“Bare minimum”: How students with disabilities navigate UBC

UBC is a maze for students with disabilities.

Cameron England usually doesn’t have much of a hard time getting around campus in his wheelchair, but there is one incident that sticks out.

“My residence, Gage, they decided that they wanted to do a renovation of the courtyard and to do that, they closed the front entrance to my building which is the only accessible entrance to my building because it’s the only automatic door,” said England, who is a fourth-year political science major, the AUS representative to the AMS and lives with cerebral palsy. “It did make life … a lot less independent ... I couldn’t go through doors on my own. ”

England said that after he made “a bit of a stink” about it, an area was cleared at the side of the construction fences so he could use the front doors again, but according to him this path was partially made up of uneven grass and dirt.

“I actually got stuck at one point. I thought there was a piece of solid ground where there wasn’t and it turns out there was mud and I just got dug in,” said England who, as he can walk short distances, was able to make his way to the front desk to ask for help freeing his chair.

“Two people who had come by had actually managed to get it out of the hole before a staff worker had come … It was the middle of the night so I understand ... but it was still a frustrating experience.”

UBC explained that complications made it difficult to initially leave an accessible route.

“We make every effort to accommodate all students at all times and encourage any student who has concerns to get in touch with us right away,” said Andrew Parr, managing director of Student Housing & Hospitality Services, in an emailed statement to The Ubyssey.

“The front door of Gage Apartments was temporarily unavailable (for three days) due to work to improve the courtyard for student use ... Unfortunately, efforts to find another door were complicated for a few construction reasons (sprinkler pipes in the way, another door not being wide enough)."

While England’s specific case would likely be a rare exception in terms of building accessibility, it is just one example of the many roadblocks that students with disabilities in all forms face at UBC. Although UBC has a policy — Policy 73 — that governs academic accommodations for students with disabilities, many students say that there are still many challenges they face, usually due to a university that was not designed with them in mind.

“There are some policies that you usually don’t really need to review for a very long time — things like financial policy in the university sometimes can wait a little bit — but this is a policy that deals with equity and inclusion,” said former AMS Vice-President Academic and University Affairs (VPAUA) Daniel Lam, who made reviewing the policy part of his campaign platform this past spring.

“Usually policies are reviewed every 10 years … so the fact that the university hasn’t reviewed that policy for almost 20 years is quite problematic.”

The policy itself is generally broad but in essence reflects that the university’s recognition of its “moral and legal duty” to provide academic accommodation to students with disabilities, but that the “provision of academic accommodation shall not lower the academic standards of the University.” Some aspects referred to in the policy show its age, such as the frequent reference to the “disability resource centre,” a centre which no longer exists on the Vancouver campus and was replaced by Access and Diversity.

The Ubyssey took a deeper look at the roadmap the policy lays for the approximately 2,800 UBC students registered with Access and Diversity, and how other university policies shape the experiences of students with disabilities at UBC — some of whom have been granted anonymity for this piece due to concerns about receiving further accommodations and attending graduate school in the future.

Seeking accommodation

If exams weren’t bad enough, students with disabilities often have added stressors when it comes to getting accommodations. While one of the more common accommodations is extra time on exams — where students have to remember to book each individual test or exam at least a week in advance online — this is not the only academic accommodation that can be granted, and others can be more difficult to coordinate.

One of these issues arises from exam deferrals for medical reasons. Allison, a combined science major who lives with centralized pain syndrome and arthritis, often has to defer her exams due to flare-ups, but has found some problems with these deferrals within the chemistry department.

“I usually just have pain for maybe three days that’s very intense, and then it’ll dampen down a bit, so I’ll usually write it within the next week,” said Allison. “With the chemistry department … if you have your class in the second term and you defer your exam, you cannot take it until either the end of the summer or in January … [I don’t] think that’s fair, because [students] need a lot of these courses to continue with their other courses.”

Janet Mee, the director of Access and Diversity, which provides individuals on campus with disability related accommodations and support, said that the point that Allison brought up is an issue that they are constantly looking at.

“Writing an exam is not an easy and quick process …. Depending on the course, [it] can take up to nine hours. And so asking an instructor to write a different exam for a student three days later is often just logistically not possible,” said Mee, who explained that this is why the university currently expects students who receive a standing deferral to write either the next time that exam is offered or in the formal exam period in July.

But, in terms of missing prerequisites, Mee said that while they “try to look as creatively as possible at different kinds of alternatives… one that has really not been possible is to allow students to take a course without a prerequisite.”

For students with disabilities on a graduation deadline, the complications of not having one or multiple pre-requisite courses can be far-reaching, even damaging to pursuing their intended course of study. Allison says that a huge challenge she is currently facing is in getting into her preferred major.

“People with disabilities ... have issues getting into a lot of the different majors because, one, they cannot make the grade requirements and that is a must … but [also] one of the classifications of an honors is [taking] 30 credits [per winter session] …. I don’t think I take anywhere near that. I take three classes per term,” said Allison, who is still considered a full-time student because she is registered with Access and Diversity.

