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Debt load and Financial Barriers for Students with Disabilities: Research Summary

Melissa Bolton

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Melissa Bolton is a Masters of Arts candidate in the Counselling Psychology program at OISE. Her graduate research pertains to sexual health decision making for young women. Additionally, in her academic career at OISE, she is also involved in research directed at the exploration of ethical dilemmas within educational settings. Melissa Bolton’s prior research and training experience relates to violence against women issues. She has presented several times on her previous work regarding ‘Gender differences in coping strategies endorsed by individuals within psychologically abusive dating relationships’ conducted within her BA Honors degree at Carleton University. Melissa is also involved in student affairs at OISE, as the previous GSA departmental representative, and one of the current co-chairs of the departmental (AECP) student association (Students on Seven).


This presentation will highlight the goals and aspects of the ‘Debt load and Financial Barriers for Students with Disabilities in Canadian Post-Secondary Education’ project undertaken by the Centre for the Study of Students in Post-Secondary Education at OISE/UT, with NEADS as a partner. The aim of this project is to explore the different financial obstacles faced by post-secondary students who identify as having a disability. This project, funded by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation and the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, consists of key informant interviews with students and service providers; a national survey; and analysis of pre-existing data. It is expected that through this study, we will obtain a conclusive portrayal of the financial barriers faced by postsecondary students with disabilities.



Melissa Bolton described a nationwide research venture undertaken by the Centre for the Study of Students in Postsecondary Education, studying debt load for disabled students in post-secondary education. This research is being undertaken with NEADS as a partner.

The purpose of the research study is to understand the relative debt incurred by students with disabilities in post-secondary education, the financial barriers they face, and the impact their debt has on their educational experience and decisions.

The research will be divided into four phases: interviews with disabled students in Canadian post-secondary institutions; interviews with Canadian financial aid offices and disability service providers; an online survey of Canadian students with disabilities; and quantitative analysis of national archival data supported by the Data Liberation Initiative (DLI) at Statistics Canada.

Researchers asked students about multiple topics, including their field of study, type of disability, financial supports, housing situation, employment status, and aspirations post-graduation. The preliminary analyses being presented were based on 20% of the total 60 interviews.

The study identified two major financial barriers, Bolton said: difficulties qualifying for external funding, and the limited number of bursaries or awards for students with disabilities. For example, the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP)’s stringent and often conflicting guidelines are both a barrier and a source of frustration. Many students turned to part-time employment to cope, and expressed concern that that would delay their graduation and entry into the workforce.

Students’ sources of debt include tuition, educational equipment such as laptops and specialized software, student loans, and credit cards, Bolton said. The five major individuals or organizations that provide help are financial aid officers, disability service providers, family members such as partners or parents, and community or religious groups.

Besides identifying the sources of debt, the researchers also wanted to identify its impact on the student experience. Students unanimously said debt was a hindrance and a stressor and that it detracted from students’ social engagement by limiting their ability to pay for extracurricular activities.

When asked to identify their educational and employment aspirations after graduation, many students said they sought jobs in their field of study. Many hoped to pursue post-graduate degrees despite their financial barriers, and others expressed a desire to become advocates for other people with disabilities.

Perhaps most important, researchers asked students what they thought researchers ought to know. Students expressed concern about “the system,” and identified a need for greater access to resources and greater facilitation between networks. Finally, many students simply said, “Thank you for listening to my story.”

Bolton invited prospective study participants to contact the centre.

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