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Student Life

What I learned from working at the Access Centre for Students with Disabilities

On Feb. 6, I was reading Jean Vanier’s “Loneliness” from his book Becoming Human as part of the required reading for a graduate course in the department of Theological Studies. In 1964, Vanier founded L’Arche, a community where people with disabilities could share their lives together. His remarks about the “love that grows in and through belonging,” the “discovery of our common humanity” and “working together for the common good” made me reflect upon my own experience of working with students with disabilities and my desire to communicate and share my experiences with my fellow Concordians. 

I thought about contacting The Concordian for some time, but an idea never came into fruition until now; I thought what I had to say would not be interesting enough or worthy of publication. Yet, as I was reading through “Loneliness,” I could not help but be overwhelmed by a deep feeling of sadness, but also hope.

I came across the opportunity to help students with disabilities in 2014, while still an undergraduate student in the process of completing a double major in Honours English literature and theological studies. During this time, I volunteered as a note-taker, still unaware that I could somehow get paid (not that the money should matter for such a great cause, even though when you’re a university student, let’s face it, it kind of does). At the end of every semester, I would receive an acknowledgment of gratitude in the form of a certificate and a $20 gift card to the Concordia Bookstore.

One day, I asked the Access Centre for Students with Disabilities (ACSD) if there were other opportunities to receive financial compensation for my notes. Having the opportunity to work with all of these wonderfully talented students has fulfilled me in a way that striving for success in our capitalist society can’t. They continue to remind me of what it means to be human every single day.

Disabilities should not define a person—they are merely a part of the person, not their entire story. These students have demonstrated ambition, strength, courage and perseverance despite all the odds, obstacles, stereotypes and judgments thrown their way. I can see drive in each and every one of them to make a name for themselves, to succeed and prove all of those who doubted them wrong. 

I am currently employed with the ACSD as a note-taker, tutor, exam invigilator and most recently, academic coach. I have taken notes for students in courses that span several programs. The way I see it is I’m basically getting paid to learn while making a difference in these students’ lives. I can see the difference I’ve made just by looking at them. Seeing a smile on their faces and just the manner in which they thank me and have continued to request me as their note-taker and tutor for future classes has been so gratifying to me. 

Although my experiences can’t be compared to Vanier’s tremendous output in providing a secure environment for people with disabilities to flourish and grow, working with students with disabilities has taught me a great deal about what it means to be human. Working in retail, I’m exposed to countless people on a daily basis who always seem very rushed. We sometimes forget what it means to be human, to take a step back and be grateful for just being alive on this particular day. We would be so much kinder and more humble towards one another if we took the time to reflect on ourselves and the vulnerability of the human condition. 

Working with students with disabilities is like being in front of a mirror; they mirror your own humanity and vulnerability. Notes are a gift and a sign of hope which remind students with disabilities of their own humanity and their potential to succeed. Rather than simply disregarding invitations to participate as a volunteer note-taker, I encourage students to share their notes with other students in need. It really doesn’t take that much, especially if students are already typing their own notes on a laptop. All you need to do is upload your notes onto the site. Imagine the difference it would make if more students joined; if we all come together, we can make an even greater difference. 

Graphic by Sasha Axenova

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News

ACSD responds to accommodation concerns

CSU councillor surveyed students on experiences with Access Centre for Students with Disabilities

“If a student feels a faculty member is acting in a discriminatory way, they need to report the incident to the ombudsman office,” wrote Concordia spokesperson Mary-Jo Barr in an email to The Concordian following the publication of an article on March 27 about student concerns regarding the university’s Access Centre for Students with Disabilities (ACSD). “The role of the ACSD is to help secure access and provide academic accommodations to students with disabilities.”

During a Concordia Student Union (CSU) special council meeting on March 14, John Molson School of Business councillor Rory James announced his ongoing initiative to improve accommodations for students registered with the ACSD. During the meeting, James said he had spoken to “a couple” of students who felt the centre did not properly address their complaints about alleged discrimination by professors.

According to James, both students and faculty have reported a perceived lack of communication between the ACSD and professors. When a student registers with the centre, each of their professors receives a letter informing them that one of their students has a disability. However, these letters do not disclose the name of the student or the nature of their disability, which places the responsibility on the student to approach their professor about appropriate accommodations.

“The ACSD is bound by confidentiality and cannot discuss the nature of a student’s disability without the student’s consent,” Barr explained, noting that, “on occasion, the ACSD will coordinate [appropriate accommodation] directly with the professor (as long as permission is given to do so from students).”

James told The Concordian he wanted the university to include student-parents and pregnant students in its accessibility policy, since they have unique needs. According to Barr, these groups of students are not included in the policy because parenting and pregnancy are not disabilities. However, she said accommodations for pregnant students and student-parents are being discussed as part of an ongoing administrative review of the health and wellbeing of Concordia students.

Based on his discussions with students, James also claimed student requests for accommodation and specialized tutoring sometimes go unacknowledged for weeks. Although Barr admitted that delayed responses happen on occasion, she insisted “the ACSD is working to improve the system by acknowledging students’ requests quickly and informing them that someone will get back to them within a reasonable time period.” Barr also recommended students visit the university’s Student Success Centre for tutoring and learning support.

Finally, Barr said the ACSD is “not aware of exam rooms being uncomfortably hot,” another common complaint James found in his surveys. “However, the ACSD will contact facilities management and request to have room temperatures examined,” she added.

Photo by Alex Hutchins

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Concordia Student Union News

Concordia students with disabilities deserve better accommodation: CSU councillor

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.

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