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Workshops - Key Issues on Campus

Reframing Disability at Selkirk College

Trish Foy

Watch streaming video of Trish Foy

Trish has been Disability Service Coordinator at Selkirk College for the past nine years, following more than two decades in the field of speech and language pathology. She has also been an instructor at Selkirk College for 13 years, offering the unique opportunity to work with students with disabilities both in the capacity of faculty and case manager/coordinator. Her passion is advocating for students with disabilities and implementing attitudinal and philosophical change at the institutional level. She is currently working part-time on a Doctorate of Education with a research focus on students with disabilities in postsecondary education.


Individuals with disabilities looking to fulfill their academic potential are increasingly entering post-secondary institutions. As a result, there is a need for disability services to be recognized as foundational to an institution. Rather than being known as a “helping” office, disability services needs to be inherent in the institution’s academic culture.

This presentation will focus on how to shift the prevalent model of disability from the medical, to the socio-political. Trish will draw on her experience as Disability Service Provider at Selkirk College to discuss challenges identified in the process of a campus-wide cultural shift; the perspectives of Selkirk College students with disabilities; and the College’s successful implementation of this shift.



Trish Foy described Selkirk College’s shift from the medical model of disability to the socio-political, and the successes and challenges it has encountered.

Selkirk College is a small college with 2,300 students, of which about 200 have disabilities. The college’s motto is “Every Student Counts,” meaning every student, not just those who are able-bodied. The college’s mission is to develop empowered, effective citizens, and the goal of Disability Services is to maximize success and reduce barriers to post-secondary education. It works to eliminate physical, instructional, and attitudinal barriers by providing reasonable accommodations and fostering awareness.

In its efforts to reframe disability, Disability Services works to raise awareness among faculty, staff, and students about the types of disability at the college and “the fact that disability doesn’t mean inability,” Foy said.

The other major issue is shifting to the social model of disability. According to the medical model, disability is a negative deficiency that resides in the individual. The goal is to make the person “normal,” guided by a professional. By contrast, according to the social model, disability is a neutral difference that stems from the interaction between the individual and society. The remedy is to change that interaction. The agent of change does not need to be a professional but can instead be an advocate, a family member, or the disabled person.

The first step in this shift is to examine language, since it affects beliefs and attitudes and can perpetuate paradigms like the medical model. For example, Foy said, Disability Services is considering renaming itself the Disability Resource Centre to imply choice and to foster self-determination and independence. Technology can also remove barriers and make classrooms more accessible, such as through online postings of lecture notes or recordings.

Another method is the Universal Design of Instruction (UDI), a set of principles that addresses the diversity of learning styles. Faculty members are made aware that they can make their classrooms more accessible by giving take-home exams, assigning group projects, and posting notes and PowerPoint presentations.

Foy said Selkirk’s Disability Services is pursuing collaborations with faculty, such as by organizing focus groups with disabled students. The college also hosted a “Reframe Disability Day,” organized and promoted by students, including events such as a signing choir.

Foy highlighted the importance of respecting individual students’ needs and perspectives. Selkirk College’s accomplishments include improving academic accessibility and creating a shift in vocabulary. Its ongoing challenges include awareness, especially with new faculty or those with limited experience with disabled students, and implementing UDI principles.

“New thinking does take time,” Foy said, “but we think making this shift will allow our college to be more accessible and inclusive.”

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