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Removing Financial Accessibility Barriers for Graduate Students with Disabilities

Currently, there are no AODA education standards. However, two AODA standards development committees have drafted recommendations of guidelines that AODA education standards should include. One committee has recommended guidelines for the kindergarten to grade twelve (K-12) education system. In contrast, the other committee has recommended guidelines for the university and college education system. In this article, we outline the Postsecondary Committee’s recommendations for removing financial accessibility barriers for graduate students with disabilities.

The committee’s mandate from the Ontario government requires recommendations focused on publicly-funded colleges and universities. However, students and educators with disabilities also face barriers in other education settings, including:

  • Privately-funded colleges and universities
  • Transitional job training programs

Therefore, all these settings should comply with the forthcoming postsecondary education standards.

Removing Financial Accessibility Barriers for Graduate Students with Disabilities

The Committee recommends that the government should undertake a review to identify financial barriers that graduate students face. This review should determine how the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) interacts with sources of financial support available to graduate students, including:

  • The Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP)
  • Teaching assistant-ships
  • Research assistant-ships
  • Other graduate assistant-ships
  • Scholarships

For example, the government should note how sources of financial aid may limit eligibility for ODSP funding.

Similarly, colleges and universities should review their funding packages for graduate students to remove financial barriers. For instance, policies should not list disability as a factor that excludes students from teaching assistant-ships. Moreover, the government, colleges, and universities should create and implement plans to mitigate the barriers they identify during their reviews.

In addition, the government should work with colleges and universities to develop policies providing adequate financial support to graduate students with disabilities. For instance, policies within colleges, universities, and financial aid systems should recognize the different needs of students with disabilities enrolled in:

  • Master’s programs
  • PhD programs

Furthermore, financial aid policies should allow graduate students to take leaves of absence related to disability, if needed.

College and University Funding Packages

Similarly, colleges and universities should review the funding packages they offer to graduate students. These packages should also consider disability-related absences. Likewise, colleges and universities should review their tuition policies for accessibility barriers. For example, students may be eligible for lower tuition if their course loads are less than full-time, for accessibility reasons. However, like part-time undergraduate students with disabilities, graduate students with disabilities with partial course loads should still have the status of full-time students. Full-time status ensures that these students remain eligible for awards, bursaries, and working opportunities, such as teaching or research assistant-ships.

Colleges and universities should collect data on how these reviews and policy changes impact students’ experience on campus, and their retention rates.

Funding Frameworks for Accommodation

The Committee also recommends that colleges and universities develop frameworks for graduate students to access funding for accommodations. For example, graduate students may use accommodations when travelling to conferences, such as:

  • Attendant services
  • Sign Language interpreters

Therefore, colleges and universities should take these accommodation costs into account in financial-aid assessments for students with disabilities. Furthermore, conference organizers should also be prepared to implement students’ accommodations. However, in cases where conference organizers cannot provide this support, colleges and universities should also establish funds for conference accommodations.

In addition, the provincial and federal governments should review all policies for government-funded graduate scholarships. Full-time and part-time students with disabilities should all be eligible for these scholarships. Similarly, students who limit research loads or extend their time to degree completion should also be eligible. Moreover, the application processes, including collection of demographic data, should be accessible for students with disabilities. For example, applicants should be able to use assistive technology, such as screen readers or screen magnification. Policies governing these scholarships should also address funding for accommodations, as well as needed leaves of absence due to disability.

Finally, colleges and universities should extend funding and financial aid to students with disabilities who need to extend their time to degree completion.