Findings from a Pan-Canadian survey of Disability Services Providers in Postsecondary Education

Allyson G. Harrison and Joan Wolforth

Abstract


Allyson G. Harrison and Joan Wolforth

Abstract

Disability services personnel at 122 Canadian postsecondary institutions were surveyed regarding the demographics of the student population currently receiving services as persons with disabilities and the challenges faced by disability service staff in accommodating such students. Basic information regarding the number of students with disabilities attending postsecondary institutions is reported, along with data regarding level of education and experience of those who work in disability services. Findings revealed that many respondents feel unable to adequately understand disability documentation provided by students, and may feel compelled to grant accommodations simply because an external professional has made the recommendation. Confusion exists regarding who qualifies as a person with a disability, and many respondents also identified concerns regarding over-diagnosis and over-accommodation of certain types of disabilities at the high school level. Findings highlight the need to develop a national consensus for how to determine appropriate accommodations and on what basis such decisions should be made. Changes in evaluation methods at the postsecondary level, including adoption of universal instructional design techniques and reducing time components in examinations may be helpful in addressing some of the accommodation difficulties identified.

The purpose of this paper is to describe the current level of demand on postsecondary Disability Services Offices (DSO) across Canada, the DSOs’ ability to cope with increasing numbers of students with special needs, and the challenges to accommodate these students so as to provide equal access to postsecondary education. This study also examines how confident DSOs are regarding appropriate documentation and its effect on how students with special needs are accommodated, and DSO’s estimates of over-identification and over-accommodation of students with disabilities before they reach the postsecondary environment.

Postsecondary DSOs across the United States and Canada continue to note a significant increase in the number of students attending postsecondary institutions who request academic accommodations (Association québécoise inter-universitaire des conseillers aux étudiants en situation de handicap, 2011; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Postsecondary Education [CADSPPE], 1999; Cox & Klas, 1996; Fichten, Asuncion, Barile, Robillard, Fossey & Lamb, 2003; Fichten et al., 2009; Trainin & Swanson, 2005). While we know much in general about the number of individuals with disabilities in Canada, less is known about the actual number of students with disabilities pursuing postsecondary education in Canada, or the distribution of types of disabilities being accommodated at this level of education. A national survey conducted over ten years ago estimated that about 7% of the total enrollment in Canadian postsecondary institutions has some type of identified disability (Hubka & Killean, 1999). More recent data from Ontario universities suggest that about 4% of the students enrolled in these institutions identify as having a disability (The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities: Postsecondary Education Division, 2008), up from 1.2% over 15 years ago. For 10 years, the Association québécoise inter-universitaire des conseillers aux étudiants en situation de handicap, AQICESH (2011) has collected annual statistics for Quebec universities and over that time the number of students served by DSOs has increased by more than 140%.

Students with disabilities are entitled to provision of appropriate accommodations, services and supports in their postsecondary programs any time the impairments that arise from their disability interfere with equal participation or with equal opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and ability. This is ensured by the Canadian Human Rights Act (R.S., 1985, c. H, s. 38; 2003, c. 22, s. 137(E)) and Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), as well as by various provincial Human Rights Codes. As a result, DSOs may provide such students with services such as learning strategy tutoring, coaching in the use of assistive devices, and accommodations such as provision of extra time for tests and exams, a note-taker, use of computer for writing exams, or testing in a separate room (Nichols, Harrison, McCloskey, & Weintraub, 2002; Lee & Templeton, 2008; Parette & Paterson-Karlan, 2007; Wolforth, 1998).

