Making Extra-Curricular Activities Inclusive

Presentation Summaries

Theme 2: Inclusion in Campus Life

Moderators: Alison Beattie, Alberta Representative, NEADS; Lena Cook, Saskatchewan Representative, NEADS

Jennifer Gillies: University Students with a Disability—The Transition to Inclusion

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.

Jennifer Dunn: Inclusion of Students with Disabilities in College and University-Sponsored Activities—The NEADS Project

Jennifer Dunn, Project Consultant, outlined the NEADS Inclusion Project, explaining that the two partner associations for the project are the Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Organization of Campus Activities.

The objective of the project is to determine how accessible extracurricular activities are to students with disabilities. That objective differs from those of past NEADS projects, which have focused on academic issues and the transition from high school to post-secondary education. This project is the first in Canada to look at the accessibility of such activities at the post-secondary level. NEADS believes that extracurricular activities are a vital part of post-secondary education, and the organization decided to examine the issue.

To assist in finding appropriate solutions, the project will outline specific barriers faced by students with disabilities. The eventual goal is to create a training package for campus programmers and to identify concrete practices (including known “best practices”) that will make activities more accessible.

Many benefits accrue to participation in extracurricular activities. Participation fosters personal growth, increases health and wellness, builds social and professional networks, introduces and improves skills, promotes a sense of belonging, allows for exploration of personal interests, and contributes to increased commitment to school and academic achievement.

In phase I of the study, researchers sent a two-page questionnaire to campus programmers nationwide, asking questions about their activities. Researchers also met with programmers from four Saskatchewan institutions.

Results showed that the most popular activities were orientation activities, intramurals and sports events, and pub events. Programmers had assumed that their activities were accessible because the buildings were accessible. But because students with disabilities tend not to come forward with their concerns, the programmers had not considered the many needs of these students. Problems also arose with off-campus venues, which were not always accessible, and with transportation to and from those locations. Planners said that they were willing to accommodate students on a case-by-case basis as required, but that making all activities totally accessible was not really feasible.

Of the planners surveyed, 88% indicated that most or all facilities were accessible. Many student unions were willing to make accommodations if they were aware of the specific needs. Among respondents, 72% did not see barriers to making activities more accessible, and 58% had access to funding to make activities more accessible (although only 39% said that accessibility was considered when planning student elections).

Dunn mentioned these practical tips for greater accessibility:

  • Provide event material in alternative formats.
  • Advertise using a variety of methods.
  • Provide sensitivity training for leaders of clubs and organizations.
  • Include students with disabilities in planning and running events.
  • Ensure that the event location and the washrooms are accessible.

In phase II of the project (currently underway), a survey is being distributed to students with disabilities. The survey asks about students’ participation in extracurricular activities and the kinds of barriers that they have encountered.

Preliminary results show that many students lack the time to participate in extracurricular activities due to the demands of their academic programs. Some were not interested in the activities available. Some noted that interpretation was not available outside the classroom. Many mentioned that clubs were located in older buildings that are not accessible. A few said that transportation barriers prevented them from participating in activities held off campus.

A training workshop was held just before the conference to discuss ways of making activities more accessible. Next steps will include the development of both online and offline training materials for campus programmers. Included will be two accessibility checklists that can be used for activities and events. The materials list the things that campus programmers can do to make events more accessible. A form that students with disabilities can fill out to request accommodations for accessible activities will also be circulated, as will a list from across Canada of best practices and ideas for promoting accessible activities.

Mahadeo Sukhai: Building a Collaborative Network—The University of Toronto Experience

Mahadeo Sukhai, President, Graduate Students’ Union, University of Toronto, discussed the developing awareness of disability issues and campus inclusion at the University of Toronto. He began by offering a philosophical perspective on the “worlds” of disability activism, commenting that such activism comes in two forms:

  • A mainstream movement is composed of organizations, coalitions, and groups who are loosely working toward the same goals.
  • “Ambassadors-at-large” represent the best that people with disabilities have to offer, but choose not to become formally involved.

Collaboration, feedback, and tension exist between the two groups. The student movement in general (not just among students with disabilities) can be very monolithic and can take a “with us or against us” attitude. However, action on disability issues can occur outside the students-with-disabilities movement.

