Now Wait For Last Year: Disabled Students And The Future Of Education

One year on from the COVID-19 accessibility crisis, disabled students reflect on uniformity and where we fit in the future of education

Sarah Rose // Features Editor
Emma Sato // Illustration

The first time I dropped out of school was at the end of eighth grade—the same grade my dad did. My undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) earned me a different label: failure. Still too young to legally drop out and too old to be taken pity on as a kid falling through the cracks, the system leaves disabled students like me in a state of aequilibrium indifferentiae—the exact balance between two actions. The only choice we have left is to escape.

In March 2020, everything stopped. Like waking up inside the eye of a hurricane, the new era of COVID-19 heralded, for the first time, a complete disruption of education globally. Accessibility considerations suddenly became a Hail Mary. Things like virtual access to classes, lecture recordings and online quizzes became automatic.

“We’ve been asking for these changes for decades, then suddenly it just happened overnight”

“We’ve been asking for these changes for decades, then suddenly it just happened overnight,” explained June Reisner, the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU) Accessibility Justice Coordinator. After COVID, accessibility features that disabled students like Reisner had been asking about for decades suddenly became the default, like recorded lectures and moving all quizzes online (online quizzes don’t need to be scheduled with accessibility services and can more easily allow students to use any accessibility software they need). “It really illustrates how society values different lives,” she added.

For better or worse, the online switch seemed to disproportionately affect disabled students. Emerging research warns that the aftershocks of the pandemic will manifest as a serious mental health crisis. As the year wore on, Reisner describes how her mental health began to sink. “Online classes led to more isolation, not that disabled students had that much support from faculty [to begin with],” Reisner said, explaining how having accommodations for exams can only help so much when things like pop quizzes were never designed to be accessible to begin with. Whether the idea of returning to normal in the fall will be a return to shutting disabled and marginalized students out of education or a once in a lifetime chance to make fundamental change remains the question of who is willing to listen. 

Attempting to recreate the classroom experience virtually exposed how exclusionary it already is to marginalized students. In the process of streamlining some accessibility needs, remote learning has been accompanied by a sharp increase in patients seeking diagnoses and support for developmental disabilities like autism and ADHD. One American autistic and ADHD second-grader smashed his computer screen in frustration; another ADHD sixth-grader was sent to prison for missing class. 

Students with developmental disabilities like ADHD are more likely to come from low-income families. Breaking the cycle of generational poverty among disabled students means ripping it out at the root well beyond the walls of the classroom. Disability assistance maintains structural violence and mandatory poverty, and now Bill C-7 prioritizes ending disabled lives instead of supporting them. Educational institutions, in all their meritocratic theatre, don’t offer equal opportunity so much as they snowball existing disadvantage and oppression.

Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador are the last provinces still clinging to secondary school diploma exams. Last year, Alberta Education made sitting the 2021 provincial diploma exams optional and cancelled all provincial achievement tests—something they’ve only done a handful of times in the past. Only six percent of students chose to write the exams. Whether or not these major exams have ever been accessible to begin with isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for the students who took the opportunity to abandon them. Grade 12 student Juana Arturo offered no obfuscation of why she opted out of sitting the exams: “I think standardized testing in general, it doesn’t test your intelligence. It tests your wealth,” said Arturo in an interview with CBC.

Exams like provincial diploma exams are often described as a critical moment that determines students’ futures, yet they don’t measure competence as much as they do privilege. In every test section of the college entrance SAT exams in the United States, moving up an income category is associated with an average increase of 12 points. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada’s educational system is more effective than most other countries in compensating for income inequalities. However, a 2010 study from the Toronto School District showed that nearly 60 percent of “gifted students” came from the three highest income deciles, with a full quarter from the highest income group alone.

Students like Reisner and myself carry an immense weight that hangs over the achievements we’ve clawed from the jaws of educational privilege.

Historically, the difference between growing up with a gifted designation instead of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) comes down to postal codes. Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, says growing up gifted doesn’t happen by accident. “[Gifted students] end up there because their parents have the resources, [and] have been mobilizing these resources to craft a certain kind of childhood from the moment these kids are born,” he said in an interview with The Walrus.

So the question remains why, despite being a relatively small population, gifted students are approximately three times more likely to drop out of school, at the same rate as students with learning disabilities—and between both groups, the most cited reasons for dropping out are disengagement and failure. The emotional undercurrent between these two groups of students is the fact that so many of them see school as alienating and irrelevant to their future.

Like myself and so many other disabled students, Reisner shared that she also dropped out of high school in her senior year due to her disability.