For students with disabilities to access these services, however, they must first provide their institution with documentation indicating that they have a diagnosed disability, and they must also demonstrate that their specific impairments necessitate the provision of the requested academic accommodations (Sitlington, 2003; Ofiesh, Hughes, & Scott, 2004). However, appropriate documentation of some types of disabilities, particularly a Learning Disability (LD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), is often not provided when these students enter the postsecondary system (Harrison & Rosenblum, 2010; Harrison, Edwards, & Parker, 2007; McGuire, Madaus, Litt, & Ramirez, 1996; Sparks & Lovett, 2009, Joy, Julius, Akter, & Baron, 2010). Indeed, Harrison, Nichols, and Larochette (2008) found that fewer than half of the students applying to obtain accommodations for a LD at the postsecondary level in Ontario came with appropriate or adequate documentation of a diagnosed disability, despite having been provided with accommodations and supports all through high school. Similarly, Joy et al. (2010) found that only 14% of postsecondary level students provided sufficient documentation to support a diagnosis of ADHD in order to access test accommodation on a national medical examination. It is unclear, however, to what extent such documentation difficulties interfere with adequate service provision for students identified with other types of disabilities, nor do we know the extent to which DSO staff feel confident interpreting and understanding disability documentation provided to their offices.

Another issue is the possibility that certain types of invisible disabilities (e.g. ADHD and LD) may be easily feigned or exaggerated by students (e.g. Fisher & Watkins, 2008; Harrison, Edwards, & Parker, 2007, 2008; Harrison, Edwards, Armstrong, & Parker, 2010; Jachimowicz & Geiselman, 2004; Mullis, 2003; Quinn, 2003; Suhr, Hammers, Dobbins-Buckland, Zimak, & Hughes, 2008a; Sullivan, May, & Galbally, 2007) and that such exaggeration may go undetected by assessing professionals (Faust, Hart, & Guilmette, 1988; Faust, Hart, Guilmette, & Asher, 1988). Much has been written about the potential secondary gains currently available to Canadian students who are able to successfully feign a disability, including access to tuition rebates and up to $10,000/year in bursary funds, along with academic accommodations such as extra time for tests and examinations, tutors, and notetakers (Harrison, 2006; Harrison, Edwards, & Parker, 2007). No objective data, however, currently exist regarding the extent to which such exaggeration or feigning may be occurring in Canada, although Sullivan et al. suggest it may occur in almost half of all adult assessments for ADHD and almost 16% of adult assessments of LD.

Given the influx of students expecting accommodation, the possibility that disability documentation may not always be comprehensive or appropriate, and the concern that students may not always report symptoms accurately, DSO staff are faced with potentially difficult decisions when determining whether documentation is appropriate and reasonable, and whether the recommended accommodations provide an unfair advantage to the student relative to his/her peers or are suggestive of possible symptom exaggeration. Currently in Canada, there are no formal training programs available for individuals who manage DSOs, nor are there any national standards for consistent service provision or decision making (Fichten, Asuncion, & Barile, 2001; CADSPPE, 1999). Furthermore, it is unclear what type of educational backgrounds might provide the best training for such staff, or how to ensure that they have a reasonable awareness of the relevant legislation that informs their daily practice.

Parker, Shaw, and McGuire (2003) conducted a comprehensive program evaluation of disability service offices in the United States and devised recommendations and guidelines that address the key issues that were found in their sample. It would seem to be imperative that similar standards should exist at Canadian institutions. Specifically, we need comprehensive information from disability service providers across Canada in order to understand: a) how to improve disability services at Canadian postsecondary institutions b) how to increase awareness of resources that are available to students with disabilities c) how to keep up with the growing number of students requiring assistance in postsecondary, and d) how to consistently evaluate and set standards for disability services and documentation requirements at Canadian postsecondary institutions.

In the current study, we asked DSOs at Canadian institutions to describe the students who are seeking accommodations, judge the documentation provided by these students, and describe their perception of the expectations these students bring to the postsecondary institution. One hundred and twenty-two DSO providers from across Canada were asked to respond to a confidential online survey.

Method

Materials

A 39 item survey was developed (based on feedback from workshops at CADSPPE conferences) by the authors for electronic distribution and completion (see Appendix 1 for survey items). Some of the items required either factual answers such as number of years of training or experience, or dichotomous responses to specific questions. For these questions, frequency analyses were conducted. As may be seen, however, many of the questions in the survey required DSO respondents to estimate a percentage by choosing among 6 percentage categories: 0%, less than 10%; 11-25%; 26-50%; 51-75%; and more than 75%. Findings from these questions are presented in stacked bar charts.

