Presentation to the Senate Subcommittee on Post-Secondary Education
An Introduction to The Association
On behalf of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students, we would like express our appreciation to the members of the Senate Subcommittee for inviting us to make a presentation today. NEADS considers our submission to your committee as particularly noteworthy, as it affords us an extraordinary opportunity to both heighten your awareness of, and explicitly state for the record, the dominant issues and critical concerns facing post-secondary students with disabilities in Canada. The securing of a fully accessible post-secondary education is instrumental for people with disabilities, as it enables us to experience the many benefits of acquiring the skills and knowledge required to integrate successfully in Canada's labour force.
NEADS has strived to represent Canada's post-secondary students with disabilities since its inception in 1986. We are a consumer-driven organization with a mandate to encourage the self-empowerment of students with disabilities so that they may gain equal access to a successful and fulfilling college or university education. We are governed by a twelve member Board of Directors, which is cross-disability in character and represents each of the provinces and territories. This Board then votes internally for a four person Executive from the student Board members.
In Ottawa, we are well supported at our national office by a resourceful team, headed by our coordinator, which works in concert with the Board in the operation of the organization. We collaborate closely with this network that includes two provincial affiliates -- one in Quebec and one in British Columbia -- and campus based groups of students with disabilities in post-secondary institutions nationwide.
Through project work and direct connection with our students, NEADS provides its constituents with the most complete and authoritative information on programs and services available at post-secondary institutions, avenues of funding to go to school and initiatives in the area of school to work transition.
We are a member of the Council of Canadians With Disabilities (CCD) and are represented on CCD's national council at the Board level. For many years the Association has advised Human Resources Development Canada on several important programs, including the Canada Student Loans Program's "Assistance For Students With Permanent Disabilities."
In 1996, NEADS participated, along with other disabled persons organizations, in the Federal Task Force on Disability that reviewed the role of the national government with respect to persons with disabilities. We recommend that this Committee refer directly to the excellent report published by the Task Force: Equal Citizenship For Canadians With Disabilities: The Will to Act to develop a better understanding of the issues facing Canadians with disabilities.
When working with the Task Force we were well-equipped to represent the unique perspective of our members who are participating in higher education. Most valuable in this respect were the findings of the NEADS research Employment Opportunities For Post-Secondary Students and Graduates With Disabilities: A National Study (July, 1996). This informative study reports on the education and employment experience of 424 college and university students and graduates from across Canada. It details the impact on post-secondary education and training on employability and includes recommendations for policy makers, employers and students.
Significantly, 45% of respondents to this study indicated that their post-secondary education had not prepared them for the employment market.
Now that we have provided you with background information on who we are, attention will shift to conveying to the Sub-Committee the major issues that are confronting the over 112,000 disabled college and university students in Canada.
Federal Support to Post-Secondary Education
The new funding arrangements under the Canada Health and Social Transfer will have a serious, noticeable impact on post-secondary education in this country. The provinces now have less money available for social services, health care and post-secondary education than under the previous CAP/EPF arrangement. Under the EPF a specific portion of the funding was allocated to post-secondary education; the CHST leaves this to the discretion of the provinces. There is a real concern that people with disabilities and the other equity groups will have the most to lose, in this new climate, in terms of the accessibility and affordability of college and university education. The National Government must ensure that people with disabilities can participate on a level playing field in higher education, regardless of where they live and decide to study.
Funding to Go to School
It has long been recognized that people with disabilities have additional costs associated with their education because of their unique needs. Having a disability might also mean that it will take longer to complete post-secondary education. Students with disabilities are more likely to study part-time than other students and often elect to take a reduced course load. Additionally, when looking at funding to go to school, persons with disabilities must consider the costs of accommodations, and services that allow them to participate in their studies. In the 1996 NEADS study, a full 58.6% of respondents indicated the support that they had received form student aid programs was not "...sufficient to cover all costs associated with education (i.e. tuition, books, assistive aids or services etc.)."
Because of these issues, persons with disabilities need to have access to a strong national student aid program and appropriate support in the provinces and in their schools of choice. The Canada Student Loans Program, and its Assistance For Students With Permanent Disabilities, is in many ways an excellent program in that it provides some flexibility. It also offers Special Opportunity Grants for disabled students, which cover "education related" expenses. In 1995/96, over 1,100 students received support from this program.
The CSLP provides assistance -- in the form of a loan or grant -- to students with all types of disabilities including: hearing impairments, visual impairments, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, mental health disabilities. Costs that can be supported under the program include: note-takers, tutors, readers, interpreters (oral and sign), attendant care for studies, specialized transportation, technical aids, and alternative format materials.
While the program has been, for the most part, successful, clearly the CSLP must augment its support under the Special Opportunity Grant portion of the program to provide additional funding and access to a full range of services and assistance including technical aids, note-takers, attendant care etc. It is imperative that this program recognize that with the difficulties in acquiring employment after graduation, persons with disabilities can not afford to leave a program of study with a high debt load.
Additionally, in accordance with the recommendations of the Federal Task Force on Disability, we must argue unequivocally and in the strongest terms possible, against the current practice of considering Special Opportunity Grants as "taxable income." The sole purpose of such grants is to cover "exceptional education related" costs associated with permanent disabilities. Instead of being treated as income, we contend that this money must be seen for what it is, as providing a required accommodation.
