Category Archives: SBA Articles

Post-Secondary Students With Disabilities Face Devastating Impact of Ontario Provincial Government Cuts

Press release collaboration with NEADS Canada

(Ottawa, February 20, 2019)

University and college students with disabilities in Ontario and their on-campus groups are reacting with great concern over recent announcements by Merrillee Fullerton, Minister of Colleges and Universities. The result will be significant cuts and changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and massive opting out of student fees vital to students’ associations, which will seriously hurt disabled students.

“Students with disabilities generally and disabled student leaders in our community are telling us that the government’s cuts will hit marginalized students the hardest and that especially includes the thousands of disabled students that we represent in Ontario. I would like to meet with Minister Fullerton to tell her how these changes directly impact our community,” says Roxana Jahani Aval, Chairperson and Ontario Director of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) and Secretary on the Council of Canadians With Disabilities (CCD). Roxana is a student at York University, with a psychology degree currently pursuing a BA in Human Rights and Equity Studies.

Hilary Zorgdrager, Coordinator of Maccess at McMaster University in Hamilton — a busy service centre that operates with funding and support from the McMaster Students’ Union — is very worried about the impact of the cuts on students that Maccess serves: 

“Maccess provides a number of essential services including peer support and advocacy. Groups like Maccess are necessary to hold the university to account on issues of accessibility through proactive and affirmative advocacy,” stresses Hilary. “Peer support — and more broadly speaking non-medical peer-led alternatives — act as an essential complement and a valid alternative to traditional biomedical interventions. With news of mental health crises on campus and growing precarity across the province, the defunding of services for students with disabilities, by students with disabilities like Maccess will be devastating to current and future students who will be left with an under-funded student wellness centre and three month wait times.”  

Nadia Kanani, Advocacy Coordinator at Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA) at the University of Toronto, a non-profit, student levy organization – known for its innovative and supportive programming — says she fears that the essential services SBA provides, such as peer support, student advocacy, and skills building workshops, will be impacted drastically: “Student led service groups benefit our communities in many ways; they provide essential community space, offer leadership and learning opportunities that prepare students for employment, and advocate for structural changes that benefit the entire university community.” She also points out that Students for Barrier-free Access is deeply concerned about, changes and cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program:

“Students for Barrier-free Access rejects the claim that the Government of Ontario’s recent changes to the OSAP program and 10% cut to tuition fees increases the accessibility of post-secondary education. Students with disabilities, and their families, incur disproportionate expenses related to increasing the accessibility of education, including, but not limited to, the cost of adaptive technologies, tutors, therapy (including occupational & physical therapy), accessible transportation, and paramedical expenses. Lowering the eligible household income for OSAP grants fails to take into account these financial burdens. While a tuition fee cut of 10% may seem like an advantage for all students, increasing reliance on student loans rather than grants will make post-secondary education even more inaccessible for students with disabilities.”

Brett Babcock, of the Carleton Disability Awareness Centre (CDAC) highlights the many ways his centre serves disabled students at the university, located in Ottawa:

“As the programming coordinator of the Carleton Disability Awareness Centre, I am concerned about what’s at stake for students with disabilities, both physically and academically. CDAC is an essential service for students with disabilities. The Ontario government’s decision to allow college and university students to opt out of student association fees will have grave impacts on the quantity and quality of services that student service centres like CDAC offer. Moreover, if centers like CDAC lose funding altogether, there will be no party to hold institutions accountable for the decisions they make regarding accessibility.

For decades, Carleton University students with disabilities were paying annual gym membership fees for inaccessible exercise facilities. In 2015, CDAC successfully advocated for the installment of 2 accessible door openers and 4 pieces of wheelchair accessible gym equipment in Carleton’s athletics complex. Additionally, in response to Ottawa’s accessible housing crisis and the increasing number of Carleton University students with disabilities dropping out of school for financial purposes, CDAC launched its first ever Accessible Housing Bursary to support students in crisis in 2018.

Students with disabilities have fewer opportunities to get involved on University campuses, which is why student service centres like CDAC are crucial. In addition to our regular operating hours where we tend to the everyday needs of students with disabilities by offering services like peer support, assistance with eating, and free year-round mobility devices rentals (i.e., wheelchairs, crutches, white canes), CDAC fosters significant social opportunities for students with and without disabilities.”

Students’ association funded service centres like Maccess, CDAC and SBA — along with many other critical service centres, student run council offices, newspapers, radio stations and businesses — provide excellent volunteer and paid employment opportunities for countless disabled students at colleges and universities across the province. Cutting fees to democratically elected student governments will impact job-ready skills these students gain while in post-secondary studies, because of the existence of these student run centres and businesses. These skills are needed for the very competitive employment market university and college students face after graduation.

Jewelles Smith, Chairperson of the Council of Canadians With Disabilities and Advisor to the National Educational Association of Disabled Students says the Ontario government’s attacks on funding and services at Ontario’s colleges and universities are unacceptable: “I want students with disabilities in Ontario to know that the national disability movement stands with them in solidarity. We will fight these changes and cuts vigorously.”