Given the bilingual nature of Canada, the survey was translated into French to allow for input from French language colleges and universities. This survey was mounted on a commercial website (Survey monkey) and links to the survey were generated.

Participants

All members of the Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Postsecondary Education (CADSPPE) were invited by listserve email to take part in the survey. Individual members were informed of the anonymous nature of this ethics-approved survey and that participation would be taken as consent. They could complete the survey via the link contained within the invitation. Because DSO staff in some Eastern and Western provinces were not members of CADSPPE, additional personal emails were distributed to DSO staff at these institutions to ensure pan-Canadian participation. The same anonymous survey link was provided in these emails.

Between 2006 and 2007, 122 DSO service providers across Canada completed the survey. Of these, 63 respondents were from Canadian colleges (representing 64% of publicly funded colleges) and 59 were from Canadian universities (62% of publicly funded universities). Table 1 shows the response rate by province as a function of the size of the school. As shown, there was good cross-Canada representation in survey responses with all school sizes also well represented.

Results

Demographics

Table 1 shows demographic data. Responding institutions were equally likely to be a college or a university. The proportional representation of responses is consistent with the distribution of postsecondary institutions in the country: the majority of respondents were from Ontario, institutions in Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta returned fewer than 15% of the surveys, and institutions from all other provinces returned fewer than five surveys each. The largest proportion (43%) of institutions that responded were relatively small, with fewer than 10,000 students. As shown in Table 1, about one-fifth of the responding schools had between 10 - 15,000 students, and about one-fifth had more than 20,000 students.

The number of students with disabilities served by DSOs in each institution is shown in Table 1 as a function of the size of institution. The majority of small institutions (<10,000 students) served fewer than 100 students with disabilities whereas, most other institutions estimated more than 500 students with disabilities were served. Extrapolating from these numbers, one can estimate that for schools with fewer than 15,000 students about 3-5% of the total student body is registered with Disability Services, with about 2.5% of the student body receiving such services at larger institutions.

DSO staff estimated the proportion of students from various disability groups who utilize their services (see Figure 1). The majority (68%) reported that most (between 25 – 75%) students who request accommodations through their office have LD or ADHD, and a small proportion of DSOs (6%) said that over 75% of their disabled student population have one of these diagnoses. Most institutions reported that fewer than one-quarter of students who request accommodations have medical, physical or psychiatric disabilities. Nearly all reported that fewer than 10% of students who request accommodations have brain injuries, vision or hearing impairments.

Respondent Characteristics

Table 2 presents respondent characteristics including education, experience and the respondent’s awareness of disability service issues. Of the disability service workers surveyed, most had a master’s degree, commonly from a Faculty of Education. Another large percentage had a bachelor’s degree, most commonly a Bachelor of Arts. A smaller number held a doctoral level degree. Most respondents were the directors of the DSO or a guidance counselor within the DSO. Respondents had worked in their current job for an average of 7.5 years (SD = 6.4), and in disability-service related jobs for an average of 11 years (SD = 8.2).

Respondent Awareness

As shown in Table 2, the majority of respondents felt they were able to understand psycho-educational and medical documentation submitted to their office, but at least 20% of college respondents and 15% of university respondents rated their comfort understanding such reports as poor or fair. Analysis of variance using level of comfort with documentation as the dependent factor and years in disability jobs as the independent factor showed that the level of comfort with psycho-educational documentation is dependent upon the years in disability jobs, F(4, 115) = 2.74, p = .032. If respondents were uncomfortable interpreting the documentation provided, 85% of respondents felt that they could consult with other professionals at their institution, yet a sizable minority did not feel they had access to such consultation. In order to determine if a recommended accommodation was appropriate for a particular course, 16% of college respondents and 14% of university respondents reported that they could consult with members of other departments.

