The learning curve

Queen’s strives to improve its accommodations for students with learning disabilities

Approximately 200 Queen’s students receive accommodations for a learning disability each year.
Approximately 200 Queen’s students receive accommodations for a learning disability each year.

Thinking outside the box can be a challenge, but for those with learning disabilities, it’s the only option.

Approximately 200 students receive accommodations for learning disabilities at Queen’s each year, and 40 per cent of those registered at Disability Services have been diagnosed with one. Yet it may not be easy for everyone on campus with learning struggles to get registered.

According to the guidelines provided by Health Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS), in order to access academic accommodations, a student must hand in an assessment written by a psychologist or a physician. The assessment must diagnose them with a learning disability and note that the student’s learning ability is impaired by their symptoms.

Concrete evidence of a learning disability must be provided, and vague language such as “slow reading speed” is insufficient.

As a part of the process, students with learning disabilities must also be assessed by Disability Services.

According to Mike Condra, the director of HCDS, the most common disabilities on campus include those struggling with reading and writing.

He added that Queen’s has recently increased its efforts to accommodate those studying with learning disabilities, although he says the University has been accommodating for many years.

“From the late 1980s, when students with disabilities were first being identified and being provided with accommodations on campus, Queen's has had a learning disabilities specialist,” he said.

That position, he said, still exists and is located in Mackintosh-Corry Hall.

Distinct from intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities vary in their severity, affecting skills such as listening, speaking, understanding, decoding, comprehension, spelling, writing, computation and problem solving.

According to Statistics Canada, over half a million Canadian adults live with a learning disability.

For university students living with learning disabilities, academic accommodations are often the difference between thriving and seeing a grade slip.

“I didn’t get accommodations until right before exams in second year, when I fought for my accommodations,” Sari Gutman, ArtSci ’14, said.

Gutman lives with a learning disability that affects her working memory, in addition to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Although the inefficiencies in her memory derail her learning abilities, the impairment to her short-term working memory has no specific title. The vagueness of her learning disability diagnosis has prevented her from receiving the accommodations she desires.

“I’ve been continually fighting to get better accommodations,” Gutman said. “I find the accommodations that I’m getting compared to what other students … are not where I feel they could be. Any accommodations I did get were not based on my learning disability. They were based on my ADHD.”

Gutman, a fourth-year history major, plans to have her learning abilities reassessed upon entering graduate school, and hopes it will allow her greater accommodation.

“I was coming in thinking I was going to get time and a half for exams, whereas I only get 10 minutes to the hour, which is not a great accommodation,” she said.

While she’s allowed to write her examinations in private rooms because of her ADHD, Gutman believes there are more steps that could be taken to help her with her learning disability. Furthermore, Gutman laments the quality of the note-sharing system at Queen’s.

“Our note-taking system is horrible,” Gutman said. “At McGill, they pay note-takers, so even if you’re getting bad notes, you’re still getting notes, whereas the students at Queen’s don’t want to share their notes, so getting a note-taker is a harder process, and then there’s getting a note-taker that’s good.”

Gutman also said she believes there’s stigma about learning disabilities at Queen’s.

“Even the University itself doesn’t understand the learning disabilities that are unnameable,” she said. “You’ve got this learning disability that’s very particular, and yet people don’t give learning disabilities the same credit as a physical disability, or a mental health disability.”

While assessment for learning disabilities is available to students, individual initiative is sometimes required to receive the necessary accommodations.

According to Marty Kerling, ArtSci ’15, receiving technological accommodations for his learning disability was a relatively seamless process, after he applied through HCDS in his first year at Queen’s. He didn’t wait long for an appointment and soon after, he was approved for a number of accommodations.

“I got access to the computer lab in Stauffer. I also get free access to software that usually costs thousands of dollars,” he said.

It soon became clear, however, that benefitting from these resources required initiative.

“[HCDS] kind of said, here’s your tools, you can use the lab if you want, contact us if you need extra help, but otherwise it’s up to you from now on,” Kerling said.

According to Diane Wagner, a policy developer and educator with the Learning Disability Association of Ontario, many universities are deficient in their staff resources, when it comes to assisting students with learning disabilities. She didn’t specify whether this was the case for Queen’s.

“Currently at many universities, there is a shortage of counsellors, which forces them to prioritize those students who present the most serious symptoms,” she said.

This makes it difficult for some students to receive the accommodations they need.

Beyond the presence of traditional, in-person counselling, the University is expanding its resources with efficient online innovations.

Queen’s is currently striving to educate its faculty on how course design and exams affect students with learning disabilities.

With Queen’s Accessibility Hub, a recently developed web source set to officially launch on Oct. 30, faculty members can learn about educating and accommodating students with learning disabilities.

The Hub is a new website that will outline the resources offered by the University, increasing awareness. The hope is that dialogue about these issues will be maintained through the Hub.

One of the resources Queen’s currently provides is the Adaptive Technology Centre, located in Stauffer Library. The Centre has a number of technologies that can help manage learning disabilities.

According to Michele Chittenden, coordinator for students with disabilities at Queen’s Library Services, numerous students receive special accommodations through the Centre.

One technology the Centre offers is a high-end reading program, Kurzweil 3000.

“It not only reads the text back to the students, but it also allows you to highlight text,” Chittenden said. “There’s also a brainstorming function so you can organize your thoughts.”

Once a student first arrives at the Adaptive Technology Centre, they are introduced to the services they are eligible for.

“The first one is receiving their textbooks and course material … in alternate formats,” Chittenden said.

Alternate formats, according to her, refer to everything other than print text. She said many students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, benefit from having course materials in digital formats.

“Some courses have anywhere from one to five texts, and then you add the readings on top of that,” she said. “If you have a learning disability like dyslexia, where it’s difficult reading the print text, having the material put in alternate format and having it read back to you is something that is really important.”

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