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Read Our New Op-Ed in the Varisty: Op-ed: Accessibility is a worthy investment

Op-ed: Accessibility is a worthy investment; The Accessibility Services volunteer note-taking system is not hitting home for many students

By Chandrashri Pal and Nadia Kanani

Published on

Note-taking is a recognized accessibility need for students with progressive hearing loss, deafness, poor vision, ADHD, and various other learning, sensory, and physical disabilities, disorders, and impairments. This service is an essential accommodation for departments that have historical and existing systemic barriers to entry for disabled students, such as sciences, technology, engineering, math and architecture (STEMA).

For example, note-taking services for students with low vision allows for better contextualization and interpretation of math, equations, graphs, diagrams, and code languages, a necessity for disabled students for whom STEMA classes may otherwise be inaccessible. Lack of access to notes, especially in the STEMA fields, often means that disabled students have to switch out of those subjects.

It is therefore imperative that lecture notes, textbooks, exams, quizzes and all class materials are made available in alternative formats in order for disabled students to have equitable access to education.

At the St. George campus, the note-taking program is administered through Accessibility Services. The program relies almost entirely on volunteers; students in the same class as those in need of notes are asked to sign up as note-takers with Accessibility Services. In return, volunteers receive a certificate from Accessibility Services. If the volunteer takes on note-taking positions for multiple classes, they may be eligible for co-curricular record accreditation through U of T.

The current volunteer note-taking program has over 1500 volunteers and serves over 1200 disabled students. Fortunately, U of T provides volunteer note-taking as one way to level the playing field for registered students with disabilities.

However, the volunteer system has many limitations that create additional barriers for students with disabilities. One of the first challenges of this system is that it is dependent on professors making an announcement in class in order to recruit volunteers. Many professors do not make this announcement, make it only once, or fail to adequately emphasize the pressing need for volunteers.

In addition, reliance on a volunteer-based system — as opposed to hiring paid note-takers — frequently leads to a lack of consistent note-taking in class. Rather than submitting and uploading lecture notes after every class, note-takers often submit and upload their notes every few weeks. Thus, lectures notes are not uploaded in a timely manner and students often do not have access to the lecture materials prior to midterms, course assignments, or labs.

Lecture notes are often shared in formats that end up being inaccessible; for example, handwritten notes that are not readable by screen readers are virtually useless to students who need to access them.

In addition, it is rare that tutorial notes are provided to students, as it is not required for volunteers to share notes from non-lecture based class sections. In fact, there is no formal mechanism in place for students to be able to request note-taking for tutorials, labs, or field courses if they require them.

Not having access to notes promptly after lectures take place makes it difficult for students with disabilities to absorb lecture material and work through it in the sequential manner necessary for complete understanding, or to learn through the framework in which the material is intended to be taught.

In sum, due to the inconsistent submission of lecture notes, lack of guidance for note-takers, and failure to provide note-takers in non-lecture based learning spaces, disabled students are placed at a significant disadvantage. As a result, rather than levelling the playing field, the note-taking system at U of T systematically leaves disabled students behind and struggling to catch up in their courses.

The university’s reliance on an almost entirely volunteer-based system for note taking is puzzling, as the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) claims to provide $250 per class per semester for note-takers through the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment (BSWD/CSG-PDSE). Funding through this grant is decided on a case-by-case basis using a standardized application.

While all students with disabilities requiring note-takers should, in theory, be able to get funding for this service, there seems to be an uneven distribution of this government-allocated money. At U of T, many students who have received funding for note-takers repeatedly advocated for this service prior to being approved.

Across the province, we find that some universities and colleges consistently pay for note-takers while others, including U of T, do not. Inconsistencies also exist within U of T, which raises questions about how Ministry funding is being allocated to students. If it has been determined that a student requires note-takers, why is funding for note-takers not being provided? What are the reasons for relying on a volunteer-based note-taking program?

While U of T is is considered a publicly-assisted institution, education here is still framed through notions of meritocracy, competition, and performance. From this perspective, competition is regarded a necessary precursor to research innovation. Within the context of accessibility needs, this competition-driven system has significant consequences for disabled students. In the case of note-taking, disabled students are represented as having an ‘unfair advantage’ or a ‘competitive edge’ over their peers when they receive lecture notes from a classmate.

These unfounded perceptions lead to both professors and non-disabled students de-valuing the importance of note-taking services and, at the same time, create an even more hostile classroom environment for disabled students. Programs that are inaccessible remain inaccessible, while the lack of support often pushes disabled students out.