Although one of the main functions of a DSO is to verify that recommended accommodations are appropriate for the chosen program of study and do not undermine the essential requirements of a course or program, 19% of college respondents and 27% of university respondents felt that they were unable to determine if a requested accommodation violated the essential requirements of a course. Furthermore, 25% of college respondents and 29% of university respondents felt that they did not have the right to deny an accommodation request made by a professional; survey data suggest that this may also be dependent upon the professional making the request. For instance, even when a psycho-educational report diagnosed a disability, 71% of respondents said that they would not have to provide all of the accommodations recommended in the report. By contrast, if a family doctor provided a diagnosis of ADHD, 67% of college respondents and 49% of university respondents said that they must provide the accommodations requested, despite the fact that there is no one accommodation profile for those with such a diagnosis and no objective evaluation of academic performance that accompanies such medical diagnoses. About one third (32%) of college DSO respondents and 44% of university DSO respondents reported that their accommodation decisions had been challenged through a formal internal grievance or legal proceeding, but the outcome of such challenges was not reported.

Some provincial Human Rights codes include a clause which, although it may be confusing with respect to accommodation, was written to prevent discrimination based on the belief that someone might be a member of a designated group. Respondents were therefore asked to indicate whether the following statement is true: “The human rights code states that an individual should be accommodated as if they have a disability if they have been perceived as such throughout their lives.” Although this statement is false, 42% of college respondents and 28% of university respondents (excluding Quebec and New Brunswick whose human rights legislation does not specifically address this issue) said it was true. Thirty six percent of respondents from colleges and 39.5% of respondents from universities either did not respond to this question or reported that they did not know the correct answer. In Ontario, 51% of college respondents and 24% of university respondents answered this question incorrectly.

Documentation

Respondent estimates of the proportion of students with various disabilities who present incomplete or inadequate documentation are summarized in Figure 2. Consistent with the recent work of Harrison et al. (2007), it appears that a large percentage of students wanting accommodations for LD or ADHD come with documentation that DSO’s feel is inadequate or incomplete. For instance, at colleges 70% of respondents at colleges and 39% at universities reported receiving such documentation from more than a quarter of students with LDs or ADHD; 30% of respondents at university-based DSOs also reported that between one-tenth and one quarter of students purporting to have a LD or ADHD have insufficient documentation. Some concerns were also identified regarding the adequacy of documentation for psychiatric diagnoses. While roughly half of the respondents reported that less than 10% of students with psychiatric disabilities have incomplete or inadequate documentation, an additional third of these respondents (35% college, 35% university) reported that between 10 – 50% of these students arrive with incomplete or inadequate documentation.

By contrast, and perhaps because these diagnoses require medical investigations, the majority of respondents reported that almost all brain injured, visually or hearing impaired students arrive with complete or adequate documentation. When asked about students with medical disabilities, most college and university respondents (84% and 89%, respectively) reported that no more than 25% of these students have incomplete or inadequate documentation. When asked about students with physical disabilities, 76% of college respondents and 97% of university respondents reported that the vast majority arrive with complete or adequate documentation.

Diagnosis and Accommodations

Respondents were asked to report if they believe that high schools are over-diagnosing/over-identifying students with disabilities and if such students are being over-accommodated (summarized in Figure 3). In general, many DSOs (29% college, 41% university) believe that high schools are over-diagnosing/over-identifying students with learning disabilities and that high schools are providing excessive supports for these students (25% college, 41% university). A large percentage of respondents (44% college, 55% university) believe that a sizeable number (more than 10%) of LD or ADHD students have been provided with excessive accommodations in high school (see Figure 3). Based on the medical nature of the disabilities, it was not surprising that fewer than one-tenth of students with brain injuries (89% of college, 85% of university respondents), visual impairments (92% of college, 93% of university respondents), hearing impairments (96% of college, 87% of university respondents), medical disabilities (91% of college, 88% of university respondent), and physical disabilities (92% of college, 88% of university) were felt to have been provided with excessive accommodations while in high school. Similarly, fewer than one-tenth of the students with psychiatric disabilities, (89% of college, 82% of university respondents) were reported to have been provided with excessive accommodations in high school.