For further information contact:

Hilary Zorgdrager, Maccess, McMaster University, tel. (905) 525-9140, ext. 26575
Nadia Kanani, Students for Barrier-free Access, University of Toronto, tel. (416) 967-7322
Brett Babcock, Carleton Disability Awareness Centre, Carleton University, tel. (613) 520-2600, ext. 6618
Roxana Jahani Aval, National Educational Association of Disabled Students, tel. (613) 380-8065, ext. ext 265
Jewelles Smith, Council of Canadians With Disabilities, tel. (204) 947-0303

READ OUR NEW OP-ED IN THE STRAND: The University-Mandated Leave of Absence is discriminatory and harmful

Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA) is an organization led by mad and disabled students at the University of Toronto, an institution located on the territories of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of New Credit. SBA advocates for equity and the removal of barriers to accessing education. As a group of students located at the intersections of multiple identities, we are committed to resisting ableism and sanism, and to creating safer spaces for marginalized students on campus.

As students, community leaders, and advocates, we strongly oppose the proposed University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy. This policy, which is informally being referred to as UofT’s new mental health policy, specifically targets students with mental health disabilities and would allow the University to place these students on a mandatory leave of absence if (1) the student’s behaviour poses “a serious risk of harm to themselves or others” or (2) if the student is deemed “unable to engage in activities required to pursue an education.” The proposed policy raises numerous concerns for disabled and mad students, and our allies.

First and foremost, the logic framing this policy seems to indicate that the University has been providing appropriate accommodations to students with mental health disabilities. The policy itself is represented as one of last resort for the University, and it claims that it would only be applicable in a small number of student cases where accommodations are not successful or feasible. However, as the 2015-2016 Report of the University of Toronto Ombudsperson clearly illustrates, appropriate accommodations are not being provided to students. In fact, the Report states that the Ontario Human Rights Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate have been unevenly and inconsistently followed across University departments. Some academic programs were found to refuse to implement all but the most minimal accommodations for students with mental health disabilities.

Although the number of students with mental health disabilities enrolling at UofT has been rising significantly, due in large part to the advocacy work done in the disability community, the University has not matched this rise in enrolment with an increase in Disability Counsellors, Counsellors, or traditional healers. This has meant longer wait times for intake appointments at Accessibility Services and for meetings with Disability Counsellors, and unacceptable waitlists to see Counsellors for support. Given this and the findings of the Ombudsperson, the University’s proposal to place students on a mandatory and non-consensual leave without having met its obligations with respect to the Duty to Accommodate is appalling.

Another glaring problem with the proposed policy is that, contrary to the findings of numerous studies, it perpetuates the stereotype that people with mental health disabilities are prone to violence and thereby pose a risk to their communities. This perception, and its irresponsible reproduction by the University administration through a policy that targets people with mental health disabilities as a known and identifiable group, is an act of discrimination. As history and current events have repeatedly shown, it is particularly people located at the intersections of marginalized identities—racialized, queer, and trans people with mental health disabilities—who bear the brunt of these unfounded stereotypes, institutionalized discrimination, and violence. Furthermore, research has shown that people with mental health disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and that gender and age are more reliable predictors of violent behaviour than mental health disabilities.

Equally troubling is the callous approach to students with mental health disabilities should they be in distress or experiencing crisis and at risk of harming themselves. How can the University, which purports to be a community that “embraces the broadest range of people, that helps them achieve their full potential” justify evicting members who are in need of urgent support and care, who need to be embraced by their chosen community? Rather than holding space for its community members that are in crisis, the proposed policy would enable the UofT administration to remove students from their classes, their colleagues, and their student community.

Other potential impacts of this mandated leave of absence include the removal of students from campus housing and the revocation of financial assistance through programs like OSAP and the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment for Persons with Permanent Disabilities (BSWD/CSG-PDSE), as maintaining one’s student status is a condition of access to student funding and housing. Graduate students who are often employed by the University could also lose their jobs and primary source of income if placed on a mandated leave of absence. Removing financial supports for students experiencing crisis will only exacerbate their distress and increase the barriers to access that they will be facing. For international students with mental health disabilities, the policy is especially concerning, as being placed on a mandated leave could put their study permit in jeopardy.

Returning to studies after being placed on a university-mandated leave presents its own indignities. In order to be able to return to their studies, students must apply to the Vice Provost Students in writing and are encouraged to provide documentation from a healthcare practitioner attesting that they are able to return “safely” to their studies. At the discretion of the Vice Provost Students, students may be subject to a psychiatric risk-assessment or behavioural assessment, and reacceptance is in no way guaranteed.

Given the enormity of the consequences of this policy on students with mental health disabilities, the Office of the Vice-President and Provost should be concerned that it will deter students from seeking the support and guidance they may need, leaving them increasingly more isolated. Faculty and staff wanting to refer students to mental health supports may hesitate to do so for fear of reprisal on the student.

On Friday November 10th, SBA released a letter in resistance to the University-Mandated Leave Policy. As of the time of writing this Op-Ed, over 400 students, staff, and faculty have signed on, and two of five University of Toronto student unions, APUS and UTGSU, have endorsed the petition. We collectively call on the Office of the Vice-President and Provost to immediately revoke the proposed policy, to do their due diligence by engaging in a broad and in-depth consultation with disabled students and the wider disability community, to increase the mental health supports available on campus, to hire additional counsellors and traditional healers, and to increase funding and staff at Accessibility Services. The University is obligated to meet its Duty to Accommodate, and we call on UofT to do so before instituting punitive and harmful policies.

 The original article has been published in The Strand and can be found here.

The SBA’s “Re: University-Mandated Leave Policy” letter can be accessed on The Strand’s Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as at the following link.

Read Our 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.

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:


view past issues of Action Speaks Louder at

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.