Disability in the Canadian Academy

Monday, December 10, 2012

James Deaville, Carleton University, Member of the Federation’s Equity and Diversity Steering Committee

According to the revised version of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act from 2005 (originally drafted in 2001),

“disability” means,

(a) any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,

(b) a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,

(c) a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,

(d) a mental disorder, or

(e) an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997 (“handicap”)

The problematic nature of its language notwithstanding, the enactment of ODA and the measures taken by corporations and public institutions to ensure their compliance represent positive initial steps toward equity for disabled citizens of Ontario. (Other provinces have yet to enact similar legislation to protect the rights of the disabled.) The great majority of Canadian publicly funded universities have established an office or service and/or has instituted policies that ostensibly ensure disabled students access to university courses, programs and services. Whether the University of Toronto Accessibility Services, the Université de Montréal Bureau des étudiants handicaps, the University of Alberta Specialized Support and Disability Services, or the Glenn Roy Blundon Centre and the Paul Menton Centre, respectively of Memorial University and Carleton University, such offices provide an array of services to students.

Here is where the problems begin, however. Disabilities receive widely varying levels of support, not just between universities but within one and the same institution. Students are separated according to criteria established by institutions and political entities like the province of Ontario, whereby physical disabilities, learning disabilities and “mental disorders” each comprise a separate category of disability. The latter two designations encompass “invisible” or “hidden” disabilities, which are usually not marked by physical manifestations and often pose greater difficulties for accommodation, although if they are of the learning type, universities feel compelled to provide support (to varying degrees) in dedicated centres, programs and/or offices. Students who suffer from “non-learning” invisible disorders may be required to negotiate a complex array of services, not infrequently ultimately landing at the campus health and counselling services. (Read a recently published commentary on student mental health on the Speculative Diction blog here.)

As we move up the academic hierarchy from the undergraduate student through the graduate student to the faculty member, tangible support becomes scarcer. Above all, universities have traditionally overlooked the learning and mental-health needs of graduate students and faculty, under the misguided belief that individuals who have attained a certain level of education and maturity should be able to take care of themselves. The problem of graduate-student mental health was brought to broad public attention when James Holmes, first-year doctoral student at the University of Colorado, went on a deadly shooting spree on July 20 of this year: the blogosphere was filled with questions about the pressures of graduate education. The recognition of a high and potentially rising incidence of stress-related disorders among graduate students (above all depression and anxiety disorder) – or at least an increasing awareness of mental-health issues among these students – has led certain Canadian graduate faculties to institute programs aimed at addressing issues unique to advanced students. Such initiatives are in no way as developed as those directed at undergraduates, however, and do not alleviate a major stressor, the highly competitive atmosphere and survival-of-the-fittest attitude of numerous graduate programs. The fact that graduate faculty are in large part responsible for maintaining that environment – whom- or whatever they may blame for its root causes – does not bode well for colleagues in the professoriate who may suffer from learning disorders and mental illnesses.

Indeed, issues of disability and accommodation for faculty in general tend to disappear behind a veil of confusion and secrecy. Newly appointed faculty members with any type of disability are quickly immersed into a world where they feel very much on their own. New hires frequently arrive with high expectations at institutions that have outstanding disability services, only to discover that access is limited to students. For such faculty, a bewildering array of uncoordinated services requires circumnavigation (presuming that they know whom to ask in the first place and possess the courage to inquire at all): it could involve the university equity officer for official policies, the Chair’s or Dean’s office for specific accommodations, the union representative for problems with policies and accommodations, and an off-campus service for counselling (if needed). If a faculty member searching for assistance on her own were to type the words “disability” and “faculty” into her university’s search engine, the following links typify what she will find first on the resultant list: “Information for Faculty” at Carleton University, “Faculty Guide” at the University of Ottawa, and “Resources for Faculty” at the University of Alberta. However, the websites all refer to how faculty should relate to students with disabilities, rather than how they can find assistance for themselves.

The situation is particularly difficult for faculty who suffer from learning disabilities or mental disorders, because of both the stigmatization attached to those conditions and the inability of academic institutions to recognize their existence among faculty (let alone accommodate them)  As Elaine Beretz argues in “Hidden Disability and an Academic Career” [Academe 89, no. 4 (2003): 53],

Hidden disability presents formidable physical challenges. The heroic myth of academic stamina and the negative attitudes of one's colleagues compound these challenges, often to an intolerable degree. Little shields an academic with a hidden disability from evaluations that perpetuate cultural prejudices. Structural impediments make the faculty member even more vulnerable.

Despite the ten years that have passed since this publication, the observations still unfortunately ring true. While university and government definitions of disability may include reference to invisible disabilities, the examples they provide time and again involve cosmetic steps for improving access to colleagues with physical disabilities or minor adjustments for assisting with other disabling conditions. Thus the partial accommodation of certain disabilities could be accomplished by flexibility in assigning teaching spaces and hours, and yet this would not help colleagues who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder or dyslexia, just to mention two of the myriad of hidden disabilities that occur among teaching staff. In complex cases, the Leave of Absence may be the only solution available to faculty members, which begs the issue of the employer’s ethical if not legal responsibility to find solutions for employees, as they already do on an individual basis for undergraduate students.

A number of Canadian post-secondary institutions have initiated programs in disability studies, identifying the field as an academically viable field of research and study. It remains for those and other post-secondary institutions to recognize disability as a practical issue that impacts people spanning the entire university community. If universities can enter into a productive campus-wide dialogue about disability, they would not only assist faculty and students at all levels, but would be making a contribution to its de-stigmatization within society as a whole.


Equity Matters


Ableism and disability