Several ways in which students are over-accommodated were endorsed: 16% of respondents were of the opinion that high schools give inappropriate amounts of extra time to students with disabilities, and half reported that they feel high schools allow unlimited test-taking time excessively. For other types of excessive accommodation or support, 46% of respondents felt that high schools provide scribes who do more than just take dictation and 51% suspected overuse of clarifiers who do more than simply rephrase the question. Additionally, 48% of respondents reported that they feel parents and educational assistants are overly involved in the completion of assignments.

External Incentive

Table 3 summarizes respondents’ impressions regarding students’ external motivation for seeking a diagnosis. Roughly one-third of respondents estimate that more than 25% of students who come to the DSO wanting a diagnosis do so in order to access funding grants/bursaries, and an additional 40% believe that the proportion is more than 10% but less than 25%. Just over two-thirds of respondents report that more than 10% of students arrive at the DSO wanting a diagnosis so that they can access other concessions such as obtaining a disabled parking spot or obtaining relief from paying their student loan due to a disability, and 16% believe that more than 25% of students seek such special concessions.

DSO respondents believe that 25% or fewer students exaggerate or feign symptoms in order to obtain a diagnosis. However, a small group (6%) estimated that more than 25% of students seeking diagnosis for ADHD exaggerate or feign symptoms, and 2% voiced the same concerns for students seeking diagnosis for LD (see Table 3).

The majority (58%) of respondents indicated that, although rarely, they have suspected some students of exaggerating or fabricating symptoms in order to gain access to academic accommodations or disability bursary funds. Such suspicions were reported more often for those with ‘invisible’ disabilities. Overall, the majority (90%) reported that they have suspected fewer than 10% of students to be feigning disabilities; however, a sizable minority (10%) of respondents reported estimates of between 10 – 25% for such suspicions. Respondents felt that LD and ADHD are the most vulnerable to feigning, followed by psychiatric disorders, medical disorders, physical disabilities and brain injury. Hearing and visual impairments were judged to be the most difficult to feign (see Figure 4).

Parental Involvement

A majority (62%) of DSO respondents believe parents of students with disabilities interfere in their children’s academic environment more than is reasonable. When asked to elaborate, one quarter of this subset of respondents reported that parents insist on getting the diagnosis they want for their child, 59% said that parents interfere with their child’s advocating, 11% indicated that parents go “diagnosis shopping,” 19% reported that parents coach their children to exaggerate their deficits in order to receive accommodations, and 48% reported that parents insist on the accommodations that they want (rather than what is reasonable based on the documentation).

Level of Impairment

One of the accepted criteria for diagnosis of a disability is that the individual must be substantially impaired, so it was of interest to investigate the extent to which DSO staff felt that students registered with their offices met this criterion. Results are summarized in Figure 5. Overwhelmingly, respondents felt that the majority of their students were impaired; however, there was some indication that this observation is not true for all types of disabilities. For example, 20% of DSO respondents felt that more than 10% of students diagnosed with ADHD or LD were not disabled by their symptoms, and 4% believe that more than 25% of these students would not be considered substantially impaired (see Figure 5). By contrast, all respondents believe that the majority (90% or more) of students with brain injuries, visual or hearing impairments are truly impaired in their ability to function. Of interest, one respondent reported that over half of students requesting accommodations for a medical disability are not truly impaired; in general, however, most respondents felt that almost all students requesting accommodations for a medical disability are truly impaired. Additionally, over half (57%) of respondents felt that all students requesting accommodations for a physical disability are truly impaired; however, 39% believed that a small percentage (<10%) are not significantly disabled by their symptoms. Nearly all of the respondents felt that 90% or more of the students requesting accommodations for a psychiatric disability are truly impaired.

