Monday, March 20, 2017

Unveiling AccessAbility Services

—Jennifer Gillies, PhD | Manger, AccessAbility Services


AccessAbility Services (ASS) can be a bit of a mystery. The purpose of this post is to help break down the wall between AAS and rest of the campus and shed light on its purpose, function, and benefits.

Why does AccessAbility Services exist?

Offices that support academic accommodations for students with disabilities are present in every postsecondary institution in Ontario. The Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development provides financial support and oversight of these offices. At the University of Waterloo, AccessAbility Services fulfills its mandate by collaborating with the university community to support equitable access to post-secondary education by designing academic accommodation plans and facilitating the implementation of accommodations.

The office is accountable to the Ministry concerning documentation requirements and service offerings, but it is also accountable to the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and the integrity and academic standards of the University.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission states that postsecondary instructors have a duty to accommodate students with disabilities. However, students’ medical information is private and needs to be reviewed and stored appropriately. Our office acts as a bridge: We receive and hold the sensitive medical documentation, and relay to you the ways you can fulfill your duty to accommodate. Essentially, our office is a faculty resource. We help you understand your duty to accommodate.


We also help by facilitating most accommodations. For example, our office will:
  • facilitate accommodated exams, as we have the space, technology, and human resources to do so; 
  • arrange alternative format of texts and other materials for you; 
  • connect the student with our learning strategist, our adaptive technologist, or our student services like our access van; 
  • work to make accommodations easy for you 

How are accommodation plans developed?

Some students enter university with a diagnosed disability while others acquire one (or become diagnosed) while studying here. Their disabilities are varied – some have low vision, some are fighting cancer, some are living with multiple sclerosis, and others have learning disabilities. The struggles and barriers that students face in accessing their education can also vary. They may have medical appointments that require they miss classes, difficulty hearing the professor (even from the front row), or difficulty writing notes in class. Regardless of the barrier they are experiencing, they usually find their way to AccessAbility Services.

The first step for these students is to provide our intake advisors (registered health care professionals) with official medical documentation. Not every student with a disability requires academic accommodations. For some, medication or other therapies lessen the barriers they would otherwise face. Some documentation is not accepted, but most identifies legitimate limitations .

Once the documentation is vetted, and the need for specific academic accommodation has been determined by our office, the student is invited to meet with their AccessAbility Services advisor to finalize the accommodation plan. There are times when students would prefer to have additional accommodations. However, accommodations are designed to meet needs, not preferences.

The accommodations recommended by our office are based on standards of practiced developed by offices like ours across Ontario, with input and guidance from the Ministry and provincial legislation. While it may look arbitrary, the accommodations are grounded in evidence-based practice and research related to academic accommodations.

What if I do not agree with an accommodation?

While our advisors talk to students about how their disability affects course work, it is difficult to know the details of every course on campus. As such, the accommodations laid out in the Faculty Notification Letter are somewhat generic. Our office may indicate that testing accommodations are required, but there are no tests in your class. We may indicate that a note-taker needs to be recruited, but you already have an in-class system for sharing course notes.

We encourage instructors to reflect on how the accommodation may or may not work within specific courses.
You might have questions. For example: Does a student require additional time when completing in-class quizzes or when writing in-class reflections? Will the student experience barriers on an upcoming field trip? When you have these questions, connect with us directly so we can collectively determine how best to accommodate the student within the structure of your unique course.

There are times when an accommodation may seem inappropriate for you or your course. In this instance, contact us so we can work it out together. The Ontario Human Rights Commission clearly spells out our shared duty to accommodate, so we are always glad to advise on how to best make that fit.

Are there resources and supports to help me in my role as instructor?

There is a section on our website dedicated to faculty and staff. One resource that instructors have found helpful is ‘Tips and scripts for accommodating students with disabilities in the classroom or lab’. This resource includes scripts for communicating about academic accommodations, including what to do when:
  • a student discloses a disability to you, 
  • requests an accommodation after the fact on the grounds of disability, or 
  • submits medical documentation to you. 
If there is help that you need that is not on the website, just reach out.

I am more than happy to speak to individual instructors or to present to groups. It is important for me to understand the challenges that you face in accommodating students with disabilities so that our office can better support you. The world of academic accommodations can be very complex. We are your resource to help make it a little bit clearer.

I appreciate the time you have taken to learn more about AccessAbility Services, and I thank you for all the great work you do in educating our students.

Jennifer Gillies, PhD
Manager, AccessAbility Services
Needles Hall 1434
519-888-4567, ext. 30440


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