The students-with-disabilities movement has strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths include its large numbers, organizational ability, coalition-building, long-term movement building, and potential to access money. Its weaknesses include questions about whether it is fully representative and whether it exhibits a “lowest common denominator” factor—that is, can it create a unified voice without resorting to the “lowest common denominator”?

People who function as ambassadors-at-large also have strengths and weaknesses. They can talk to people in person and are in sole control of their lobbying tactics. Their good reputation precedes them, and they can lead by example. Also, they can integrate into campus organizations without being assimilated.

One of the problems is that after ambassadors move on to other activities, no structure is available to continue their work. Little permanence or money is attached to their activities. Ultimately, the work conducted by ambassadors-at-large boils down to “one person’s worldview.”

At the University of Toronto, those two worlds work in partnership. A friendly environment created by ambassadors-at-large has led to the creation of a students-with-disabilities movement. That movement, in turn, fosters an environment for mentorship and individual self-advocacy.

In the last three years, awareness and action with regard to disabilities issues at the University of Toronto have increased, and the situation has improved. The systemic approach that created the change involves collaboration between students, service providers, administration, staff, and alumni.

The student approach has been to establish a presence for students with disabilities, to raise awareness, to provide education, to establish lobbying strategies, and to lead by example. Much of the success has come from seizing opportunities and understanding the system. Building a network involves learning what people do, who to talk to, how to approach them, how governance works, and how to lobby effectively. The strategic use of rallies can also be effective.

Sukhai mentioned that the University of Toronto has created a vision statement for an inclusive campus. He also discussed the planning process required by the 2001 Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA), which legislates public sector and scheduled organizations in Ontario to develop annual accessibility plans. Plans must identify barriers and outline initiatives to address them.

In year 2 of its ODA planning process, the University of Toronto established a global advisory committee with 40 members, including people with disabilities. That group coalesced into seven subcommittees and a coordinating committee. The committee work lasted from February to July 2004 and resulted in a 98-page report on the 2003–2004 initiatives. It also presented 40 initiatives for 2004–2005. The initiatives focused on attitudes (disability issues and orientation training, for example), physical issues (universal design seminars and chemical sensitivities, for example), technology, and instructional design.

Student involvement resulted in a number of elements being put into place, including Breaking Down Barriers 2004 (a conference series), a poster awareness campaign, a statement of commitment to people with disabilities, and the Access Centre.

Breaking Down Barriers, now in its second year as a conference, has developed into a model of localized grassroots disability awareness and education. It is designed for long-term self-sustainability and includes delegates from the community outside the university.

The poster awareness campaign showcases 11 students from various constituencies following various programs of study and with various disabilities. The students are mainly ambassadors-at-large who volunteered to be highlighted. This campaign would not have been possible just four years ago.

A groundswell in accessibility has been occurring at the university, with many additional projects distinct from the ODA plan. The additional initiatives include accessible chemistry teaching labs, redesigned and upgraded accessibility websites, and a disability anthology.

Self-organization has an associated “critical mass.” Four years ago, a few people at the university were working on accessibility issues in isolation. Today, many people are working in loose concert, promoting a welcoming climate, and laying the groundwork for further action.

The system has some problems: No firm commitment of resources has been obtained from the provincial government or from institutions and departments. Institutional inertia is also in play. For example, how do equity and accessibility meld with the University of Toronto meritocracy and concerns about the dilution of standards? Some administrative indifference—and even resistance—exists, as does a degree of community indifference, based on the fact that students with disabilities represent just 2% of the university population. But 2% is a large number of students, given that the total student population at the university is about 70,000. Sukhai emphasized that having equity simply as a principle is not enough: action must also be taken.

Sukhai discussed the creation of the Graduate Accessibility Committee (GAC), whose mandate is to improve the quality and accessibility of the graduate school experience for students with disabilities. This research, policy, and lobbying group succeeded in having a Graduate Students’ Union accessibility policy passed in April 2003. The GAC has participated in a number of taskforces and committees and has developed a personalized and targeted lobbying strategy, with an extensive network of contacts.

Another important organization at the university, Students for Barrier-Free Access (SFBA), was founded in 2002. It performs advocacy and outreach on behalf of students with disabilities. Recently, it launched the Access Centre, funded by a levy from the Students’ Administrative Council. The Access Centre was established in response to the ODA planning documentation, which identified barriers experienced by students with disabilities that could be addressed through the creation of such a centre. The Centre’s governance model ensures that its board has majority student representation, including members of student government.