Discussion

The aim of this paper was to identify the issues faced by Disability Service Offices at Canadian postsecondary institutions as they accommodate students with disabilities, specifically to identify professional development needs within the offices and to help develop a national consensus for how to address these issues fairly and consistently. With the growing numbers of students with disabilities attending postsecondary education in Canada, it was important to identify what percentage of students self-identify as having a disability, and the concerns identified in providing equitable and appropriate accommodations and supports to each group.

This pan-Canadian survey suggests that approximately 2-5% of students at the postsecondary level choose to register with DSOs and the majority come with a diagnosis of LD, ADHD, or both. Although the largest group of students served, survey results suggest that DSOs receive the least comprehensive or adequate documentation from this group of students. Further, these students may not always demonstrate sufficient evidence of impairment in their ability to participate equally in college or university. It also appears that many DSOs feel that students with these labels may have received excessive accommodations and supports while in high school. As a result, DSOs may find that students with LD/ADHD have overly optimistic expectations regarding post secondary accommodations, although Human Rights Codes do not require that a student be accommodated simply because they once were (Roberts, 2012). DSOs also considered LD/ADHD the disabilities most easily feigned. Students with either suspected or identified LD/ADHD are the students consuming most of the DSO resources. Hence, a consensus on issues surrounding the most appropriate accommodations for LD/ADHD students has become critical.

The large number of students with LD/ADHD who arrive with inadequate or incomplete documentation mirrors the findings of Harrison, Nichols and Larochette (2008), and highlights the need for greater awareness and education of those who provide such assessments at the elementary and secondary level. Students with disabilities have a difficult enough time managing the transition to this new environment, with its increased expectations for work and independent action, without at the same time having to deal with the stress and frustration of undergoing an updated, comprehensive assessment. A common understanding of the required elements of an assessment document would emphasize when those documents are missing elements or are incomplete. This would permit postsecondary DSOs to educate students and psychologists about the key components to include in any assessment report they provide, while at the same time giving an opportunity to outline the types of data required to support specific types of accommodation requests.

A large number of the DSOs voiced concerns regarding what they perceived to be over-identification of LD/ADHD in the high school system. This is consistent with Sparks and Lovett (2009) who report that fewer than half of the students requesting accommodations for LD at the postsecondary level have documentation that supports an actual diagnosis of LD or evidence of substantial academic impairment. Given that the goal of most high schools in Canada is student success, it may be that schools feel pressured to accommodate any student who is not succeeding. This is different at college and university where accommodations are not meant to ensure success but only equal access (Lovett, Gordon & Lewandowski, 2009).

The fact that DSOs identify provision of high levels of extra time (including unlimited test taking time) as something provided excessively to students with LD/ADHD in high school speaks to the need for more evidence-based methods of determining how to accommodate certain disorders and quantify what constitutes a reasonable accommodation. Given recent research demonstrating that provision of extra time on tests can be of assistance to all students, disabled or not (Elliott & Marquart, 2004; Pariseau, Fabiano, Massetti, Hart, and Pelham, 2010; Zuriff, 2000), it seems imperative to ensure that requests for such an accommodation are grounded firmly in science. Then, they will not confer an unfair advantage on any particular student group.

Similarly, DSOs expressed concern regarding past excessive accommodation of students with LD/ADHD, including clarifiers who do more than simply clarify or parents and teachers who are overly involved in helping students complete their work. Students with LD/ADHD may experience increased distress and anxiety when they discover that they cannot be provided with this same degree of assistance at the postsecondary level, again interfering with a smooth transition to college or university.

DSO staff universally felt that LD/ADHD were the disabilities most easily feigned, with other invisible disabilities also nominated but to a far lesser extent. Given that no objective data are available regarding the exact prevalence of such feigning, it was of interest to note that DSOs estimates of such behavior were substantially lower than those proposed by Sullivan et al. (2007). Future research will determine exactly how vulnerable the diagnoses of LD/ADHD are to feigned impairment, and assessments will need to ensure that any disability diagnoses are genuine. Given the increasingly scarce funding of services at the postsecondary level, it is important to ensure that only those students who truly require available supports and monies have access to them.

