The Student’s Union is working with the Canadian Alliance of Student’s Associations to demand the federal government increase grants for students with permanent disabilities by 50 per cent, an additional $43 million per year.
Approximately 1,200 students at the University of Alberta have a formally documented permanent disability. The Canadian student grants program gives these students a maximum of $2,000 per academic year to offset the costs of purchasing necessary equipment or assistance through the university’s Student Accessibility Services.
“There’s a real underrepresentation of students with disabilities in higher education,” said SU president Marina Banister. “Students with disabilities are much more likely to leave their studies prior to graduation or take longer to graduate because there just isn’t enough financial support for them.”
Wendy Doughty, the assistant dean of student services, said any residual costs students are unable to pay out of pocket are currently covered through the U of A’s institutional budget, which places a financial strain on the university. Despite an increase in the number of students registering for disability services, federal grants for students with disabilities have not seen an increase since their conception in 2009.
The grant’s eligibility requirements also disadvantage students with mental health issues, Banister said. Only students with permanent disabilities qualify for the federal grant, but medical professionals are often hesitant to label young adults with mental health concerns as having a permanent lifelong disability.
“Most people think of disabilities as something that’s visibly wrong, but the vast majority of students have disabilities that are invisible, that you can’t obviously tell by just looking,” Doughty said. “ Across the province, the fastest growing group of disabilities are mental ones. So, you think in 1980, we served maybe 30 students, but now we serve a lot more.”
Banister hopes the federal government will review the program’s eligibility requirements to include a broader range of disabilities including temporary physical and mental ailments such as concussions and seasonal affective disorders.
“I have lots of faith that (these changes) will come to fruition,” Banister said. “The Canadian Alliance of Student’s Associations has had a very good track record of having our advocacy points adopted, it’s a substantial organization representing over 250,000 students so we have a lot of weight behind us.”
Student Accessibility Services Complaints
In addition to improving federal aid for students with disabilities, Banister said the SU will also be engaging in conversations with Student Accessibility Services to address a string of ongoing student complaints. Banister said many students with reading or writing disabilities have had a difficult time completing the paperwork needed to obtain services.
During the SAS’s recent move into the Student Success Centre, Doughty said the team has been working extensively on streamlining the application process, but the large number of students requiring support means it’s impossible for staff to go through applications with each student individually, and instead, much of the process must be done online.
“We know that whenever we provide services there’s always going to be someone who isn’t happy with what they’re getting,” Doughty said. “But if those complaints can be brought forward and articulated, we can try to address these concerns on a case by case basis.”
As for the SU, Banister said it will be continuing to meet with the Dean of Students to discuss methods to improve the timeliness and ease of access to services for students with disabilities.
“We want to have as few barriers as possible for students to obtain the services they need,” Banister said. “Students are only here for (several years) and we need changes to happen (at) a more rapid pace.”