The Toronto Star , Jan. 13, 201613)
Navi Dhanota knew she needed some help to score top grades in university, but this time she wasn’t prepared to return to a psychiatrist’s chair to get it. She didn’t think any student should have to disclose their private mental-health diagnosis for the privilege of academic accommodations such as getting extra time to hand in an assignment or test.
So when York University demanded she name a specific mental-health disability to register for academic supports, Dhanota put her foot down. She had been through a similar system during undergrad at another school; there, she was diagnosed with six conditions just so she could write her exams in a smaller room instead of the gym, where the sounds of hundreds of people furiously writing created an enormous distraction.
This time around, she decided to push for systemic change, filing a human rights complaint against York.
After a two-year battle that ended with intervention from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the two sides announced a settlement last week.
Dhanota worked with ARCH Disability Law Centre, the university and the commission to rewrite the university’s guidelines for accessing academic accommodations.
Effective immediately, Dhanota and hundreds of other students seeking supports at York won’t have to label their illness to get help.
The school still requires an assessment from a licensed doctor to confirm the student has a legitimate condition that may require faculty flexibility or other supports, but the focus is now on determining how the disability affects their learning. For example, some students may need to take tests at a particular time of day because medication makes them drowsy.
“From the very beginning, I knew I wanted all students to have this,” said Dhanota, who is pursuing a PhD in critical disability studies.
“Students across Canada should not have to disclose.”
Dhanota is part of what researchers are calling a “tidal wave” of students seeking academic accommodations for mental-health issues.
Without adequate help, researchers have shown members of this group are less likely to graduate than those in other disability classifications.
The number of students with mental-health disabilities registered at Ontario colleges and universities increased by nearly 70 per cent between 2006 and 2011, according to a review paper of academic accommodations published last year in the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability.
Dhanota and her lawyer Dianne Wintermute used the commission’s own policy to argue that having to accept a psychiatric label to access goods and services was not appropriate. “Having a medical professional confirm disability or taking the word of the person themselves that they have a disability should be sufficient,” Wintermute said.
Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane said her office will reach out to post-secondary institutions across the province in the hopes the York settlement will persuade them to “bring their policies in line. “The commission has enough power and influence that I think it will be taken seriously.”
Mandhane sees the settlement as a clear victory. “I definitely think it’s a win for students,” she said.
“And it’s just one more step to destigmatizing coming forward to get help for mental-health issues.”
Among the new guidelines is the introduction of interim accommodation for students who are waiting to be assessed by a doctor or specialist. They can be registered for temporary accommodations.
Marc Wilchesky, executive director of counselling and disability services at York, said he’s worried about how the settlement will impact his department’s ability to help students.
“If we don’t get the diagnosis, if students choose not to provide it, in some cases it may make it a little more difficult to come up with the appropriate accommodation,” he said. He’s worked at York since 1985 and seen the population of students with registered mental-health issues grow from a handful in the early 1990s to almost 1,200 last year.
“We were never about trying to put up barriers to students or trying to snoop into their personal information. But we really felt having the information would be helpful to us and the students.”