Photo by Saty + Pratha

Who Is Included?

How U of T is becoming more accessible to Alex Lu – and to thousands of other members of the university community with disabilities

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.


Alex Lu sitting on stone steps outside a campus building
Alex Lu, who is Deaf, uses sign-language interpreters for many of his interactions with students and faculty. Photo by Saty + Pratha

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.

Emily Chan sitting in her wheel chair outdoors on the UTSC campus
Master’s student Emily Chan provides feedback about physical accessibility for renovation and building projects at U of T Scarborough. “We’re the ones who see the gaps, so it’s critical that we have a say.” Photo by Saty + Pratha

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.”

Emily Chan sitting on a bench outside UTSC's Krembil Student Commons, with her wheelchair next to her
Emily Chan says a strong partnership with her accessibility adviser has been key to achieving her academic goals. She also credits her ability to voice her needs. Photo by Saty + Pratha

About The Author

Author image: Megan Easton

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”

— Master’s student Emily Chan

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. 12 Responses to “ Who Is Included? ”

  2. Allen Angus Rodgers says:

    I founded a bursary for persons with disabilities at U of T. I hope it is still being accessed. It is the Allen Angus Rodgers Wheelchair Athletes Disability Bursary.

  3. Prof. Tanya Titchkosky, Disability Studies says:

    U of T's first statement on Disability and Accessibility, approved in principle by Governing Council on March 26, 1981, is pasted below in whole.

    The University and Accessibility for Disabled Persons

    The University of Toronto, with a very large number of old buildings and sprawling urban campus, can present a formidable challenge to disabled persons. Adaptations have been made to Erindale and Scarborough, but the situation on the St. George campus remains difficult. The task of reviewing the University’s facilities in terms of physical accessibility, assigning priorities for improvements, and finding funds for the changes that will be necessary is equally formidable. The financial aspect is particularly troubling at a time when the University’s needs in so many areas are acute, its resources eroded and its prospects for relief in the near future dim.

    Given these constraints, it must be recognized that progress will be slow. However, the University has made a beginning, and intends, to the extent that is possible, to take the following steps toward improving accessibility in the months and years ahead.

    1. The University endorses in principle the objectives of the United Nations General Assembly resolution proclaiming 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons.

    2. The University will continue to develop administrative procedures to facilitate the integration of disabled persons into the University community including academic, administrative and support services.

    3. The University will encourage faculty and staff to make accommodations for the requirements of disabled persons.

    4. The University will seek funding with a view to ensuring that its buildings, services, and programmes are made accessible where feasible. The goal shall be a major improvement in accessibility within ten years according to a list of priorities established in consultation preferably with recognized groups of disabled persons at the University of Toronto, or failing such groups, with disabled members of the University community. When significant structural alterations are made or new facilities are built the needs of disabled persons will be considered.

    5. The University will consult and work with other academic institutions in the province in the belief that the needs and issues require a co-operative effort on a system-wide basis.

    6. The administration will place before the Budget Advisory Committee on an annual basis an appreciation of the University’s progress in making the campus accessible to the physically handicapped and a set of recommendations for continuing improvements.

    Office of the Vice-President –
    Personnel and Student Affairs
    February 12, 1981

  4. HLempert says:

    Thank you for this article. As a person with hearing disability who cannot read sign language, I have relied on e-mail and closed captions for online communication during COVID-19. Closed-caption options that do not require prerecording have been available on TV for many years. Surely, with the technological brilliance at the university, it should be possible to increase accessibility to online courses, talks, etc. by devising a closed-caption option that does not entail prerecording.

  5. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    @Allen Angus Rodgers

    The bursary is indeed still being offered. Details can be found here.

  6. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    From Jennifer Angus (BA 1994 Innis):

    Thank you SO much for advocating and allowing space for the voices of differently abled students to be heard on such a broad platform.

    I’m very glad the university has spent a lot of time and funds to improve accessibility. Yes, there is always room for expansion and, as the article notes, a shift in perspective is needed from the default “ableism.”

