By Neale McDevitt
A recent report by the federation collégiale québécoise on services for students with disabilities within CEGEPs revealed some significant numbers, including a sudden explosion in the volume of post-secondary students requiring services for disabilities, particularly learning disabilities (LDs) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The report also found that only one in 10 students with disabilities comes forward for services, suggesting that the numbers, while on the increase, represent only the tip of the iceberg. The McGill Reporter recently sat down with Frédéric Fovet, incoming Director of the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), to talk about the services offered by his office and how the OSD plans to support what could be a significant spike in clientele in the coming years.
What is the OSD’s mandate?
We provide acclimatization services for people with disabilities. We offer support and advising – even if you don’t want to disclose your situation to your professors, we can help you adjust to the requirements of university life.
How has the OSD’s clientele changed in recent years?
In the past, this office dealt primarily with students with visual or mobility impairment. But that has changed dramatically over the years. Last year we worked with 840 students but no more than 70 had visual or mobility impairment. The vast majority of students who come to our office now have LDs, ADHD or some mental health issues.
How does that affect the OSD’s operations?
For 20 years it was largely a question of access to buildings and access to classrooms. Now it becomes a question of changing the format of delivery in the class and in evaluation so that this wide spectrum of students can be accommodated within an inclusive model.
This requires a lot of coordination and collaboration with faculty because they need to understand that this is a very different population now. It is no longer a question of sending these students to our office to take an exam because they are in a wheelchair. Now it requires professors to adapt the format within the classroom – and that’s where we come in. We meet with faculty members and show them the different strategies they can employ to answer the needs of students with disabilities.
Can you give us some examples?
You have to take it down to the basics. For example, if you put your power point on your website or on WebCT, you’re already catering to the ADHD students and the people with visual impairment. Or you can use captioning for people with hearing impairment. These tools will only widen access to your course material. The use of clickers in the classroom, allowing lectures to be recorded – the tools are endless.
What has the response of professors been?
Some are taking giant steps in this regard but others less so. Mostly I think it’s because they don’t fully understand the tools they have at their disposal or even the changing face of the disabled student. We still get people saying “I don’t see anyone with disabilities in my class.” But the majority of these students have disabilities that are invisible.
Is it challenging to change the way people think?
It will be a slow process, I think. [Laughing] It won’t happen overnight but I have a lot of energy.
The important thing is there is always a lot of goodwill. If there are obstacles or hurdles it’s because of people not wanting to accommodate. Often it is just because these students usually never made it to McGill before, or to any university, and it will take time for professors to realize that this population exists. For example, many people think that students with autism or Asperger’s syndrome would never make it to McGill, but we already have half a dozen students here with that diagnosis – and that number could triple by next fall because we already know from some CEGEPs that these students are applying. That makes it hugely important for us to provide a continuum of support services for these students.
Is this going to change the dynamics of classes?
Most high school students have dealt with inclusive mainstream programs where four or five students out of their class of 30 have special needs. But it isn’t an experience that many faculty members have had. Our job is to ease the way and grease the wheels as change happens.
Are the numbers of disabled students on the increase?
We worked with 560 students in 2009, 840 last year and this year we are well on our way to 1,000. We can already see an increase in first-year CEGEP students dealing with these issues so we know that in three or four years a number of them will be here. The key for us is to make sure they know the OSD is here so they can come to see us early on. Many don’t.
Why is that?
A lot of students with these disabilities have received great services throughout high school and CEGEP and they believe they are able to self-manage once they get here. But they take it for granted that people will understand their disabilities and that they will receive the same level of support that they have been used to.
It becomes a clash of cultures where these students come from high schools and CEGEPS where they are fully supported to an environment where people don’t have the same awareness.
So does the OSD deal primarily with crisis management?
People shouldn’t wait for a crisis to come and see us. The ideal scenario is when first-year students register with us right away. We have staff with psychological and social work backgrounds that are here to meet students as an advisor would. We encourage them to come in monthly or every two weeks. The ones who do are the ones who thrive because we help them handle the difficulty and the stress management as they go through each course and each semester.
Can the stress of being a McGill student exacerbate their conditions?
Yes it is stressful – expectations are different, ways of functioning are different, but it’s not particular to McGill. Any transition for a student with special needs is difficult, be it from high school to CEGEP or from CEGEP to university. That will be one of my focuses – to help ease that transition.
For more information go to www.mcgill.ca/osd