One day last fall, Alex Lu was surprised to see some new equipment in his lab in the department of computer science. It wasn’t expensive or especially leading edge, but it meant so much to him that he felt compelled to tweet about it.
“My PhD supervisor brought in a whole box of transparent masks so I could lipread – completely unprompted,” he wrote. “I’m crying – inclusivity done right.” In another tweet, Lu, who is Deaf, explained further: “He noticed he had to take off his mask once or twice to talk to me and then he just went ahead and ordered it.”
This is what accessibility at U of T is about – removing barriers so students with disabilities can get on with their learning, says Tina Doyle, director of accessibility services at U of T Scarborough. With offices on each campus, accessibility services works with students who have many different kinds of disabilities.
Since U of T issued its first commitment, in 1981, to improving accessibility for students, faculty and staff with disabilities, the university has removed or reduced many obstacles in the learning environment – ranging from physical obstructions to communication barriers. Still, Doyle acknowledges that it is always a work in progress because people’s needs – and the social and educational context – constantly change and evolve.
Today, U of T is working to improve accessibility by promoting a broadened definition of disability, by creating inclusive online courses, and by increasing support outside the classroom in experiential learning, events and mentorship.
As a PhD candidate, Lu (MSc 2017) has a rigorous workload and unpredictable schedule. He can lipread, but also uses sign-language interpreters for many interactions with students and faculty. “My accessibility advisers work behind the scenes to manage my interpreter bookings, so I’m not taxed with additional labour for having a disability,” he says. “This has been critical to my academic success.”
Accessibility advisers collaborate with faculty at the three campuses to remove obstacles that may limit students with disabilities from fully participating in their courses and research. (The advisers also collaborate with the students themselves.) Removing obstacles often means developing alternate ways (or “accommodations”) for students to meet the essential requirements of their academic work. Beyond sign-language interpreters, these accommodations can include specialized desks or lab equipment, assistive technology, extra time to complete assignments and different exam formats.
“Despite a common misconception, accommodations don’t make course work easier,” says Michael Nicholson, director of accessibility services at the St. George campus. “They just ensure every student has the same chance for success.”
Emily Chan (BSc 2019 UTSC), a master’s student at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, uses a power wheelchair. She says a strong partnership with her adviser has been critical to achieving her academic goals. She also credits her ability to voice what she needs.
“Over the years I’ve learned to advocate for myself,” says Chan. “If someone has an acquired disability and is adjusting to their new life, though, or has a condition with flare-ups and they’re having a bad few days, they might not have the capacity or energy to speak up.”
Recent student surveys show that, because of stigma, those with invisible disabilities tend to be the most hesitant about registering for accessibility services. For this reason, accessibility services is adjusting its communication strategy so that students with invisible disabilities such as autism, anxiety, depression, and chronic or temporary health conditions, know that the office is also there for them.
“One of our priorities is helping students understand the broad definition of disability and the wide range of accommodations we offer,” says Nicholson, noting that an older, narrower definition of disability – restricted to mobility, vision and hearing impairments – persists. To shift perceptions, he and his colleagues are changing the language and images used in outreach events and material. “Instead of saying, ‘Register with us if you have a disability,’ we say, ‘If you’re experiencing something that’s negatively affecting your learning, we may have help for you.’”
It seems to be working, according to Elizabeth Martin, director of accessibility services at U of T Mississauga. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of students registering with invisible disabilities.” Over the past five years, the number of students seeking support has grown by more than 60 per cent, with mental health disabilities accounting for much of the growth.
David Onley, an associate professor, teaching stream, at U of T Scarborough and a long-time advocate for greater accessibility, says U of T is doing as well as most institutions across Ontario in meeting accessibility standards. Yet despite 15 years of provincial laws mandating these standards, Onley says a lot of work remains to be done – especially now that the pandemic has worsened existing barriers faced by people with disabilities, and added new ones. For example, people with compromised immunity are even more isolated, and there are longer waits for health care and other support services.