Without a broader discourse on equity and a reconceptualization of classroom accommodations as accessibility needs, the conversation remains focused on individual needs. Such an approach cannot lead to meaningful structural changes. In order to have a note-taker system that works for disabled students, it is urgent for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and U of T to begin to engage with disabled students and to center our needs.

Chandrashri Pal is a Board Member and the current Vice-Chair of Students for Barrier-free Access. Nadia Kanani is the Advocacy and Volunteer Coordinator at Students for Barrier-free Access.

Picture of the Students for Barrier-Free Access Logo. Logo includes 3 people on the left hand side of the banner holding up signs with the following symbols, Sign Language logo, a person using a wheelchair, a person using a cane.

Read Our Article on the BSWD/CSG-PDSE published in Action Speaks Louder!!

“Barriers Related to Disability Related Educational Supports: Mapping Funding Discrepancies Across the Province”

by Fady Shanouda and Nadia Kanani

published in Action Speaks Louder, Winter 2016 Edition (re-printed below)

The Bursary for Students with Disabilities and the Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment for Persons with Permanent Disabilities (BSWD/CSG-PDSE) is a provincial and federal bursary administered by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.  The provincial/federal split is reflected financially in a 20/80% division, respectively. This means that out of the possible $10,000 of funding disabled students can apply for annually, $2,000 is provincially funded (BSWD), while $8,000 is federally funded (CSG-PDSE).

To be eligible for the BSWD-CSG/PDSE students must: have a permanent disability; qualify for OSAP ($1.00 minimum); be a Canadian citizen; and be enrolled in full-time studies (40% workload for disabled students). Even when students do meet all of this criteria, they still face various obstacles in accessing the bursary that often go unrecognized and that, in turn, limit their access to funding and support. To eliminate these barriers to access, the Ministry, along with universities and colleges, should make information about the bursary, including how funding is allocated and the process through which funding decisions are made, easily available and accessible to students. We have yet to see this level of transparency concerning the bursary and, as a result, Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA) has initiated action to learn more about the administration of the bursary.

Copies of the manuals that outline the management of the bursary are not available to students. Students have been denied access to the manuals when we have requested copies. Counselors and staff deny our requests for information arguing that the documents are government issued and, therefore, that they have no legal right to distribute them without the government’s approval.

This lack of transparency, and the idiosyncratic decision-making that is part of this process, could no longer go uninvestigated. Therefore, on May 27, 2015, SBA filed two Freedom of Information (FOI) requests: one with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities; and, the other with the University of Toronto’s internal information and privacy office. The University denied our FOI request, suggesting that they did not have to comply with the request because the Ministry developed the documents and, therefore, owned the copyright. The Ministry, however, did comply with our request, and SBA received copies of 15 manuals spanning the same number of years, from 2000-2001 to 2014-2015 (SBA has since filed for and received the manual for 2015-2016).

With only a few months since the request was received, SBA has not yet completed a full and in-depth  analysis of the manuals. We are diligently working our way through each manual to determine how the bursary operates at the Ministry level, and the changes that have been introduced and implemented over time. Still, our preliminary analysis has lead to one significant and astonishing finding. We have discovered that each university or college can set internal caps or maximum funds for each specific disability support that are different from the Ministry’s caps, as long as they are below the Ministry’s caps. For example, note-taking services are covered under the bursary. The Ministry cap for note-taking for the 2015-2016 year could be set at $250 per course. However, York University could choose to set a cap of $200 per course for note-taking while the University of Toronto’s cap could be set at $150. As long as both caps do not exceed the maximum set by the Ministry they would be in compliance with Ministry guidelines. Thus, in effect, disabled students in different parts of the province could be receiving different levels of funding for the same service. What this amounts to is an inequitable distribution of funding for services for disabled students across the province.

The fact that each University or college could set their own internal caps or maximum funds also leads us to think that there must be internal manuals at each university and college that governs the internal operations of the bursary and sets these internal caps for services. Therefore, there may be two sets of manuals, those developed and distributed by the Ministry to the universities and colleges and that set the maximums for the province, and another manual or guideline developed by universities and colleges and that govern the internal operations of both the disability office and financial aid office. Evidence of these internal manuals are still missing; and if no internal manuals or guidelines exist, then there is no clear sense of how disability and financial aid officers make decisions around the bursary. Having consulted with students in different parts of the province, we know that students are receiving significantly different information in regards to the maximum level of funding for particular education-related disability supports. Whether or not internal manuals exist, and there is still nothing to suggest that the internal manuals do not exist, officers in universities and colleges are making decisions at their discretion and disabled students, in different parts of the province, are still receiving different levels of funding for the same type of service.

