NEADS Conference 2004 - Right On!


Jennifer Gillies


Jennifer Gillies is a Master of Arts student at the University of Waterloo, Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies. She will be commencing a second Masters degree in the fall at York University, Department of Critical Disability Studies Jennifer has also volunteered for several community organizations and currently sits on the Kitchener-Waterloo Barrier Free Advisory Committee, which addresses issues of accessibility, inclusion and disability awareness with municipal governments, agencies and community members.




University Students with a Disability: The Transition to Inclusion

A significant amount of research has been conducted on disability issues. However, there has been a lack of research regarding university students with disabilities and the transition process into university life. This presentation will offer the findings of a qualitative study of four first year students with disabilities and their integration into campus life at a large Canadian university in southwestern Ontario. Topics to be covered include: the use of support services on campus, opportunities for leisure, peer support, “goal achievement” and “becoming a part of campus life.”


Students with disabilities are being recognized as a vital part of the diverse university community, said Jennifer Gillies, Master of Arts Student, Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, University of Waterloo. Specialized services provide important support, both academic and personal, to students and help them to foster social networks and to overcome barriers. But minimal research has been done on whether such services are meeting student needs.

The transition from high school to university is particularly challenging for students with disabilities, who may have to work harder than other students and who may therefore have less time to socialize. Lack of social opportunities is a concern because recreation and leisure can help with the transition to university by enhancing personal competencies and reinforcing a feeling of inclusion.

Gillies’ study qualitatively examined how a small group of students with disabilities integrated into the life of a large university in southwestern Ontario. The study considered how certain factors—such as use of services available to students with disabilities, and recreation and leisure participation—increased a sense of inclusion in university life.

Two key research questions guided the study:

  • How do university services assist students with disabilities in transitioning and integrating into university life?
  • What is the role of recreation and leisure in facilitating integration into the university community?

A letter of introduction was mailed to about 70 students with disabilities who were entering the university in the year of the study. Gilles received responses from four female students with varying disabilities.

The study used a two-phase interview process. In the first week, questions focused on frosh activities, current living arrangements, recreational and social opportunities that the students planned to pursue, services that they were aware of and planned to use, and things that had been helpful thus far in the transition.

Six months later, the second interview addressed the progress of integration. That interview followed up on questions asked in the first interview. For example, students were asked about the services they had accessed and the social plans they had followed up on. The aim was to explore the relationship between goal setting and goal attainment.

A comparative pattern analysis then compared categories across each interviewee’s experiences, suggesting several common patterns. Two key patterns, or themes, emerged:

  • Becoming part of campus life
  • Goal achievement and adjustment

The University of Waterloo’s Office for Persons with Disabilities proved to be a key formal support for becoming part of campus life. That service was the focal point of student integration within the university. It increased communication and understanding between students and professors, and it provided support and resources. However, reliance on the office and on other formal supports sometimes caused stress and anxiety, because students felt a lack of control over certain issues.

Social and informal supports included frosh week orientation, residence, clubs and teams, and leisure activities. Recreation and leisure helped to relieve stress and improve health, in turn helping students to achieve their goals for a successful transition.

The study found that, for the most part, the interviewees had established and met their goals. Constraints included lack of time, money, and ability. Goals changed as the students became more immersed in university life. For example, one participant commented that she had made enough friends; she did not have to go out to clubs as she had anticipated.

Participants felt successful in their transition when they were able to overcome obstacles, do well academically, and make friends. They used the variety of services provided and reported competency in their personal abilities. They felt that they worked more and longer than others, furthering their experience of time pressure, but they also experienced feelings of self-efficacy.

The influence of self-efficacy on behaviour is a framework outlined by Albert Bandura, who theorized that people develop a sense of how they are doing by recalling past achievements. When they experience success, they feel a greater level of self-efficacy. People with high self-efficacy are believed to have increased self-esteem and to be better able to manage situations: they have greater mastery over their environment and their disability alike. Informal and formal supports contribute to this.

The “supports and barriers” model of self-efficacy indicates that the availability of supports positively influences the experience of self-efficacy and, in turn, the ability to integrate into a university community. Barriers include time pressure, impairment, communication challenges, and a sense of dependency on others. Such barriers can potentially negatively influence the sense of self-efficacy and can limit academic and social success.

A critical factor is the availability of support services. In Gillies’ study, the students used support services to overcome barriers.

The study findings indicate that aspects of university life—including support services, opportunities for leisure, and peer support—all played an integral role in the participants’ successful transition into the university community. The study found that, for students with disabilities, inclusion is tied to access to special services and to the effectiveness of those services. Students who have access to effective services exhibit more confidence and are better adapted to the university milieu.