While it is too early to gauge the long-term effects of COVID-19 on people with disabilities, the pandemic-driven shift to online learning has affected students with both visible and invisible disabilities. Lu must now arrange for sign-language interpreters for video conferencing, which works only if the video doesn’t pause, causing him to miss key information. Chan says she has adapted well – “other than Zoom fatigue.” Yet she worries about students with disabilities who may experience barriers to learning exclusively on screens, such as those with acquired brain injuries or vision loss.
Most professors have had to adapt their courses for online learning, which presents an unprecedented opportunity to make teaching more accessible across the disciplines, says Martin. “There has been a large-scale review of current technologies used to ensure students with disabilities can actively participate in their courses, and more incorporation of universal design principles.”
Universal Design for Learning, a framework supported by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, builds flexibility into courses so that students with diverse learning needs can thrive. It presents information in multiple formats (text, video, audio), provides different ways for students to engage, and offers choices for evaluating what they have learned. In an online course, this could mean recording lectures on video with captions, running discussion forums and polls, and allowing students to get participation marks without having to appear on video.
The university’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Office is helping to train U of T educators on how to implement Universal Design for Learning. Ben Poynton, who leads the AODA Office, says hundreds have joined sessions in the past few years to learn practical strategies on how to create accessible learning environments where all students see themselves and can meaningfully engage.
There are other opportunities for faculty across the three campuses to learn how to make their online classes more inclusive, too. Nancy Johnston, an associate professor, teaching stream, in Women’s and Gender Studies at U of T Scarborough, has co-hosted virtual workshops on the subject. “Faculty have demonstrated leadership in sharing innovations and troubleshooting together to better support diverse learners in online courses,” she says. Johnston, who is affiliated with the Centre for Teaching and Learning, encourages her colleagues to always assume they will have students who require accommodations and, if possible, design their courses to be inclusive to all students from the outset.
Many opportunities for students to learn through work placements and community organizations have also gone virtual. Looking to the future, U of T is committed to improving the accessibility of experience-based learning, both in person and online. “The university has been a leader when it comes to accommodations for students in professional schools, who secure placements in locations such as hospitals, clinics and schools,” says Nicholson. “Now we’re seeing many other programs add experiential learning for the first time. We’re working closely with the career centre to better understand the barriers faced by students with disabilities in trying to get employment opportunities while still students, and then in managing various work environments.”
Even though work-study placements and classes are happening online, the accessibility of the physical learning environment is an ongoing priority – and challenge – at U of T. Emily Chan says her best-laid plans for arriving in class on time can be thrown off when an elevator or powered door is under repair, for example. She often wishes for more signage with information about alternate routes.
To get this idea and others on the table, Chan sits on the advisory committee on physical accessibility at U of T Scarborough, which provides feedback on major renovation and building projects. “We’re the ones who see the gaps, so it’s critical that we have a say,” she says.
Tina Doyle, who is also on the committee and has a disability, is leading efforts to develop a website and other resources to help new committee members better understand how to identify physical barriers and how to address them.
All new construction at U of T, and renovations whenever possible, conform to barrier-free design standards. The St. George Landmark Project, for example, set for completion in 2023, will replace stairs and ramps with gradual slopes, add textural markers on paths for people with vision loss, and increase the number of benches and rest areas.
Chan says one of her biggest challenges with physical accessibility is navigating large campus events. She remembers one exhausting foray into a career fair as representative of her experiences. “The whole thing was a struggle,” she says. “Getting through the crowds, trying to reach the tables, raising my voice to let people know I was there. I eventually gave up because I was so drained.” As co-chair of a committee exploring accessibility in career services for students, Chan provided feedback to event organizers based on evaluations from attendees with disabilities. The objective, she says, is to make each event more accessible than the last.
Accessibility services and the AODA Office have helped develop resources on planning and hosting accessible events, both online and in real life. And the university is developing guidelines for all faculty and students on incorporating inclusive design principles into as many facets of university life as possible.
