4. Ableism and the Canadian Academy: Interrogating the Culture and Systems of Exclusion

NDA 2022 - panelist images: Ableism and the Canadian Academy: Interrogating the Culture and Systems of Exclusion

The first session started by defining what ableism means and how it exists in various forms in Canadian post-secondary education. The panelists explored how ableism manifests in post-secondary institutions both historically and in the present, the social costs of ableism, and how students, faculty and staff experience ableism in the classroom and on campus. The panelists also discussed the difference between accessibility and accommodation and the need to expand access across the sector. 

Setting the Context: Definition and practice of ableism in Canadian higher education 

At its core, ableism is a system of oppression that privileges non-disabled people. It is discrimination against people with disabilities based on the idea that non-disabled bodies are superior. Ableism assumes that people with disabilities need to be “fixed” and defines people by their disability. It is a belief system, similar in respects to racism, sexism and ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, or of less inherent value than others. 

Ableism may be conscious or unconscious, and is embedded in the institutions, systems and the attitudes of society.

The panelists explored the idea of structural ableism. Structural ableism permeates an institution’s practices and procedures. It is present in an institution’s culture and attitudes that have been normalized over time. One characteristic of structural ableism is the notion that barriers are an individual issue that a student, faculty or staff member must overcome on their own, usually through an accommodation. In other words, the burden is on the person with a disability to “fit in” an institution. Disabled people are framed as a burden on the institution and their diverse needs are typically framed as individual medical challenges. Instead, institutions must change to remove exclusionary barriers and provide access as a core part of equity, diversity and inclusion work. Raising awareness might not be enough — it will require action to dismantle these systemic barriers built into our institutions. 

Post-secondary institutions, like most social institutions, have historically excluded disabled people through ableist policies, practices and infrastructure. Often policies that seek to improve inclusion don’t go far enough. For example, the framework of “accommodation” (as described in legal obligations to provide reasonable accommodation) still suggests that providing a barrier-free environment is a burden. As a result, ableism remains pervasive and normalized in post-secondary settings. 

One challenge is that ableism is baked into curricula. In many university programs, especially in health-related subjects, it is common to approach disability as something abnormal that must be fixed or eliminated rather than a normal part of human experience. Consider the experience of students with a disability who hear from their instructors that they need to be “fixed” or rehabilitated.

While it is important to recognize progress in addressing ableism, the reality is there continues to be significant barriers to access and inclusion in Canadian institutions of higher learning. As a result, our institutions risk losing these talented faculty and students, pushed out by ableism.  

Critique of accommodation and disclosure practices 

Panelists emphasized the importance of distinguishing between accommodation and universal design. Broadly speaking, accommodation is a reactive attempt to include those who make requests for support with appropriate documentation. In contrast, a universal design approach to accessibility seeks to design courses and physical spaces to provide an inclusive environment for all such that individual requests to remove barriers are minimized. 

For example, an accommodation might involve developing tests or assignments that have more flexible time requirements for students with visual or learning disabilities to take a test. Accessibility might involve developing course materials that do not rely on tests with time requirements. A universal design approach reduces ableism because it takes the burden off the student, faculty or staff member who finds the environment disabling. 

Accommodations have long been held up as a solution, but quite often they are an attempt to retrofit something that is not working in the first place. Accommodations can lead to misconceptions. For example, there is a false idea that student access needs are a form of extra help that offer an unfair advantage. In reality, many students end up not seeking accommodations they need because of stigma, administrative barriers and shame. 

Further complicating matters is that practices and policies differ across the post-secondary sector; an experience of accommodation at one school might be completely different at another.

One major barrier in receiving an accommodation is that students, faculty and staff are required to provide medical proof of their disability status. This kind of disclosure is an invasion of personal privacy. Acquiring the paperwork to demonstrate disability status can also be an onerous and time-consuming process. 

