”

 

As for the anonymous student with autism who was told their writing was childlike by a Camosun teacher, they say that it makes them happy to hear Boraas say that their incident was a mistake that needs to be fixed, but they also speak about the situation with an honesty, and a frankness, that comes from being on the receiving end of such treatment. Their words hammer the point home: Camosun may be doing well, but there’s a long way to go before students with disabilities place total trust in an institution where they feel nervous about entering a classroom.

“I know how institutions work,” says the student. “I would not be surprised that even though they said those things, they were just to cover their own ass.”

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