Occasionally, there are campus events featuring alumni with disabilities, and accessibility services plans to run more, says Nicholson. “Students with disabilities should be able to come and hear people who were registered with our office and went on to do great things.”
There have been so many times when I would have liked to have someone who truly understood my experiences to answer my questions”
Both Lu and Chan have felt the scarcity of mentors with disabilities at U of T. “What a lot of my barriers have in common is that my peers and mentors lack experience dealing with disability,” says Lu. “I have no one to turn to for advice and have to figure it out on my own. That’s one of the reasons that drives me to ‘make it’ – I want to be a resource for future Deaf students.”
Chan says she’s grateful to have Onley and Doyle as her role models at U of T, but says greater access to mentors would ease the isolation often felt by students with disabilities. “There have been so many times when I would have liked to have someone who truly understood my experiences to answer my questions, or just relate to the emotional labour of explaining why I need accommodations over and over again.”
Doyle says recruiting mentors can be hard – especially when it comes to people with invisible disabilities. “They may not be prepared for the possible stigma and judgment that could come with disclosure.”
While acknowledging this reality, Onley says it’s worth urging more staff, faculty and alumni who have a disability to make themselves available to students. “I think we may see more people willing to do this now because the cold reality is that this pandemic has been a great equalizer. We’re all more aware of our weaknesses, which can be a strength.”
Doyle is similarly optimistic. “Over the past year, many people have experienced things that people with disabilities have always lived with – being isolated, feeling unsafe in public spaces, requiring flexibility in their work. If everyone can remember that feeling when the pandemic is over, we have reason to hope for a future with more accessibility and less stigma for everyone.”
As for Emily Chan and Alex Lu, they will both graduate this spring. As a social worker, she would like to use her lived experience to help families who have children with disabilities. He has accepted a position at the Microsoft Research Lab in Massachusetts and intends to continue his research and work toward more inclusion of underrepresented people in science. Two reasons for hope right there.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that U of T’s first commitment to improving accessibility for students, faculty and staff with disabilities occurred in 1987.
What Is a “Disability”?
The traditional way of defining disability in education, health care and other systems emphasizes physical or cognitive differences in individuals. “It focuses on medical diagnoses that need to be managed or cured,” says Cassandra Hartblay, director of U of T Scarborough’s new Centre for Global Disability Studies. “These ideas are still very prominent in Canada and other cultures.”
Many disability studies researchers, however, define disability as something that is created by barriers in society, such as the physical environment and people’s attitudes. “The classic example is that a person may have mobility impairments, but the thing that’s disabling is a flight of stairs,” says Hartblay.
This definition shifts attention to how to create a society without barriers that exclude people with disabilities. Tanya Titchkosky, a professor of disability studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says that institutions should aim to go beyond the ambitions implicit in the word accessible. “Accessibility measures are never a done deal,” she says. “But they can be a beginning, an open invitation to imagine further measures for a more robust and vibrant life alongside people with disabilities.”
A New Centre for Disability Studies
Launched in 2020 at U of T Scarborough, the Centre for Global Disability Studies brings together faculty, researchers and graduate students from the three campuses conducting anti-ableist research in any discipline. “Ableism” refers to discriminatory attitudes in society that devalue the potential of people with disabilities.
“Our mission is to support research that’s focused on creating a more just future for people with disabilities,” says director Cassandra Hartblay, assistant professor of anthropology and health humanities at U of T Scarborough.
While most centres for disability studies examine issues at the regional or national level, the centre is founded on the idea that the social and historical systems that perpetuate ableism – including colonialism and racism – are global.
The centre is also committed to improving accessibility on campus. It offers small grants to cover access needs for researchers with disabilities, such as the cost of bringing support people to academic conferences. It also provides matching funds for investments in accessible events, such as providing captioning and interpreters.
In partnership with accessibility services at U of T Scarborough, the centre hopes to one day establish a disability cultural centre. “It will be a hub for the centre’s events and for student life around disability issues,” says Hartblay.