    I graduated from U of T in 1994 when I was not disabled. Somewhat recently I became significantly disabled. I’ve often wondered how I would have been able to attend many of my classes had I been disabled at the time. I wonder if I would have been able to graduate.

    Many doors to exciting opportunities are shut to people with varying disabilities. The students you profiled are true champions in my view. I wish that more organizations -- both private and public -- would learn to understand and appropriately acknowledge these profound successes.

  7. Maria says:

    Thank you for this article. It is good to learn that the definition of what constitutes a "disability" is widening in scope.

    My son has been ill with an autoimmune disease that is invisible to the rest of us other than the debilitating pain we see him suffering from time to time. When he was in high school, it was a constant struggle to fight for him to have extra time to complete exams, tests and assignments because of his disease. Now at U of T, he is having a great year with classes online. If he has to miss a class because of illness, he can watch it and catch up. Course materials are all accessed online. I hope that this will continue even after going back to in-person lectures.

    I am a graduate of U of T. When I started my program, in 2006, I had a six-month old baby. I was still breastfeeding. I asked if it would be possible to have a quiet private space with a sink for 10 minutes a day so I could pump milk. I was flatly refused. There were at least five other lactating mothers in my year, too.

    A change in attitude was definitely needed. A careful and respectful consideration of what people need when they come forward would be helpful. My incident was especially infuriating because at the time our courses all preached how we had to be more inclusive, respectful and accommodating. That was not the way I was treated. So I am happy to hear things are changing to enable all people to be successful in their learning environment.

  8. David Sully says:

    I graduated in 2007 and was registered with accessibility services throughout my university years. As a coma survivor (acquired brain injury), accommodations such as extra time on tests and peer note-takers were integral to my success. Congrats to U of T for developing accessibility services since then and creating opportunities for students who otherwise face substantial obstacles.

  9. Perum says:

    Thank for this article. My daughter has a learning disability. This article is comforting, since she will be making a decision about university next year.

  10. Carla Rodney says:

    As much as I appreciate this article, I cannot help but notice that there are no representations of Black bodies who must negotiate this system. As a person with a disability, I have yet to receive a warm reception in this same space. How do you account for that? This is not to say that I am not happy for those who do get acknowledgment; it's good to know that the system works for some of us. I'm just not sure it works for all of us.

  11. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    From Brian Chang (BA 2009 Innis)

    I have microtia, but it was only when I started attending university and had classes with more than 200 students that I struggled to hear what was being said. Many professors refused to use microphones in large lecture halls, thinking their voice was loud enough.

    In second year, I went to accessibility services for help. They told me I needed a report from a specialist about my disability. I remember being confused. I had never seen a specialist. My disability just is. It doesn’t get worse or better. Accessibility services wouldn’t talk to me about options.

    After obtaining a referral from my family doctor, I waited months to see an otolaryngologist. When I eventually saw him, he was confused about what I was asking for. I said I just wanted my professors to use a microphone. He didn’t understand why I needed his opinion.

    In the end, I was able to give accessibility services what they needed. They reviewed the file and told me they would cover the cost of someone to take notes for me in class – an accommodation I hadn't asked for.

    I gave up at that point, feeling truly unseen and not listened to. I didn’t need or want someone else to take notes. I wanted professors to pick up the lapel mic at every teaching station and use it. Accessibility services took away my agency, so I rejected the help.

    In third year, things improved. Classes were smaller, and in smaller rooms I felt more confident asking a professor to use a mic if I needed them to. But I will never forget how disempowered accessibility services at U of T made me feel.

  12. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    From Arjun Kaul (BSc 2020 St. Michael’s)

    I love U of T, but my experience as a disabled student here has not been great – even with the assistance of accessibility services, which has saved me on countless occasions. I think U of T (and academia in general) has to reconcile that prioritizing abstract concepts such as “rigour” and “academic excellence” actually means designing an environment hostile to disabled students. Accessibility services is a wonderful organization, but I can’t count the amount of times that professors have just said “no” when I’ve requested accommodations in order to be “fair” or to keep to deadlines.

  13. Kaesha Clarke says:

    This article is comforting and encouraging. I love that it addresses accessibility for disabilities that are not normally visible.