As the virtual curtain call looms for the past year of online classes, Reisner reflects on her journey from disabled drop-out to soon-to-be graduate with a psychology degree: “I still haven’t graduated high school.” Unlike other young graduates, university wasn’t something Reisner assumed would be in her future, even now as she discusses possible plans for a master’s degree in clinical psychology. “Some universities don’t care about that, but places like [The University of British Columbia] do,” said Reisner.

Students like Reisner and myself carry an immense weight that hangs over the achievements we’ve clawed from the jaws of educational privilege. My future success was the furthest thing from my mind after I graduated high school in 2012 and fielded a rejection call from the Mount Royal University Journalism program. The admissions officer informed me that my English grade was one percent below the admission threshold. I was also six senior credits short after dropping Physical Education 12 because a mere seven months prior, my jaw was being reconstructed in a high-risk surgery in Florida. I tried to compensate for my lack of credits by attending two high schools simultaneously while barely having the ability to physically speak. At that moment, I don’t remember saying anything before listening to the line go dead. Eventually, I pocketed my phone, still wet with tears.

“Going through school, so much of your worth—basically all of your worth—is equated to your achievements”

Armed with 12 years of overdue federal child support payments while living on the floor of a friend’s basement, I dove into upgrading my high school courses immediately after graduation. Reisner also started attending CapU as a continuing education student, taking several upgrading classes before applying to the Psychology program. Despite completing my upgrading courses with exceptional grades, it still wasn’t enough to qualify for admission to Mount Royal University. Disabled bodies naturally exist in rebellion. No matter how hard I kept fighting, I couldn’t compensate enough for 12 years of being pushed out of education, of being constantly forced into the margins.

“Going through school, so much of your worth—basically all of your worth—is equated to your achievements,” said Reisner. “You’re going to get into this university; you’re going to get this award; you’re going to get on the honour roll—it’s just false. There’s so much more, and now that I’m out, I can really see that in a way that I couldn’t see when I was a teenager because they wouldn’t let you see it that way.” Her voice is always even, but presence and conviction bleed through. “It was such a harmful thing, especially as someone who is diverse, because you’re just not going to necessarily perform in those ways.”

Kids become the expectations set for them. “If your achievements are this very narrow range of expectations, it just causes kids to lose all value in themselves,” said Reisner. Gifted, like troubled, is just another uniform, a self-fulfilling prophecy. All those years of report cards that mourn “wasted potential” eventually become statistics about future criminals, about generational poverty—about disability. When I left my upgrading classes almost seven years ago, I told myself I would never go back to academia. That was the third time I dropped out, until my therapist at the time convinced me to try penning an essay that eventually became my letter of admission to the Creative Writing program at Capilano University (CapU). 

Whether we fight within the system or outside of it, education maintains a chokehold on our futures. Canadians are among the most educated people in the world and according to Statistics Canada, over half of the population between 25 to 64 has post-secondary qualifications. Twenty-seven percent have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to only 14 percent of disabled Canadians. Yet, the dropout rate among some of the lowest income postal codes is well over 50 percent—that isn’t an accident; it’s by design.

After combing through almost a decade of data, three researchers in Ontario determined that being gifted makes no discernable difference in overall achievement by the end of high school. Women of colour are the most likely demographic to have postsecondary education, while their white male counterparts are the least likely, despite dominating gifted classrooms. As the uniform lacks evidence for improved performance, so does the data suggesting student segregation by perceived ability alone affects performance.

Less than a decade after disabled Canadians fought for their right to be included in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 11-year-old Emily Eaton won a three year fight with the Courts for her right to share a classroom with her peers. It was the first time the Canadian justice system acknowledged that forced segregation by ability invariably results in discrimination.

Focusing on diversity and celebrating it, instead of pushing it out as much as possible, means better outcomes for all students.

CapU has a long history of being regarded as a commuter school—the in-between for dropouts, upgrades, and a place to get easy A’s to transfer into a real ‘brand-name’ institution. The kind of prestige following these Canadian Ivy Leagues mirrors the pathos of the gifted child, and that’s precisely what parents and students buy into. A researcher at Stanford demonstrated that prestige did not affect educational outcomes. The most significant experiences impacting graduate fulfillment, according to the researcher, are professors who make learning exciting and demonstrate care for their students, mentorship and encouragement to follow through on personal goals, meaningful projects that span multiple semesters, and extracurricular activities.

