Christine Moncrieff entered an exam period at the University of Ottawa with 80 per cent in all of her classes, but she ended up failing the semester.
She missed her exams after having a mental breakdown caused by her post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.
Instead of clemency, she received a letter kicking her out of her program for academic failures. After writing a letter explaining her mental health disability and a pile of medical notes, she was reinstated into her program three months later and received no refunds.
‘I’m lucky,” Moncrieff said. She knows many students in similar situations who were not reinstated.
Throughout her time at the University of Ottawa, she was denied academic accommodations because her doctor refused to write that she had a permanent disability. He believed this would push her to seek help and get better.
Even after her doctor finally gave her a permanent medical diagnosis, she was still refused accommodations.
Moncrieff would miss exams and classes due to anxiety. She accepted the failing grades because the fight for a medical note for her professors was too much, not to mention pricey.
She would burst into tears whenever she got a letter from OSAP, asking about her failures, because all the letters would always say the same thing: “Please provide more medical documentation.”
She tried to commit suicide twice.
By her last year, she was finally able to get accommodations by going straight to her professors.
They allowed her to miss class and deadlines without having to provide a medical note every time.
After eight years of undergrad, Moncrieff finally graduated with a degree in criminology in December 2015.
Here at Ryerson, students are experiencing similar difficulties.
Sidney Drmay, a Ryerson student and coordinator of RyeACCESS, and self-identified “mad” person, tried to get accommodation for their arthritic hands during exam time, but they were unable to be accommodated.
Their health issues were symptoms of a greater problem that doctors had yet to diagnose.
Without documentation of a diagnosis, Ryerson students are out of luck when it comes to accommodation , particularly if they have mental health issues.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health affects nearly half of the world’s population, but less than half of people who meet diagnostic criteria for psychological disorders are identified by doctors.
Mental health is also the No. 1 reason students visit the Academic Accommodation Support (AAS) service at Ryerson, according to Marc Emond, manager of the service. In order to receive accommodations, though, they require a diagnosis from a qualified health practitioner, which can be difficult to get for some students.
York University is making things easier with a new policy stating students do not have to disclose their diagnosis in order to receive accommodations. Students still need a doctor’s note stating that they have a condition and what kind of help they need. Moncrieff believes this is a huge step forward.
“With this change, students will no longer have to define their experiences using a psychiatric label,” Moncrieff said.
Drmay said a lot of people don’t want to go through the process of getting diagnosed, despite the pressures of school work causing them heightened mental distress.
“Getting diagnosed with mental health issues is exhausting,” they said.
According to the WHO, only two in five people experiencing a mood, anxiety or substance use disorder seek help in the first year of experiencing symptoms.
Drmay, previously a co-ordinator for RyePRIDE, joined RyeACCESS in September when they became more comfortable with their madness, they said. This past weekend, Drmay coordinated a conference at the Ryerson Student Centre called Reclaiming Our Bodies and Minds, which focused on empowering and celebrating the disabled community, and allowed presenter Moncrieff to tell the story of her battle with the university system.
This conference uses the human rights perspective of disability, which is commonly described as “viewing people with disabilities as subjects and not as objects… (and) entails moving away from viewing people with disabilities as problems (and) toward(s) viewing them as rights holders.”
In short, it means focusing on fixing the environment instead of the person. This is contrary to the medical model of disability, which treats disability as a sickness that should be diagnosed and fixed.
There is a dissonance between these two approaches toward disability. Heather Willis, Ryerson’s accessibility coordinator, said that Ryerson’s AAS is made to work with the medical model.
Emond said that Ryerson, along with the rest of the western world, is in need of a similar shift in thinking. The AAS is confined by “boxes and lines and policies and procedures.” He said the greatest change to their services will come when they can work outside of that system.
“Speaking about that from this chair today seems very challenging, because we work within all these levels of systems and hierarchies,” he said. For now, when a student is unable or unwilling to procure a diagnosis, Emond can offer them other learning supports, like help with writing or math tutoring.
Grant Robinson, an IT accessibility specialist at Ryerson, said anyone involved with the disability and human rights movement is in favour of embedding accessibility into society rather than using individual accommodations. In a way, “when you have to accommodate an individual user, it’s a failure of accessibility,” though accommodations will always be necessary for some people.
Cate Flanagan, a masters of planning student at Ryerson and speaker at this weekend’s conference, developed a speech impediment when she was seven, and it severely affected her speaking up until last year. She believes that instead of accommodation, we should have inclusive design.
And this doesn’t just mean ramps.
“There are millions of accessibility issues,” she said, particularly within the university system. Curriculums should be more flexible, and less ableist, she said, allowing students to choose their own path without being centred out as having a disability. “Instead of being ‘that stutter girl,’ I could have just been that person in class who has a stutter, and finds a way to do things differently.”
Robinson admits that the invisible disabilities are tricky when it comes to accommodation.
“It gets into qualitative territory,” he said. He has faith in universal and inclusive designs though, which could circumvent the need for individual accommodation.
For example, Robinson said next month Ryerson will be rolling out a Danish product called SensusAccess, which allows students and staff to convert documents into alternative media including audio books and digital Braille. “We’re implementing it as a tool that benefits any student on campus,” he said, adding that the neat part is they are not separating people who are disabled from the rest of the community.
“When we’re doing our job right, you won’t notice. It will simply be,” Robinson said.