Examining the stigma surrounding student disabilites


Whether it’s passing a girl and her seeing-eye dog or a man in his wheelchair, we are all conscious of visible disabilities on campus. Yet for most of us, this is the extent of our awareness.

It seems that Laurier’s campus houses an entire stratum of people who are often left ignored or stigmatized due to their physical or mental ailments.

To expose Laurier’s supportive accessibility, The Cord spoke with a disabled student registered with the Accessible Learning Centre (ALC), as well as manager of the centre Gwen Page.

The ALC, which falls under the umbrella of Learning Services, has been active for over 20 years.

Their mandate commits to assisting students with disabilities to help reach their full academic potential. Currently, the ALC assists 721 undergrad and graduate students.

“It’s a common misconception that Accessible Learning only helps those with visible or physical disabilities,” said Page. “When really, the majority of the students we assist have learning disabilities or mental illnesses.”

As non-visible disabilities are less noticeable, we can understand why these students are often unknown, and why they choose to remain that way.

According to the ALC 2008-09 client data, 81 of the 721 students suffer from attention deficiency, 148 from mental illnesses and 340 from learning disabilities.

To illustrate the severity of the stigma still surrounding learning disabilities, I talked with a student who requested to be unidentified.

“I remain anonymous due to the stigma which is attached to having a learning disability. I have everything working against me as an African-American woman with a disability; people have a tendency to judge those deemed deficit.”

The student was diagnosed with dyslexia after losing most of her short and long term memory after a serious car accident.

Some of the assistance she receives from the ALC is a special computer program which helps her read up to 300 words per minute.

The student, who is set to graduate in April from the Seminary, will go on to become a marriage and family therapist.

Though it’s been a difficult struggle, she said the ALC was instrumental in getting where she is today.

Each student registered with the ALC works closely with a career counsellor where they discuss career possibilities, set goals and gain support for possible issues they may face when entering the workforce.

The Ontario Human Rights Code and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005 lays the foundation for equal access for persons with disabilities and outlines the accommodation process of the ALC.

This process is an individualized practice which each student must participate in to receive the benefits of the centre. The student is matched with a disability consultant where the planning begins. Some of the unique needs the student may require are extra time writing exams, writing in private rooms and the use of special technologies or computers.

“It’s a myth that students in ALC do not adhere to the same code of conduct as other students or that they are not expected to meet the same academic requirements,” explains Page.

“All the accommodations we make assist the student in giving them the same opportunities to succeed; we ensure the same academic integrity.”

“Students who graduate with the help of ALC are just as successful as any other Laurier student,” said Page. “Many students go on to graduate or medical school and even teacher’s college.”

However, the centre doesn’t always have time to dispel the stigma and misconceptions, as their 14 staff members work ardently to ensure the smooth sailing of the complex day-to-day functioning of its students.

For instance, a blind student will require all course material to be received from the professor, then publishers and finally transcribed into Braille. Preparation of this magnitude requires working semesters in advance.

Page acknowledged that one of the centre’s future goals is the need to educate other students and staff about the nature of visible and non-visible disabilities. “It’s a challenge to face the stigma of disabilities,” she said. “Education goes hand in hand with success and acceptance.”