Over the next year the federal government and the provinces will be working to re-design the Vocational Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Program. This program has been the most important source of funding for post-secondary study for persons with disabilities. VRDP has served people with disabilities in college and university programs well.
However, the program has its shortcomings. The reality is that many students with disabilities need to have the opportunity to study beyond the undergraduate level in order that they may acquire the training that will allow them to compete effectively in the world of work. The successor to VRDP, the Canada Student Loans Program, and provincial student aid programs, must all be much more flexible and supportive enough to allow this to happen. Our members recognize that, in many cases, they do not have the skills necessary to secure and retain employment without access to post-secondary education beyond the undergraduate level.
With the announcement in the most recent federal budget of a $30 million Opportunities Fund for persons with disabilities to aid in the transition from school to work and a commitment to re-design the VRDP program -- with consumer input -- the recommendations of the "Andy Scott Task Force" are starting to be realized.
Some Important Accessibility Concerns: An Overview
As the number of students with disabilities demanding post-secondary education increases, the need for a national approach to accessibility becomes more acute. In fact, there are some 112,000 students with disabilities (7.4% of the college, university and cégep population) who have identified themselves as having some degree of disability according to the 1991 Health and Activity Limitation Survey.
There must be awareness within Canadian academic communities of the specific needs of persons with disabilities in the post-secondary environment, so that appropriate accommodations can be made. Of course each student has different needs and requirements. For a student with a mobility impairment, the issue may be curb cuts, accessible on-campus residences, ramps and elevators. In the case of a student who has a print based disability (both visual impairment and specific learning disabilities), the accommodation might be furnishing texts on cassettes.
Next to the financing of education and extra costs related to disability, is the unfortunate lack of consistent standards in the delivery of services, programs and accommodations from one academic institution to another and from one province to another. Not only does this lead to obvious inequities among disabled student populations throughout the country, but it also places limitations upon our freedom to select from the full range of educational choices which are in fact offered to our non-disabled counterparts.
We trust you will join with us in agreeing that this situation is quite unacceptable indeed; and must be dealt with as soon as possible. Besides the aforementioned issues, NEADS is seeking endorsement and cooperation by all sectors on the following initiatives that will constitute the basis on which to achieve a completely accessible post-secondary education for all Canadians.
- Commitment by every Canadian post-secondary academic community to meeting the challenge of providing the highest standards of excellence with regard to offering a barrier free and fully accessible learning environment for students with disabilities;
- Commitment by those in positions of authority at post-secondary institutions to recognize the relevance of guaranteeing an ongoing and consistent source of funding for campus-based services for students with disabilities;
- Commitment by the federal government to guarantee that any levels of funding to the provinces for post-secondary education do not result in cutbacks to much needed programs for students with disabilities;
- Commitment by provincial/territorial governments and their respective departments/agencies to apply a much more equitable and well-reasoned approach to developing and administering programs charged with supporting and funding post-secondary study, in such a way as to recognize and fully account for all of the unique needs associated with "every" category of students' disabilities;
- Commitment by the federal government to take a decisive leadership position and a commitment by Canadian publishing companies to begin assuming their responsibility in immediately correcting, what can only be described as a "serious" situation, regarding the real scarcity of Canadian academic textbooks currently available in alternate formats (cassette, braille, large print etc.) for students with physical disabilities, visual impairments and/or learning disabilities;
- Commitment by government, industry and post-secondary institutions to each tangible step in guaranteeing the extensive amount of academic resources and opportunity currently being offered by the electronic super-highway and all other forms of newly emerging learning technologies;
- Commitment for a nationally supported program that recognizes the need for interpreters for students who are deaf or hard of hearing;
- Finally, a commitment by all parties to actively consult with and involve students who have disabilities at every stage, from development to evaluation of services, projects and policies for students with disabilities, since we are ultimately the end-users of such endeavours.
NEADS and Its Work: Developing a National Approach to Services and the Launching of a Mentorship Program
For its part, NEADS takes special pride in the kind of hard work we are undertaking to address the issues and concerns of the membership. The Association has two very exciting projects that it has initiated over the past few months. "Working Towards a Coordinated National Approach to Services, Accommodations and Policies For Post-Secondary Students With Disabilities: Ensuring Access to Higher Education and Career Training" is an important project. With our partners -- including the Canadian Federation of Students, Association of Canadian Community Colleges, and Canadian Association of College and University Student Services -- we are developing over the next year "recommended national standards" and "best practices." Clearly, there are many colleges and universities in Canada which have developed excellent services, accommodations and supports for students with disabilities. We need to learn from these models.
This project best exemplifies what NEADS is about. It speaks to our commitment to address national educational issues head-on.
"Investing In The Future: A Mentorship Program For Post-Secondary Students With Disabilities" is a partnership with the Employer Advisory Council to NEADS. Starting in the fall of 1997, we will be providing opportunities for mentorship experiences with participating national employers. We believe that this project will begin to address concerns identified by respondents to our 1996 Employment Opportunities study in terms of school to work transition.
We would like to once again thank members of the Senate Sub-Committee on Post-Secondary Education for inviting us to make this presentation today. We wish you well as you continue your very important deliberations. Thank you for providing a voice to the National Educational Association of Disabled Students through this forum, and for acknowledging that students with disabilities do play a meaningful role in Canadian education and therefore must be heard!