What if we allocated all of the energy we spend on adapting to an old educational regime based on timing and testing into building a new one in which disabled students don't always need to ask for accommodations but instead their needs are expected. One in which no disabled student or faculty member is treated like a surprise. – Jay Dolmage


For faculty, disclosing their status can be a discouraging experience. A panelist revealed that only 42 per cent of Canadian universities have an actual written disability accommodation policy for faculty. This can create a vacuum where departments and institutions are unprepared to adequately support their faculty members. 

Not having an adequate disability accommodation policy may be a contravention of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Institutions that do not have one should work with faculty, staff, grad student and student associations to get one in place. There are legal obligations institutions are required to meet and senior leaders need to be aware of this. 

Often faculty and staff need to disclose to their department chair or supervisor, and accommodations often come out of department or unit budgets. Some faculty may fear that accommodations may be perceived as “costing the department money” or could influence attitudes about promotion and performance. As a result, faculty may not feel safe to disclose a disability. Panelists expressed concern that without appropriate policies in place to support them, faculty members with a disability are being forced out of academia. The panelists also pointed out that those with lived experience of disability must be retained because they are a valuable component of diversity in our colleges and universities.  


Students encounter institutional ableism from their first day on campus. Their first interaction with an instructor often entails disclosing their disability status because they need to seek an in-class accommodation. Students are forced to do this task repeatedly, and because there remains a stigma associated with disability, it is unreasonable to expect students to keep doing this because it is an onerous process and they may be made to feel like a burden. Some students feel like going to a health or accessibility services office dehumanizes them by medicalizing their disability. The result is that students will not seek an accommodation. 

Research shows that 24 per cent of Canadian university students self-declare as having a disability, but only six to nine per cent seek an accommodation. This means that far fewer students who could benefit from an accommodation are actually seeking one. The result is that fewer students with disabilities are finishing their degrees. While 27 per cent of Canadians have university degrees, only 17.6 per cent of Canadians with disabilities have one. To address this disparity, the post-secondary sector needs to do more to prevent students with disabilities from leaving school before finishing their education.

Students with disabilities who come to university or college do so with a history of disenfranchisement. Accommodations should not be approached as a “workload” problem for staff. The panelists agreed that students should not have to constantly show documentation or request accommodations for accessibility. There are also inequities built into accessing accommodations because assessments can cost time and money. The idea of “anticipatory duty,” which requires an institution to consider various accessibility requirements in advance so courses can be fully inclusive, was raised as a potential solution. Overwork may also be contributing to access fatigue since accessibility is left to individual faculty and students rather than being a system-wide consideration.  

Graduate students

Graduate students are in a unique situation because they take courses and work as teaching assistants or instructors. They must navigate two separate institutional systems — accessibility services for students and human resources for academic staff. This doubles the burden of requesting an accommodation. Campuses should streamline policies to allow these two institutional offices to communicate directly regarding graduate student accommodations. 

Graduate students with disabilities also benefit from mentoring and peer support to help navigate institutional systems and stigma, because they may fear disclosing accessibility needs to faculty who are both their instructors and their supervisors. 

Not all graduate students are able to pursue full-time study, as a disability can impact work capacity and pace, yet most graduate programs only fund full-time students. Administrators can improve opportunities for disabled scholars by creating options for funding of part-time study for graduate students with disabilities. 

Graduate students with a disability should not be treated as a surprise when they arrive in labs or departments. Labs and departments must be prepared to support accessibility needs for incoming graduate students. Departments can prepare by doing an accessibility audit to ensure they are ready to support students of all abilities. For example, labs and classrooms should be made wheelchair accessible, handwashing stations or lecterns should be made accessible from a seated position and departmental events should have closed captioning. Faculty and staff may need software in place for incoming students and may need to be trained to use it. Institutions must also have clear policies in place so departments can request one-time funds to improve accessibility or provide access for public events. 

Lastly, when it comes to creating policies and naming student support offices, the panelists said that university and college administration should not shy away from the term disability

Disability is often replaced by euphemisms such as “special needs,” “lived experience of health-seeking” or “body diversity.” This can be positive since not all students are comfortable assuming a specific identity, but when disability is not articulated clearly, students with a disability can disappear. “People with disabilities” and “disabled people” are both widely accepted terms today.



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