Within this complex process, disabled students are expected to be compliant with the decision they receive and the funding level the university or college allocates to them, even if this limits the level of support and services they can receive (such as with the note-taking example above). This labyrinthian process excludes disabled students from making informed decisions since it remains unclear how decisions are made, who is responsible for making these decisions, and what appeal process, if any, exists.

SBA is moving forward by filing 20 FOI requests to every university in the province, asking for the internal manual or guidelines that governs the administration of the bursary. There are also plans to file similar FOI requests with every college in the province. SBA received files, this past week from a second FOI request for internal documents from the University of Toronto; the successful request included over a thousand pages. Analysis of these documents will take some time, but SBA plans to release its findings sometime in the new year. If you are interested in assisting us in this process, please consider joining our Advocacy Committee (contact:


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Person with a pony-tail using a laptop with the word "vote" across the screen.

Access is a practice, not a statement; A message to UTSU members ahead of the October 7th AGM

Access is a practice, not a statement;  A message to UTSU members ahead of the October 7th AGM


Published on

On October 7, 2015 at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the University of Toronto’s Students Union (UTSU), you will be deciding whether to make a substantial change to the democratic process at this institution: namely a change from paper ballot voting to computerized and online voting. The change to computerized and online voting is presented in the motion as “improving accessibility,” creating a “fairer system,” and removing barriers to participation in campus life. It is the opinion of Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA) that these claims misappropriate the discourse of disability in misleading ways. Accessibility is not a statement; accessibility is a practice. It requires a deliberate and meaningful engagement with, and involvement of, disabled people.

With respect to the voting process, we believe that paper ballots allow for accessibility needs to be met more efficiently than computerized and online voting. The process of holding a paper ballot vote requires the union to address the physical, attitudinal, and informational barriers that exist on campus through the active inclusion of disabled voters, thereby ensuring that the process is accessible to all students. Computerized voting at home, even if it sounds convenient to some, actually alienates persons with disabilities from participating fully in the voting process at U of T and relegates us to the margins of the electoral process.

In fact, we believe this proposed change will actually create additional barriers to accessibility. The motion does not clearly indicate how computerized and online voting systems will be made accessible. For example, if a student requires a screen-reader and uses Job Access With Speech (JAWS) software for blind people), or other accessible technology, will they be able to vote online or at a computerized voting booth on campus? How will accessibility features be incorporated into the computerized and online voting systems? These concerns should be addressed before members can make an informed decision on this issue. These questions must be answered before a new voting process is introduced.

Furthermore, we think that it is irresponsible that a new voting system that is purportedly “accessible” is being voted on without first consulting representatives of students with disabilities on campus, like SBA. Again, accessibility is a practice, and one of its primary tenets is the inclusion of disabled people in the decision-making process. This lack of consultation creates barriers that will need to be addressed retroactively. Not only is this unnecessary, the issues behind this change are unavoidable.

Sometimes, accessibility sometimes means using materials that are characterized as wasteful or unsustainable. Although paper balloting can be inaccessible for some disabled people, this inaccessibility can often be remedied by having trained staff willing to help disabled people fill in their ballots. This offers disabled students the opportunity to engage in the process of voting similar to their peers. Finally, we do not discount that the voting process uses “enormous” amounts of paper; however, we do not think that sustainability can or should be used as an argument for reducing access or creating barriers. Paper is surely more sustainable as a recyclable product than a system that contributes electronic waste from the eventual disposal of laptops, iPads, tablets, and other devices.

It is SBA’s opinion that members of the UTSU should vote down the motion on computerized voting as it fails to outline a truly accessible voting process, was not proposed in consultation with disabled students, contains no qualified accountability measures, and does not sufficiently meet the needs of students at this institution. As disabled students, we want to vote alongside our peers. We want to meet you in line and discuss the issues. We want the opportunity to check-off a box and we want to slide our paper ballots into the slot – hoping that our opinions are respected, encouraged and counted. Voting is essential to the democratic process and hasty and unorganized changes, as those proposed in this motion, will affect this process. Please vote down this motion and encourage UTSU to continue with the paper ballot system.