“We do have a process to accommodate students with disabilities that, for disability-related reasons, [were] unable to meet the course load requirements but were otherwise qualified, and consider each request on its own merits and facts, taking into account the unique circumstances of the individual and the program,” said Mee in an emailed statement to The Ubyssey.

“A number of student have now been admitted to the honours programs in Science.”

Allison, however, was skeptical of this.

“I was told by science advisors as well as my disability advisor … that you have to meet [the requirements] once you get in the honours program,” she said, noting that she was also told that if she could still take the courses offered by an honours program she wouldn’t be allowed to be considered as a student taking fewer courses than required.

“It is interesting, because … it’s kind of vague.”

While Policy 73 states that the university has the responsibility to “ensure that persons are not denied admission on the basis of their disability” and to “make its courses or programs accessible to students with disabilities in accordance with the Human Rights Code (BC) and the Canadian Charter [of] Rights and Freedoms,” it doesn’t specify what this includes or how this relates to honours programs.

Flight risk

Accessibility barriers to students with disabilities at UBC aren’t only academic but physical as well.

“There are still some buildings that are not universally accessible,” said Mee. “In some cases, it’s almost impossible to retrofit a building, and International House is a really good example of that. We’ve looked at it multiple times over the last ten years to think about how we could improve the accessibility of that building, and structurally it’s just not possible.”

International House — which houses Go Global and International Student Development — was built in 1958 and has four levels but no elevator. For a student with a physical disability, accessing study abroad or immigration resources is a challenge when special arrangements have to be made in advance to meet off-site and outside of drop-in hours.

Mee said that Access and Diversity has a list of priority buildings to retrofit and that it immediately prioritizes buildings where a specific UBC community member needs access.

“If it’s a student who requires access to a building because their class is located there or they have some other requirement to be in the building, we will move that function to another building,” said Mee.

Another issue with building accessibility on campus is the availability of washrooms, particularly for those with chronic illness.

“[It’s] a problem in certain buildings …. There’s just a lack of sufficient washrooms,” said Gabi Rosu, a second-year combined science major who lives with Crohn’s disease. “If there’s a lineup, I’m going to have to say, ‘Can I please cut in front? I have Crohn’s, I’m gonna crap my pants.’ It’s really embarrassing.”

Mee said that access to sufficient washrooms is also something they are working on. “We’re currently auditing all of the washrooms on campus just to get an updated list of where all of the washrooms are located. In the last year [or] year and a half, upgrading our washrooms has been a priority around accessibility.”

Beyond withdrawn

Even as students prepare to leave UBC, the implications of receiving accommodations can have an impact on their future plans.

Lisa, a third-year standing student in geography, brought up withdrawals as an academic matter that can have serious implications for post-graduation opportunities.

“UBC has no transcript distinction that says that this was a withdrawal versus this was a medical withdrawal or an extenuating circumstances withdrawal, so it’s exactly the same on your transcript if you’re someone who had a sudden health crisis and needed to be hospitalized, as opposed [to] if you pass the add drop date [and] decided ‘you know what, I have taken on too many courses,’” said Lisa, who has had to withdraw from courses in the past due to mental health-related hospitalizations.

“That’s something that I’ve noticed that a lot of other universities do have that distinction, which can make a big difference in things like grad school applications.”

However, noting medical withdrawals — which would need to be implemented at the UBC Vancouver Senate level — may not be the best solution, according to Mee.

“There are some students that would prefer to have the designation of medical withdrawal rather than just a regular withdrawal, [but] other students would prefer not to have that designation as it outs them [as having a disability],” said Mee.

“What we do is we support students in writing a letter to any grad school they’re applying to if there are issues around the number of withdrawals that they’ve had and they’re concerned about that on their transcript.”

However, Lisa also said that these medical related withdrawals have been inconsistent financially. While she has never received a tuition refund after withdrawing from a course, she knows those who have. Without the refunds, disabilities could become even more costly.

“In my case, I was told that there’s nothing we can do for you. So it seems like there’s just some discrepancy there, which I’m suspicious of I guess [between] what they have to help you with and what they can help you with,” said Lisa.

“In my experience at UBC as a student who’s been struggling with health issues, I feel like there’s very much a culture of doing the bare minimum they are required to, and also not telling you about what they can do for you so that you don’t ask for those resources.”

Mee said that while she could not comment on an individual case, “we would look at the merits of every case [based] on the unique facts of that case… but typically a student who receives a medical withdrawal would not be granted a refund of their tuition.”

And many students feel that the burdens placed upon them go beyond being an adult and into onerous, expensive and time-consuming tasks to obtain the correct documentation to receive accommodations.

“In my experience at UBC as a student who’s been struggling with health issues, I feel like there’s very much a culture of doing the bare minimum they are required to, and also not telling you about what they can do for you so that you don’t ask for those resources.”

