“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: firstname.lastname@example.org).
view past issues of Action Speaks Louder at https://issuu.com/opirgtoronto/stacks/2d18021b16254c18bcae9e682aa2cc81