by Tammy Culhane
There are well-traveled paths to success for post-secondary students with disabilities
For kids and families dealing with disabilities, the climb up the elementary and secondary school grades can be a white-knuckle trek. College? University? It may be hard to even grapple with those possibilities when the pursuit of a Grade 12 diploma amounts to a Himalayan quest. But if your youngster has the marks and the inclination, forge ahead. The prospects for post-secondary education are bright and there are welltraveled paths to success.
Soon, this new academic journey will begin for thousands of local students, including many with disabilities. It’s a major life change for all, although first-year students with special needs – and their parents – are perhaps anticipating obstacles that seem impossible to overcome. After all, assistance that may have been automatically provided at previous schools must now be arranged. And at this point the young adults are expected to take the initiative to set everything up, meet with the appropriate people and follow up to ensure supports are in place. If it seems like a cliff, fear not dear parents.
Higher education can be for everyone
Here in Ottawa, post-secondary schools offer excellent services to make higher education accessible. At Algonquin College, the Centre for Students with Disabilities focuses on accessibility, advocacy, accommodation and awareness. Last year alone, over 2000 students were supported across the campuses and, based on follow-up, 84 percent of those students either graduated or will continue their education.
The centre offers supports to students with a wide variety of special needs, including physical and medical disabilities, hearing and visual impairments, autism and learning disabilities. Students are encouraged to book an appointment with one of the centre’s counsellors to assess and identify their needs. The counsellor will then develop an individual student plan that is shared with professors. This plan outlines the specific accommodations the student requires. Other services include transition planning, testing accommodations, learning strategy support, e-counselling and residence attendant help, including 24-hour personal care for eight months of the year.
Transition planning includes workshops for high school students who are considering college. These sessions allow students to learn about available services and also to learn what to expect in the college environment.
This advance work increases the likelihood they’ll be successful. The odds for success continue to improve when students access learning-strategy support. This service helps students understand their learning style and also helps them develop skills such as time management, effective reading and writing, and presentation and exam preparation. For follow-up and continued support, e-counselling is available. Students can email their counsellor any time to discuss their needs and concerns.
Toni Connolly is manager of the centre and she says, “We are proud of our work and we look forward to meeting with students each year.” Her advice to students: “Definitely make an appointment. It’s a great start.”
Carleton University also offers numerous supports for students with disabilities. The Paul Menton Centre not only provides individual student support but also works with the entire university to ensure full inclusion. Similar to Algonquin’s Centre for Students with Disabilities, PMC supports people with varying disabilities; the largest group is students with learning disabilities. Since the creation of the centre in 1990, the number of students registered for services has increased from 200 to 1850. Carleton takes huge pride in the success of its students with disabilities and has seen an increase in the number of students at the master ’s and doctorate-degree levels.
Upon acceptance, students are encouraged to book an appointment with a counsellor at the centre. The PMC mentor program for first-year students is designed specifically to assist them with the transition to university. Other supports include note taking, assessment accommodation, technology assistance, classroom sign language interpreters and adaptive equipment loans. The centre also offers 24-hour attendant care service for 12 months of the year.
When asked to provide advice for those wanting to further their education, Carleton disability advisor Somei Tam says, “Kids with disabilities should not discount college or university. Like all other kids, they should have an equal opportunity to participate in post-secondary education. They need to be prepared to do the necessary work to get to college or university.”
Across town, the University of Ottawa’s access service aims to ensure that students’ special needs are addressed and that they are offered the best possible learning conditions. To that end, a wide range of provisions and academic supports are provided, from transcription services to exam accommodation. Students can make an appointment with one of the learning specialists to establish a learning plan. In addition, the university’s student access support service includes student mentoring, an academic writing help centre and a counselling and coaching service.
Although attending post-secondary school represents a huge step for students with disabilities, it is the first step on a path full of possibilities. If students take advantage of the numerous supports available, there’s no telling how far they can go.