Living with disabilities

I’ve been deaf in both ears since birth. I rely on American Sign Language interpreters during lectures and my trusty notepad to communicate with friends. I can speak, but I’m not a good public speaker and I wear a Cochlear implant- which allows me to hear 70 to 85 per cent of what people say. On top of this, I am an active university student involved in the Students’ Union and the Gauntlet, in spite of a constant barrage of homework. I even gave the Dalai Lama a high-five last week. And despite friends’ damn filthy lies, I never snore.

However, this story is not just about me. Rather, it is about students trying to get through Alberta’s post-secondary schools while struggling with their disability, byzantine and complicated government ministries and slow university administration, all while relying on assistance from sympathetic but overworked University of Calgary Disability Resource Centre staff.

Over 8,200 students sought disability support services from Alberta’s post-secondary institutions last year- 812 of whom registered with the U of C’s DRC for assistance. That may be a small number, but these students could be your roommates, best friends, lab partners or even your lover. Not all disabilities are physical or obvious, as some may think. There are people with medical conditions, such as chronic pain, learning disabilities (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and mental disabilities (depression), that are not obvious, but who need assistance as much as those with physical disabilities. Students with learning disabilities can receive help from voluntary note-takers and assistants, along with other academic assistants. Students who suffer from ADHD have the option of writing their exams in a quiet, distraction-free environment at the DRC.

Sure, it’s great that the Alberta government helps students with disabilities and wants more disadvantaged people to have a good education, but where and how can students get the provincial funding they need? To answer this question, I approached Alberta Advanced Education and Technology spokesperson Keith Donnan. He explained that all publicly funded post-secondary institutions are responsible for ensuring students with disabilities have access to the necessary accommodations. In the last four years, AET provided over $8.5 million in one-time funding to support exam accommodations, assistive technologies and other services to students. For students with permanent disabilities who need help paying bills, the ministry administers grants of up to $10,000 each year through the Canada Student Loans Program. In case students can’t get the former, due to a denied application or inability to meet the requirements, there is an Alberta grant for disabled students which provides up to $1,000 per semester. However, Donnan had a disconcerting message for students in serious need of help.

“When the need for disability-related supports exceed $8,000, the student is encouraged to apply for Disability Related Employment Support funding through the Ministry of Employment and Immigration,” he said.

At the sound of DRES forms, my blood ran cold. For the last five years, I’ve signed these forms every September to get funding for ASL interpreters in my classes. One night every year my mother and I get together with a large portfolio of financial statements to fill out the DRES application forms, despite the fact that my deafness is permanent.

I would not be able to book interpreters or complete the DRES applications without the help of the DRC’s Technical Resource Specialist, Merlin Keillor. Like a certain other Merlin he works magic, except in this case for students with disabilities. In his role, he coordinates assistance and gets required equipment. He explained that the DRC arranged 16,048 hours of assistive services for students last year, including ASL interpreters, academic assistants and tutors. The DRC also arranged for over 65 textbooks to be converted into alternative formats or electronic copies last year.

“The DRC has prided itself in the past on providing one-on-one individualized service to students,” said Keillor. “We work hard to continue this type of service, deliver [it] and organize it to handle the large volume of students requiring assistance.”

However, even with all the progress, more can be done. Grant MacEwan University alumnus Debra Ward applied for student financial aid in April 2005 and didn’t receive a reply until the first month of classes. The delay meant she had to decide between medical bills, groceries and tuition once school started. She and her husband took out a second mortgage on their house to tide them over.

“These stressful times ended only when politician friends and acquaintances intervened with the then-Advanced Education Minister, the Honourable Dave Hancock,” said Ward. “I finally received communication from Alberta Students’ Finance on the Minster’s behalf.”

Over a series of emails, Ward explained to me that she is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe anxiety disorder. Her disorder became an issue when writing exams in class, but now she writes them in isolation, away from distractions and other students.

She recalled an embarrassing encounter with an Albertan official, who failed to notice her disability.

“I still remember how humiliating it was to have to have a clerk at an Alberta Service Centre tell me I did not look like I needed assistance because, presumably, I was still well dressed and clean,” said Ward. “I had other students with disabilities such as amputations tell me that they faced the same barrage of insults.”

Ward’s situation is one example of the many barriers disabled students face in their efforts to go to school. For students with severe disabilities, expenses like the cost of hiring a life assistant or booking an interpreter can go through the roof. For example, an ASl interpreter would cost $80 for an hour long lecture, or $55 an hour for longer appointments.

According to the DRC, converting a text into an electronic format by scanning the text through a high-speed scanner usually costs about $50 per book.

