NEADS Conference 2000 - "Networking, Educating, Advocating: Delivering Success in the New Millennium"

Conference Report

Workshops B and C: Educating

Moderator: MaryAnne Duchesne, Secretary-Treasurer, NEADS

Leo Bissonnette, Co-ordinator, Services for Students with Disabilities, Concordia University

Institutions must be proactive to ensure that students with disabilities are informed of the services available, said Leo Bissonnette. At Concordia, getting information to new students about Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) has been an ongoing concern. SSD has prepared a checklist called "Preparation Starts Early", which students with disabilities can use as a tool for negotiating services at an educational institution.

Six years ago, when Concordia University re-evaluated its orientation process, SSD had an opportunity to create its own program targeting students coming to the university from CEGEP and high school. The goal was to assist in the transition process by linking students with services. SSD advertises in The Bridge, a magazine for new students, in order to attract those who would not otherwise know about the program. One student even wrote an article about his personal experience with the program.

Each year, SSD holds its own orientation day that is scheduled so as not to conflict with the university's general orientation activities. The day begins with "food, coffee and fellowship", because a vital part of its purpose is to encourage networking among students. There is also an information component. A handbook is given to every student who comes to the session, and participants are taken on a physical tour of the downtown campus. At lunch, returning students, graduates, and key faculty members offer practical tips to help newcomers know what to expect. The more experienced students share testimonials of their own success in an effort to assuage the anxiety of beginning students. After lunch, financial aid questions are addressed. The day ends with an opportunity for students to open a file at the SSD office.

After Bissonnette's presentation, a participant asked what percentage of students at Concordia have been identified as having learning disabilities and make use of SSD. She also asked whether high school students interview representatives of the program before deciding which school to attend. Bissonnette responded that the percentage of students with learning disabilities in university is increasing. He noted that peoples' first concern when choosing a school used to be the availability of services. However, with some exceptions, services have improved to the point that students are now able to make their choice based on the academic programs available.

Asked if the program assists graduates who are looking for work and generates awareness among employers, Bissonnette responded that SSD works in co-operation with community associations outside the university. The program also works to bring in recruiters who are aware of Concordia's students with disabilities, to help those recruiters prepare suitable material, and to sensitize staff at Concordia's career services centre.

Catherine McGowan, Canadian Centre on Disability Studies (CCDS), Winnipeg

Catherine McGowan explained that disability studies, like women's studies, developed out of the disability rights movement and are based on a social model and a minority group model of disability. In the social model, disability stems from a failure of the structural/social environment to adjust to the individual with special needs, rather than the inability of the individual to adapt to society. The minority group model expands on that understanding, explaining how environment, attitudes and education create the restrictions associated with disabilities.

Disability studies examine the experiences of people with disabilities through a social/political filter, as opposed to a biomedical filter. McGowan noted that this academic project might be frustrating to activists who feel that the observations made are already obvious. However, disability studies have a lot of potential to be helpful to activists by putting the issues into a social context.

McGowan outlined the CCDS definition of disability studies, explaining that this field of study re-frames disability by focussing on it as a social phenomenon and a social construct. It examines the policies and practices of all societies in order to understand the social determinants of the disability experience (rather than the physical and psychological determinants). The scholarship challenges the idea that the economic and social status of people with disabilities is the inevitable outcomes of their condition. It explores the attitudes and issues that pervade every aspect of civic and pedagogical culture and form the criteria for social policy and practice.

There are a number of places to pursue disability studies in the US, but in Canada the only programs available are a Bachelor's of Applied Arts in Disability Studies at Ryerson University and a proposed Master's program at the University of Manitoba. More information on the Ryerson program is available on their web site at .

Individual courses with disability content are available at a number of institutions in Canada. CCDS did a survey of selected Canadian universities and found that there are about 68 individual courses being offered (contact CCDS for details).

The planned interdisciplinary Master's program in disability studies at the University of Manitoba was proposed by CCDS. The program is geared toward those with a Bachelor's degree in the field or with relevant experience who want to do advanced study. It is designed to encourage the application of disability studies across the student's chosen discipline. The program proposal has been well received by the university and is currently going through the approval process. It is hoped that the program will be operational by September 2001. Graduates will be able to work in three major areas: clinical/therapeutic; social policy; and research. Demand for such expertise has increased dramatically in recent years. The objectives of the program are:

  1. To promote an interdisciplinary approach to disability studies;
  2. To give graduate students an opportunity to apply their undergraduate degree and work experience to a Master's degree;
  3. To meet demands for a graduate program in the field;
  4. To facilitate and encourage community members to be educators, decision makers and researchers; and,
  5. To promote greater accessibility to the university for persons with disabilities.