Sukhai concluded that a collaborative atmosphere at the University of Toronto has developed over the last three years. The creation of the SFBA Access Centre was a big step forward and a marker of the permanence of the movement.


A participant noted that understanding is often lacking among faculty members regarding students with disabilities, adding that a mechanism is required to ensure that information reaches individual faculty members.

Dunn said that training materials generated through the NEADS research project have been widely circulated and are available online. Student union representatives should be able to take the information to faculty members. Jennison Asuncion, also involved in the Inclusion Project, noted that the project would be asking for people to help distribute training information at the “micro” level.

Asked what to do when “institutional inertia” or a resistance to changing a situation to ensure better accessibility is encountered, Sukhai said that publicity and “poking and prodding” can be effective ways of getting changes made. Limitations may exist with regard to the possibility for change (for example, an inaccessible building may be impossible to modify); but, in those cases, alternative solutions should be sought.

Dunn remarked that student unions and activity planners are often not aware of the needs of students with disabilities. It can be helpful to let them know so that they can respond. Asuncion noted that NEADS is designing guidelines for accessibility.

Asked about approaching student clubs, Asuncion said that “you have to engage them in conversation” and build awareness regarding students with disabilities and their needs. “It’s a joint responsibility.”

Sukhai added that organizations should also include, in their promotional materials, contact information specifically for people with disabilities who wish to participate. Asked about student unions that fail to adequately promote their activities, Sukhai said students with disabilities may choose to organize their own information network. However, he added, they may also decide to be more direct about what they need—even going to the press if necessary.

A participant commented on the problem of bureaucracy in the process of securing accommodations at universities. Services for people with disabilities can do only so much.

Sukhai agreed that such service offices are in a difficult position: they are part of the university system and cannot speak out. It therefore becomes incumbent on other organizations to raise the concerns. Another effective method is for individuals to share their experiences with others, thereby raising the necessary awareness.

A participant asked about methods of getting a macro view of advocacy activities at the University of Toronto.

Sukhai noted that a number of students with disabilities choose not to register with the Office of Disability Assistance, preferring to work one-on-one with a department or a supervisor. Obtaining an accurate estimate of the percentage of students with disabilities is therefore difficult. Based on general population statistics, up to 15% of students at the university may have disabilities—that is, more than 10,000 people at U. of T. But only a minority of those have made themselves known. To meet the needs of as many people as possible, the students-with-disabilities movement at the university has tried to consider and synthesize as many perspectives as possible.

Asked about the value of campus housing for people with disabilities, Gillies said that the participants in her study had benefited from living on campus in terms of social life, transportation, safety, and other factors.

Referring to SBFA at the University of Toronto, a participant asked how to ensure continued student involvement once an organization is established.

Sukhai responded that, to ensure a permanent membership recruitment tool, students staff the Access Centre. The Centre can generate a leadership succession plan based on those who are interested and involved.

Asked who is responsible for ensuring money is spent accountably, Sukhai said that a governance group handles the role. The group includes students and other members of the university community. From the beginning, the system was set up to be accountable and transparent.

Asked how the Centre rates success, Sukhai said that key performance indicators are in place and should be part of the annual report to the ODA on the success of the Centre.

Another participant asked if any studies had looked at inclusion in campus life for students at smaller universities, community colleges, or institutions in rural settings.

Asuncion said that the NEADS study took an investigative approach across Canada, but did not include an urban–rural analysis. The necessary data are available, but such an analysis was not part of the study mandate.

Asked about the low level of participation in her study, Gillies agreed that further study with a greater number of students would be good. She acknowledged the limitations in interviewing only four volunteers, but she noted that recruitment is very challenging because privacy must be respected.

Discussing the potential for students with disabilities to “stick together,” Sukhai said that such self-segregation is not generally an issue. The Accessibility Centre at the University of Toronto provides space for socialization, but students with disabilities do not tend to “stick together”—if anything, they often do not identify themselves as students with disabilities.

Gillies said that her study had revealed a blend of opportunities for students with disabilities, from generalized to segregated activities.