I’ll never forget the Philosophy professor who told me critical thinking could change the world and let me discover I could excel at logic problems despite my learning disabilities. Having the representation of a disabled English professor with a highly acclaimed career mattered to me immeasurably, and the Communications professor who opened the doors of his class to me even though I was missing the prerequisites is the reason I can work today. Reisner shares this sentiment: “Community support is so validating [when education] is constantly invalidating you.”

I also can’t forget the professor who demanded I go to a clinic to get a sick note with the flu to reschedule an exam and wouldn’t let me use the washroom during an exam. Or the professor who told me I was too competent and intelligent to have ADHD after disclosing my diagnosis. When you’re disabled, opportunity and achievement will always be shadowed by ableism built into your success.

As public-school enrolment continues to decline, the free-market education model has, as per its capitalistic dogma, punctuated great opportunities with great oppression. The next year is fertile ground for hundreds of potential thinkpieces and studies into the ‘lost COVID generation’ of students—they’ve already begun to trickle in. The kinds of losses being measured—and for whom—will undoubtedly be standardized test scores, attendance and drop-out rates. The solution is not more segregation and hierarchies. Relying on historical repetition during this time of academic upheaval will undoubtedly result in the struggle for accessibility being relegated to the footnotes, and it’s happening right now.

In November, Manitoba introduced the Education Act (Bill 64) heralding the biggest overhaul to the structure of the province’s entire education system in 60 years. “COVID forced us to recognize our system’s huge disparities,” said Education Minister Cliff Cullen in a news conference. Bill 64 will further centralize Manitoba’s education system, slashing 37 school boards into one central body, similar to what New Orleans did in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. In some areas within the province, over 60 percent of children live in poverty. Perhaps it’s hardly coincidental that Manitoba’s students also rank the lowest in math and second lowest in reading. Further centralization will create more standardized testing and less representation for the most vulnerable students, allowing those who are already marginalized to get pushed further into the background.

The educational body needs to address how rigid uniformity always leads to discrimination, but also that exceptions have always been the rule because they benefit everyone.

Change has to happen on an institutional level. When we build systems that perpetuate homogeny and hierarchies, they must be dismantled from the inside out before making an honest attempt at equity. For Reisner, centering accessibility now more than ever as rapid change sweeps education is critical if we’re serious about dismantling the prejudice that has been there since its inception. “[Accessibility] shouldn’t be a bonus thing, it’s just equity.” Focusing on diversity and celebrating it, instead of pushing it out as much as possible, means better outcomes for all students.

“In real life, you encounter diversity every day,” said Reisner. “Even if you’re not someone who has a disability, you’re going to encounter someone that does, and you’re going to have to know how to work with them and have to value them as a person.” At CapU, five percent of respondents in a campus-wide experience survey conducted by the CSU identified as having a disability, despite 11 percent reporting that they’ve experienced inaccessibility on campus. At face value, it suggests the possibility of an invisible population of disabled students who aren’t disclosing their disabilities. It also brings into question how deep inaccessibility at CapU is embedded into the experience of other marginalized students, especially Black, Indigenous and low-income students.

One study suggested that of 100,000 disabled students enrolled in postsecondary education, only a quarter of them were registered to receive disability-related services. Some students know the accessibility services available on campus can’t adequately address their needs, but the act of disclosure itself is a personal choice that often hinges on our acceptance of ourselves and our disabilities. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the academic landscape isn’t designed to facilitate equitable opportunities for disabled bodies.

There has never been a valid incentive not to provide accommodations for all students regardless of whether they have a documented disability or not. Yet professors still deny requests for accommodations under the imaginary banner of “fairness” or make students feel ashamed for asking. The educational body needs to address how rigid uniformity always leads to discrimination, but also that exceptions have always been the rule because they benefit everyone. Everyone is entitled to accommodations, because every life is challenging in different ways. As Jay Dolemage writes in Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, it’s not possible to imagine a future of academia without first acknowledging the idea of disability: “Instead, educators have to recognize these very foundations and future as being built upon ableism, and as—literally—being built upon the bodies of disabled people.”

Before Reisner was elected, the position of Accessibility Justice Coordinator was vacant from June until the fall. “With the transition [of students] going back to [physical] class, this is a critical time to advocate with teachers unions,” she expressed. But as the year concludes and Reisner prepares to move on, unless someone runs in the fall, the position will sit vacant once again. The progress for accessibility at CapU, and education as a whole, hangs in the balance as precariously as ever.

Reisner tilts her head, for a moment the garish glow of the late morning sun fills her bedroom from the window of our Zoom call. “To a certain extent, you have to force yourself through the system that exists [just to] get to a place where you can question it and change it, and people will actually take you seriously.”

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