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New study shows extra challenges for students with disabilities

Christine Pierce | Interrobang | News | February 14th, 2011

The attention Canadian colleges and universities are paying to students with disabilities could be, in some cases, causing more harm than good, according to a recent study conducted by The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

The report, written by Tony Chambers, a professor at the University of Toronto, explained students with disabilities face a variety of challenges that make college or university a lot more difficult than it needs to be. He wrote that one of the biggest reasons for these burdens is that "there is still a sort of stigma attached to people with disabilities."

The problem begins when a school underestimates what a student can do. "Having a recognized disability does not necessarily mean the disability is disabling," the study's introduction explained. "It could be argued that since all the participants in this study are enrolled in postsecondary institutions, this very fact demonstrates the limited disabling effect their various complex disabilities have on these students."

One of the biggest problems disabled students face is paying for school. Chambers wrote that it is often difficult for somebody with mental or learning problems to find employment while in school. This can happen when an employer misjudges what a person can do.

According to Chambers' study, the costs of the assistive aids, medication and support services have the potential to be overwhelming. The price of being assessed to receive full documentation of a disability can be over $3,000 alone. Financial aid is available, but can create new problems. When a student with a disability is given financial assistance, it can restrict them from carrying a full course load. These limits are meant to provide more time to work or concentrate on studies; however, they can also potentially extend the length of time needed to complete an academic program.

Chambers said that when he talks to these students he is "often surprised at how resilient they (are), and how they managed to balance their work and study." Not only does restricting a course load require an individual to be enrolled in school much longer, it also postpones their career, which is a crucial element in paying back student debt. Nearly half of all students who participated in the study expected to graduate with a total debt of more than $20,000. These financial worries can only add to the regular stress of attending post secondary education.

Another large concern that Chambers has in the education of disabled students is how limited the help can be. He explained how financial help and general support may only be available for a student's dominant disability; if a student has a mental disability in addition to being limited physically, only the most obvious problem will receive any attention.

Many colleges and universities offer a variety of services for disabled students, though according to Chambers, "Being able to locate information can be a big hassle, it's not uncommon for students to be given the run-around and sent to office after office." Making available help known and easy to acquire seems to be the first steps that colleges and universities need to take in solving the problem.
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