— Lisa, a third-year geography student

After England’s wheelchair was stolen on campus last year, he went to the AMS health and dental office to get reimbursed for a replacement, but was told that his documentation wasn’t recent enough.

“I would understand if that was for someone with a broken leg or a concussion or something that goes away, but this ain’t going away,” said England of his disability.

England said that he is still in the process of obtaining new documentation, which will require him to find a new general physician in the area as well as a physiotherapist — something that he is worried may be a financial burden.

“My parents had a really good extended health plan back in the day. So I was able to get a lot of that covered anyway,” said England, referring to the documentation he used to register with Access and Diversity before his first year at UBC. “Now that’s more of a me thing, but back [in] 2014 [I] wasn’t really concerned with that.”

According to Policy 73, for new students with a stable condition, usually no more than three years can have elapsed between the time of the assessment and the date of the initial request for accommodation. This provision means that those diagnosed with conditions as children must spend the money for recent documentation to acquire further accommodations.

Showing its age

As students continue bringing up these issues, it becomes increasingly noticeable that Policy 73 hasn’t been revised recently.

Dr. Izabela Schultz, a professor and director of the vocational rehabilitation counseling program at UBC, said that policies like it “need to be reviewed every five or six years, because this would certainly allow enough time for some new research, evidence or even clinical evidence to emerge in certain areas.”

Student advocacy groups also have a policy review in their sights. Alan Ehrenholz, AMS President, said that the AMS first targeted Policy 73 as a key policy for review by the university in 2014.

“We’ve been three years or so where the VP Academics have been working or pushing for this.”

A comprehensive review planned for this fall has, however, been delayed and may not be as groundbreaking as initially thought. The revised policy will still essentially be a UBC-specific reflection of federal and provincial disability law.

“It was up for review just prior to the university beginning the process around the sexual assault policy, so there were some delays related to some other priorities,” said Mee. “The policy itself is a reflection of the BC Human Rights Code …. So even if we didn’t have a policy, the same duties would still apply, and that may be one of the reasons it hasn’t been reviewed in some time.”

Although it’s unclear if this will change after the review, with the policy as is the process of getting accommodations can sometimes be a challenge as it requires a significant amount of documentation and paperwork.

“I have to say that these forms that are used for universities, they are not overly simple. And sometimes the requirements for the assessment may not be easily understood as well. So I think there is a role in simplifying it,” said Dr. Schultz, who clarified that she thought that UBC did not stand out as having any unusual practices relating to disability.

“The onus is definitely on adult students and adult employees to do it on their own, and feel empowered ... But that would depend on the assertiveness of this individual, on the skill set they have for dealing with this particular situation. And certainly individuals who are recently traumatized, either psychologically or by a brain injury, may not even be able to get through that process without assistance,” she said.

Schultz also added that this process could become a significant burden on a student, especially when added to the pressures of transitioning to university.

“A transition from secondary school to university is a tough one the way it is,” said Schultz. “So if we add a disability on top of already challenging developmental life transition, and dealing with that disability requires dealing with paperwork that’s overwhelming, that’s difficult to understand … I would say that these young people just entering or transitioning to university definitely need help.”

Twists and turns

If the processes weren't complex enough, stigma and discrimination — which Schultz says can prevent people from seeking accommodations and advocating for themselves in the first place — are also in the mix. According to the 2015 Academic Experience Survey, of the four per cent of UBC students who self-identify as having a disability, only 67 per cent are registered with Access and Diversity.

“I heard it from a number of individuals with non-visible disabilities especially mental health but [also] people with brain injuries, that they’re afraid to disclose their disabilities,” said Schultz. “Because there’s this parallel fear of being outed as someone who has a mental health problem due to stigmatisation, we will have people not disclosing it and getting themselves into very challenging work situations that will cause their mental health to deteriorate.”

The stigma of living with a mental health condition is so pervasive that Lisa asked for anonymity for this article on the basis that she “would like to go to grad school some day."

“And as much as I’d like to be able to be open about that kind of thing, it just seems like having my name linked to that in a Google search is too much of a risk,” she said.

In addition to stigma, students also say there is a lack of understanding around how much disability can impact people’s lives.

“There’s like, no awareness … I wish that people would just realize that it’s not so easy to deal with it. The physical pain and the problems,” said Rosu of her Crohn’s disease. “They don’t realize that the physical pain leads to mental issues like depression … how can you not be depressed when you can’t eat what you want, you’re in pain all the time?”

Allison emphasized that while she does get accommodations, these can often come short due to the design of the course, and something as significant as not getting extended times on labs and not being excused for iClicker marks can have an impact.

“I know they’re not worth much, but it still makes an impact, and it’s still in a way a discriminatory thing when they don’t allow you to reweight that type of grade. Like they don’t, I asked them first year, first term about that type of thing because I am absent often enough for it to make a difference [to my grades],” said Allison.

“People don’t realize that people with disabilities, whether they’re invisible or not … that could be why they’re not the best of their class and stuff like that. And they don’t get the full picture about it.”