Some DSO staff are not confident about interpreting and understanding disability documentation provided to their offices, suggesting that there is a need for more education in this area. It makes sense, then, that new staff at DSOs should be provided with specific training and support as they learn how to interpret disability documentation and determine if requested accommodations are reasonable and equitable.

A large proportion of respondents were not aware that human rights legislation does not require an institution to accommodate a student simply because a disability had been suspected in the past. Human rights legislation requires only that such individuals not be discriminated against simply because of a past perceived disability; it says nothing about accommodating all persons who have ever suspected they had a disability. In addition, new DSO staff may benefit from being taught how to determine when accommodation requests are reasonable based on demonstrated impairments. It was of concern that a sizeable number of respondents felt unable to refuse accommodation requests if they were made by another, often external, professional. DSO’s have generally been given the responsibility to determine if the student, as a result of an impairment, cannot participate equally in a course or method of evaluation. These individuals, more so than external professionals, are the ones expert in determining whether the academic task required of the student will impact on a specific impairment sufficiently to impede equitable participation, (Roberts, in press). This speaks to the need for more specific guidelines and standards at the postsecondary level to help DSO staff make such determinations.

Given the data from this survey, it may also be prudent for institutions to develop additional policies to address the issue of documentation quality and completeness, and state explicitly that an important goal of a DSO is to assist students in the development of self-advocacy skills.

One limitation to this summary is that it is based solely on an on-line survey given to DSO service providers across Canada. These providers have not been given a forum to elaborate on their responses or to offer suggestions for addressing the issues raised by the survey. Future research should target such input in order to establish a consensus of best practices to be shared across the country.

The number of students with disabilities entering postsecondary institutions is likely to continue to increase. Thus the number of students needing the support of a DSO will continue to grow. At some point, the number of identified students who require accommodation may become so great that institutional policies regarding grading and assessment will need to be mindful of the accommodations of this growing population who require alternative methods of learning and assessment. Calls to incorporate universal instructional design methods in teaching and evaluation at the postsecondary level (Harrison, 2006; McGuire & Scott, 2002, 2006; McGuire, Scott & Shaw, 2006; Thornton & Downs, 2010) note this fact. Forward-thinking schools will be considering this option, as it would minimize the need for some expensive individualized accommodations and reduce the demands placed on DSO staff to determine appropriate accommodations. As an example of this approach, in light of evidence suggesting that extra time for test taking is of benefit to all students, schools may wish to consider evaluation methods that allow all individuals extra time to complete examinations or they could incorporate adaptive examination methods that vary the amount of time required based on student performance within the exam (Puhan, Boughton, & Kim, 2007; Russell, Goldberg & O’Connor, 2003; Zenisky & Sireci, 2002). As disability service provision responds to growing student demand, the policies and procedures of current DSOs and academic staff need to be modified to take account of new approaches to accommodation. As Loewen and Pollard (2010) suggest, this may be an opportune time to reframe the notion of disability in postsecondary classrooms.

Acknowledgements

Partial funding for this research was provided by the special projects fund of the Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Postsecondary Education. Additional funding for completion of this report was provided by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities of Ontario. The opinions as expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the funders.

The authors wish to acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Irene Armstrong in the creation of the tables and figures, and her editorial assistance in completing this paper.

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Table 1. Demographic details of responding institutions.


Colleges

Universities

Total

Completed Surveys

63

59

122

Institution Size (number of students in 000s)

By province

< 10

%

10-15

%

15-20

%

> 20

%

Total

%

Quebec

12

55

1

5

1

5

8

36

22

18

Ontario

21

38

17

31

11

20

6

11

55

47

Alberta

5

42

3

25

1

8

3

25

12

10

British Columbia

5

36

5

36

2

14

2

14

15

13

Total

52

44

26

22

18

15

22

19

118

Number of Students with Disabilities Served by DSO

< 10

%

10-15

%

15-20

%

> 20

%

Total

%

< 100

21

40

1

4

1

5

0

0

23

19

100-299

11

21

1

4

1

5

6

27

19

16

300-499

12

23

6

23

3

17

1

5

22

19

> 500

8

15

18

69

13

72

15

68

54

46

Total

52

44

26

22

18

15

22

19

118

Note: DSO = Disability Services Office


Table 2. Respondent Characteristics


Education and Experience

Education

College Diploma

Bachelor of Arts

Master of Arts

Ph. D.

