A Survey of Several Universities and Colleges
Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, pp. 28-29
When talking about mental illness and education, inevitably we come across the term ‘reasonable adjustments’ or ‘accommodations.’ According to Boston University, these terms refer to any modifications that need to be made for a person or within an environment to minimize the discriminatory effect of a person’s physical, emotional, or learning disability. The student is expected to meet the minimum standards such as attendance or examinations.
There are students who come to school with mental illness, but there are many others who enter school without a history of psychiatric problems and develop them later, which often leads to withdrawal from school. For this reason, the questions that were posed to BC’s post-secondary educational institutions in the present survey were focused on both issues: reaching out to students with an established mental illness, and connecting with those who are at risk or have become mentally ill during their studies.
The following post-secondary institutions in British Columbia have responded to questions regarding services available for students with mental disabilities at their campuses: Simon Fraser University (SFU), University of British Columbia (UBC), University of Victoria (UVIC), Prince George’s University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), Douglas College in the Lower Mainland, Cranbrook’s College of the Rockies, Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design in Vancouver, and Northern Lights College based in Terrace. Since their policies are rather similar, what follows is a synthesis of the common accommodation policies offered by most institutions.
Disability offices carry various names: Resource Centre for Students with a Disability at UVIC, Disability Resource Centre at UBC, or Disability Services at Northern Lights College. These and other centres try to reach out to students with special needs as early as the application process and initial campus orientations. During the school year, many of them have awareness-raising programs and kiosks set up on the premises. They also maintain information web sites with resources regarding the mandate and the services provided. Students who seek their services meet with an advisor and plan out the strategy necessary for their successful academic year. Douglas College also has a special college preparation course for people with mental disabilities interested in pursuing their studies at this school.
With their advisors, students discuss possible academic accommodations that range from exam and course extensions to note-takers and additional tutoring. Students who come to disability centres and ask for services are expected to provide a letter from their physician stating their disability and the limitations it poses on their academic performance. At the beginning of the semester, based on need and the student’s consent to being represented by the disability office, the office reaches out to the professors and issues a letter specifying which accommodations will be necessary, without disclosing the illness unless the student gives consent. There are confidentiality rules in place meant to prevent different offices on campus from releasing and sharing the personal information of a student unless the student agreed to this option.
There is a wide range of options regarding academic adjustments:
preferential seating in front, by the door, to reduce distractions
having someone to go with the student to the class to help with note-taking or moral support
beverages permitted in class to alleviate dry mouth or tiredness caused by medications
pre-arranged breaks that help manage anxiety, stress
tape-recorders to alleviate pressure of note-taking
altering an exam from a multiple choice to an essay format
permitting use of computer if physical handwriting is difficult due to medication side-effects
negotiating an extra amount of time before the exam and having the exam divided into parts over one to two days
delays granted due to hospitalization and assistance in completing assignments during hospitalization
providing waivers of courses, and modifications on a case-by-case basis
providing assistance with registration and financial aid
flexibility in determining full-time status for the purposes of financial aid and health insurance
offering an incomplete grade rather than failure or withdrawal if a relapse occurs.
Disability centres are there to help students not only with academic adjustments but also with administrative issues and access to financial aid, especially when a student’s illness or a relapse prevents him or her from completing a course or registering on time. In most schools, the students can also register as a full-time student while taking 40% of the regular full-time course load and therefore still be eligible for financial assistance.
Outreach to the student community also works through the cooperation of the disability offices with the health and counselling services based on mutual referral.
Some schools have peer support programs set up as well. But to my knowledge the York University’s student-run organization which promotes the rights of students with disabilities has not been copied by any BC college or university.
I think it is a great advantage of this country’s educational system that these offices exist and provide support for those that need it. In the Czech Republic, where I come from, although the educational system is and has been very advanced, a student with a disability has nowhere in particular to turn to and has to rely on the understanding of the professors and peers.
*Client names and any identifying information, including countries of origin, have been altered to protect privacy and confidentiality.