Rory James wants students to share their concerns about the Access Centre for Students with Disabilities (ACSD)
“You don’t look disabled; I don’t see what’s wrong with you.” Rory James says that’s exactly what one professor told him.
James is registered with the Access Centre for Students with Disabilities (ACSD), a resource that supports over 2,000 Concordia students who have physical disabilities, learning disabilities or mental illnesses by providing them with academic accommodations and connecting them with relevant resources.
According to James, their support isn’t enough.
James is a marketing and finance student, a John Molson School of Business councillor in the Concordia Student Union, and the council chairperson of the Arts and Science Federation of Associations. Over the past year and a half, he has been informally surveying students and faculty about their experiences with the ACSD. Drawing on these conversations—he has spoken to about 30 students and 10 faculty members—as well as his own experience, he plans to approach the ACSD after final exams with suggestions on how to improve their services.
One of the ACSD’s main services is providing students with accommodations during their exams. However, James said there needs to be an ACSD exam “bill of rights,” an institutional framework that outlines the exam rights of every student registered with the centre. “Almost all the students I’ve talked to have mentioned invigilators changing things last minute, or not respecting accommodations,” he said.
James cited a personal experience in which an invigilator chastised him for using Microsoft Excel during an exam, even though his professor’s approval of his use of the software was indicated on his exam sheet.
Alexandre St-Onge-Perron, the president of the Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia (TRAC) union, said his organization, which represents invigilators, has never heard of the allegations described by James before.
“If students have felt that their specific needs were not answered properly, they should refer to the ACSD so that the centre can make sure their needs and rights as student are respected,” St-Onge-Perron told The Concordian. “I have heard that some invigilators would like to have even more extensive training, as they want to make sure they give the best possible service,” he added.
James would also like to see the ACSD do a better job of communicating students’ needs to professors. When a student is registered with the centre, each of their professors receives a letter notifying them that a student in their class requires accommodations. However, the letters do not include the student’s name or the nature of their disability, meaning students must explain their need for accommodations to their teachers themselves. James said this sometimes makes professors reluctant to grant accommodations to students like him, who do not have visible disabilities.
James said he has spoken to teachers who take issue with this policy as well, since it makes providing proper accommodations more difficult. He cited one second-hand account of a professor who was unaware one of his students was epileptic, and as a result, didn’t know how to intervene when the student had an epileptic seizure during class.
Anne-Marie Sénécal is registered with the ACSD for chronic tendonitis in her left arm. However, she said she regularly receives emails from the centre advertising conferences for ADHD and other disabilities she does not have. In addition, Sénécal is allowed a computer during exams, but she said the keyboards provided by the centre have enlarged letters for students with visual impairments, which she finds more difficult to use.
“The people who are on the autism spectrum, the people who are in a wheelchair, the people who have ADHD—we’re all put in the same boat,” she said. Nonetheless, Sénécal praised the openness and generosity of the centre: “They’re really willing to go far [for students].”
Registrations with the ACSD have more than doubled in the last 10 years. In October 2007, The Concordian reported that between 700 and 800 students were registered with the centre, compared to the more than 2,000 today. However, the ACSD’s website lists just nine staff members, five of whom are advisors. These advisors meet with students to recommend appropriate accommodations, connect students with relevant resources and provide adaptive technologies for classes and exams. James said he spoke to students whose requests for appointments went unacknowledged for weeks. “Sometimes they’re registered three or four weeks into the semester,” he said.
Even the language used by the centre can be a barrier to students seeking accommodations, James said. Since the ACSD bills itself as a resource for students with disabilities, some students may not seek help because they do not see their own condition as a disability, he explained.
Other improvements James would like to see include stronger self-promotion on the centre’s behalf, the inclusion of parents and pregnant students in the accessibility policy, and more comfortable exam facilities, which he said are often uncomfortably hot.
According to James, about half of the students he surveyed reported positive experiences, although some of them still had concerns about the centre. Other students have had overwhelmingly positive experiences with the centre. Justin Occhionero, a second-year English literature student, is registered with the ACSD for physical impairments caused by a stroke he suffered eight months ago. “They have been very responsive to my needs,” he said, adding that he has never had trouble receiving accommodations from any of his teachers.
Once he has collected enough feedback, James said he would like to meet with the ACSD’s manager to discuss possible areas of improvement. “As a student senator and as a CSU councillor, this is part of my job: representing students and their concerns,” he said. At the end of the fall 2017 semester, James raised many of his concerns with the centre’s administration, but did not feel his concerns were acknowledged.
James said he is not worried about pushback from the centre. “I’m assertive about voicing my rights,” he said. “So if anyone discriminates [against me] or treats me differently because I spoke out against the centre, I am okay.”
The ACSD did not respond to The Concordian’s request for comment in time for publication.
Photo by Alex Hutchins.