Representatives from various sectors were brought together by CCDS to develop the program proposal. In May 1998, a national symposium on disability studies was held. Participating organizations generated recommendations that became the basis of the Master's program.

Consumer organizations have concurred that there is a need for a program with an interdisciplinary approach. If approved, the University of Manitoba will be the only university in Canada offering a Master's program in this field.

CCDS is a consumer-directed, university-affiliated centre for information sharing on disability issues, which promotes full and equal participation of people with disabilities. The Centre is guided by a philosophy that emphasizes community living, interdependence, self-determination, and full and valued participation in the community. CCDS board members and research associates are located in organizations and research centres across Canada. The Centre has participated in over 30 research projects since its inception.

As a result of its excellent research component, CCDS has been selected to host the Society for Disability Studies conference in May 2001, which will be the first time the event is held in Canada. There is a call for papers on the theme, "Democracy, Diversity and Disability".

Jennison Asuncion, Vice-President Internal, NEADS

Jennison Asuncion explained that NEADS is charged with providing comprehensive information on services available for students with disabilities. Traditionally, this information was conveyed via print-based materials, such as directories, which were often out of date by the time they were printed and distributed.

Prior to 1998, the NEADS Web site was not well funded, well organized or heavily promoted. In 1998, when the Board decided to upgrade it, a committee was set up, funding was secured, and a Web master was hired. However, the current Web site did not take form until 1999, when a new Web master was hired and a team was assembled to create a national electronic clearinghouse of information. The staff was made up of students with disabilities - the consumers. The organization secured their domain name, and in January 2000 the Web site was launched.

The site contains information in both English and French, including the NEADS newsletter and information on upcoming events. The NEADS Online Resource Centre (NORC) includes:

  • EdLink: links to Canadian colleges and universities that provide online information on services available to students with disabilities;
  • CampusNet: information on campus-based groups of students with disabilities (groups can post information on their activities);
  • WorkLink: information on internship opportunities and career resources;
  • A national directory of financial assistance programs;
  • A guidebook of organizations of students with disabilities; and,
  • The NEADS-L network: a listserv offering an opportunity to network and learn from other students.

Challenges to the Web site team include keeping materials up-to-date, ensuring that the site is accessible, and providing current information in both English and French. The goal is to make the NEADS Web site an exemplary tool for people with disabilities using the Internet.

Recommendations and Observations:

What are some examples of sensitization activities to raise awareness of disability issues?

  • Simulation exercises (having people experience a disability for a day) are controversial. Some say that they are better than nothing and can work if handled correctly (with monitoring and appropriate wrap-up). Others say that they may not be the best way to cultivate understanding and can contribute further to negative stigma. Participants must understand that their brief experience is a lifelong situation for those living with disabilities. Any activity should promote equality and respect the dignity of students with disabilities.
  • Success in sensitivity training results from understanding how to target your audience and draw something out of them. It is important not only to focus only on the negative aspects of disability but also to point out positive experiences and triumphs.
  • It is most effective if students with disabilities represent themselves in awareness-raising activities, explaining their experience in their own words.
  • Shadowing - accompanying someone with a disability for a day or a week - is a good method of raising awareness. People will have a better understanding if they personally know someone who has a disability.
  • Merely presenting information is not an adequate way of generating understanding. Information can be conveyed negatively if it is not conveyed first-hand. It can also be negative to present success stories that reflect accomplishments that make others feel inadequate, or to imply that there is a "hierarchy of disability".
  • Information sessions, articles and films are positive ways of cultivating understanding.
  • One way of sensitizing people to the frustration experienced by people with disabilities would be to surprise them by showing overheads that are indecipherable during a presentation - while acting as though everything is normal. A discussion could then be held afterwards. Another approach would be to include Braille material in presentations.
  • Effective ways of educating include word of mouth, workshops, newsletters distributed to faculty and students, disability awareness days, and outreach programs targeted at high school students.
  • On-campus awareness-raising activities include wheelchair basketball (which can involve the Dean and other role models), blindfold and obstacle courses, and scavenger hunts that reflect the issue of accessibility.
  • A general orientation week for students that includes a tour of the school and information on learning centres is a good idea.
  • There should be an advocacy program that helps teachers understand what to do when a student has a learning disability.
  • It is important to let students with disabilities know that they are not the only ones and to offer resources such as a learning strategist to help them develop study techniques.
  • Some institutions (such as certain banks) lack awareness regarding disabilities.
  • The focus on awareness should include both faculty and students.
  • Disclosure of a student's disability should be on a "need to know" basis because the information can create a hurdle in some situations.
  • It is a normal practice to accommodate the needs of students - not just students with disabilities. Making accommodations for students with disabilities creates a level playing field.
  • Luncheons are a good forum for creating awareness. Eating together is a bonding experience and makes discussions "less stuffy".
  • There must be effective communication between the service provider, the faculty and the student, so that the student has an advocate. One institution uses e-mail to inform professors who have students with disabilities in their classes.
  • Students with disabilities should advocate for themselves, stating their needs clearly and confidently (telling rather than asking).
  • Information should be presented in a positive manner. The most effective way to reach a goal is by cultivating a spirit of co-operation.
  • At the University of Calgary, there is a message at the bottom of the course syllabus advising students with disabilities to contact the disability resource centre.
  • The information provided on university web sites regarding the services available is not always clear. Some institutions say that they provide services for students with disabilities, but offer very little. NEADS should create a standard evaluation so that students can compare institutions.
  • Having students tutor or mentor a student with a disability helps to create awareness.
  • Queen's University holds an awareness fair, inviting organizations and guest speakers.
  • An access committee (including shopkeepers, security people and other representatives) should be set up on campus to get different people involved in discussing issues and ideas.
  • A reward/award system is used at Memorial University in Newfoundland. Named after a student with a disability, the award goes to anyone (student or faculty) who goes beyond the call of duty to help people with disabilities. There is a formal ceremony in which volunteers are also acknowledged.
  • Thank-you notes can be used to acknowledge someone who takes the time to help you out.