Cost isn’t the only issue holding students back. The physical layouts of universities and colleges can impede access to classes. A small staircase can morph into Mount Everest if you’re stuck in a wheelchair and the elevator’s broken down. A poorly lighted hallway can transform into a dangerous trek if you can’t see very well and are only armed with a walking cane. Finding your classroom on time while being safe becomes a challenge with a physical disability.

To help with accessibility issues, the DRC chairs the Campus Accessibility Committee with representatives from Maintenance and Operations, Planning and Design Services, Parking Services, the Students’ Union and other departments. The committee ensures that all major construction and renovation projects are accessible and that physical needs on campus are accommodated. In the past, the U of C was blasted for slow renovations on old buildings. Even now, Norquay, Brewster, Castle, Glacier and Olympus lack basic strobe light fire alarms in every room ­­- although rooms have been retrofitted for students who specifically requested.

U of C law school alumnus and Alberta Liberal MLA Kent Hehr had his share of experiences with the lack of accessibility on campus. He became a quadriplegic at a young age after he was shot as a bystander in a drive-by shooting. As a student in a wheelchair, he struggled to get to classes on time because there were few wheelchair ramps and elevators in Murray Fraser Hall. Most doors were not electric and had to be held open.

“When I started at the university back in 1991, there were many issues with physical access to buildings and classrooms,” explained Hehr. “Today, the campus appears to be a lot better. Take a look at the new MacEwan Hall- it is now relatively easy to get around the building. The recent changes to the University of Calgary all incorporate best practices of universal design.”

Keillor echoed Hehr’s comments, adding that he has been on campus for almost 14 years, with the university going through three presidents during that time. The university had no funding earmarked for accessibility until 2004, when students participated in a physical accessibility study conducted by Facilities Management and Development. The study looked at which buildings were accessible, what problems remained and ultimately inspired the university to ask for provincial grants each year to renovate old facilities.

“Currently most major upgrades have been completed, i.e. over $100,000 for new accessible washrooms and the new elevators in the Dining Centre,” said Keillor. “Most, not all, classrooms are now physically accessible.”

Hehr said he managed to have a successful time at the university and his experience helped him in his career as an MLA.

“I met a wide variety of people who challenged me to become better as a student,” spoke Hehr with a smile.

Council of Alberta University Students chair Beverly Eastham pointed out funding problems and long-standing stereotypes are some reasons why people with disabilities never go to college in the first place.

“CAUS has been concerned with our dreadfully low participation rates among 18- to 24-year-olds for over a decade, as well as the completion rate for those who enter post-secondary education,” said Eastham. “Alberta simply does not have enough people going to post-secondary and not enough people finishing once they do decide to go. Barriers for disabled Albertans, along with several other under-represented groups (First-Nations, Inuit, Metis) are a big part of why we are not doing well enough in these areas. Reducing the barriers to obtaining and completing a post-secondary degree for all students- including disabled students- has been a part of CAUS’ message since we were founded.”

For the past three years, the provincial government gave $2.5 million each year to Alberta universities to help with exam accommodations. The government stopped this year due to lack of surplus funding, and CAUS is asking for the grant’s full restoration, along with other support. Eastham is concerned about the recession’s impact on students, such as debt and lack of jobs and the government’s cuts to the post-secondary sector.

“The economic downturn has put enormous pressures on the resources available on-campus, but ensuring that the resources needed for an institution to treat all students, including those with disabilities, fairly and with dignity are not optional.”

Alberta already has an embarrassing past regarding its treatment of disabled people ­- sterilizing the mentally disabled was a legal practice, part of an act that wasn’t repealed until 1972. Recently, the province reduced disability support in the name of savings and budget cuts. We should not make budget cuts on the backs of helpless members of our society, and we should not make cuts to the tools they use to improve their education and future. Unfortunately, the Alberta government is facing a $6.9 million budget shortfall and post-secondary funding is a commonly cut area. Lack of post-secondary resources will lead to fewer students with disabilities in school.

The interviews with Hehr and Keillor reminded me of my own past. Having to struggle with my growth and deafness in high school, only to learn that there’s even more to deal with in university, can be truly exhausting. When I first arrived, I learned about the shortage of ASL interpreters in Calgary, which made it difficult for me to understand lectures. The shortage is partially due to the interpreter program closure at Grant MacEwan University some years ago. Despite all, I managed to get involved, make amazing friendships and have great adventures. If it weren’t for my luck, my parents paying for my tuition and support from the DRC, I would have a hellish time at university.

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