How can we use the Internet to educate ourselves?

  • The Internet is a great tool, but the amount of information that must be negotiated is a barrier to people with certain types of disabilities. For some, it can be intimidating. For those with a limited attention span, it is easier to do the research on-site.
  • Many students are using the Internet as a research tool for educational purposes, but not to get information on financial aid or services. Others do not use the Internet to research schools, but do use it to obtain information on their school once they are enrolled.
  • Many students are using the Internet to obtain information on products, services and assistance.
  • The Internet can be a resource for job hunting. There are sites where people can register and post their resumes or view job postings. Students use the Internet to get career and job information and to look for jobs, but often do not find work through the Internet. Those looking for jobs should not rely solely on the Internet. It is also possible to create your own Web site as a job search tool.
  • Challenges in using the Internet include the need for passwords at some Web sites, the need to go from link to link to get information, inconsistent or useless information, and lack of understanding regarding ways of searching the Internet effectively.
  • Adaptive technology can allow students who are not verbal to have a voice.
  • Using the Internet can be frustrating if appropriate technology is not available to read the material to people. Students may have their own computers set up appropriately, but this technology is often not available on-site at universities.
  • Employers providing information on the Internet should indicate whether or not their facility is accessible. Web sites listing jobs should be linked to equity coordinators and provide more job demand analysis. Many of the jobs posted are in the field of technology and there is a lack of information for people in other fields.
  • It can be difficult to find training on how to use the Internet.
  • One question to consider is whether the Internet is being pushed onto you, or whether you are pulling information from it.
  • For people who are print-impaired, material may be more easily accessible in appropriate hard copy than on the Internet.
  • Web sites striving to be accessible should give the option of text-only viewing and should remove complex pictures. The print on some web sites is difficult to read and this presents a barrier. It is a good idea to have the site evaluated.
  • It is important to get information to students in high school so they will know what services to expect when they get to university. Information can be conveyed through guidance counsellors and by sending representatives out to visit. In general, there is a need for more information in high schools.
  • Some students interview various universities before deciding where to go.
  • The acceptance package from a university should include information on services available for students with disabilities. The registration process for most institutions includes an opportunity for students to indicate that they have a disability.
  • At university, information on services is available, but students must find it for themselves. Institutions should help students to understand what is available so that they can make use of the resources.
  • New students should be told exactly where the office for students with disabilities is located so that they don't have to find it for themselves.
  • Web sites, pamphlets, word of mouth and course outlines can all be used to convey information.
  • No matter how much information is distributed, it is up to the student to make use of the services.
  • Those with invisible disabilities may not find out about resources. There are also those who do not realize that they have a disability and could benefit from the resources available. Service providers should help people to recognize their own needs and in some cases to determine whether or not they have a learning disability.
  • Good sources of information include service providers and consumer-based organizations, magazines, Web sites, guidance counsellors, application forms, course outlines and orientation days. Orientation activities should group upper-year students with newcomers.
  • There is a need for more information regarding funding. Many information officers do not know everything they need to know.