Other

Total

Percent of respondents

7

20

51

7

15

100

Job Title

Director

Guidance Counsellor

LD Specialist

AT Specialist

Psych. Serv. Provider

Other

Percent of respondents

32

24

12

3

6

22

Job Experience

Mean

SD

Years at current position

7.5

6.4

Years in LD service

11

8.2

Respondent Awareness

Self-Reported Ability to Assess Documentation

Poor

Fair

Good

Excellent

Depends

Documentation

Universities

Psycho-educational

% DSO

7

9

31

34

20

Medical or other

5

10

42

29

14

Colleges

Psycho-educational

3

21

31

44

2

Medical or other

5

15

45

29

7

Decision Making

% Yes

% No

% Depends

Have you anyone to consult with?

85

11

4

Do you consult with other departments about accommodations?

15

17

68

Can you determine when accommodations violate the essential requirements of the course?

72

23

5

Do you have the right to deny a request made by a professional?

67

27

6

Has your decision ever been formally challenged?

38

48

14 (Missing)

Note: Psych. Serv. Provider = Psychological Services Provider; LD = Learning Disabilities; AT = Assistive Technology


Table 3. Perceived reasons for students seeking a diagnosis for access to funding and estimates of student exaggeration.


Percentage estimated by institutions

Number of Institutions (n=122)

None

<10%

11 - 25%

26 - 50%

51 - 75%

>75%

Those who want a diagnosis to access

Funding

19

15

49

27

9

2

Other

18

21

63

17

2

1

Those who exaggerate to access accommodation

All

44

66

12

0

0

0

ADHD

39

61

15

6

1

0

LD

48

57

14

1

2

0

Note: ADHD = attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; LD = learning disability

Figure Legends

Figure 1. DSO estimates of the percentage of students with specific disability by types.

Figure 2. DSO estimates of the percentage of students with disabilities arriving with inadequate documentation as a function of the type of disability reported.

Figure 3. DSO estimates of the percentage of students with disabilities given excessive or inappropriate accommodations in high school as a function of diagnosis.

Figure 4. DSO estimates of the percentage of students with disabilities felt to have insufficient impairment as a function of diagnosis.

Appendix

Practitioner survey

Questions for Disability service providers

1. Where do you work? College or University

2. Highest level of post-secondary education completed and in what field:

  • a. College diploma _______________
  • b. BA _________________________
  • c. B.Sc ________________________
  • d. B.Ed ________________________
  • e. M.A ________________________
  • f. M. Ed _______________________
  • g. M.Sc ________________________
  • h. Ph.D. ________________________
  • i. Other (specify) ________________
  • 3. what type of position do you have/what is your role?

  • a. Director/supervisor/co-ordinator/administrator
  • b. Psychological service provider/assessor
  • c. Counsellor
  • d. LD specialist
  • e. AT specialist
  • f. Other (specify)
  • 4. How many years have you worked in this job?

    5. How many years have you worked in Disabilty-service related jobs?

    6. Approximately how many students are registered at your institution?

    (under 10,000; 10,000-15,000 ; 15,000-20,000; over 20,000)

    7. Approximately how many students with disabilities are registered at your institution?

    (under 100; 100-299; 300-499; over 500)

    8. Of these, what percentage are in each of these groups?


    Type

    0%

    < 10%

    10 - 25%

    26 - 50%

    51 - 75%

    75%

    LD/ADHD

    Brain Injury

    Vision Impaired

    Hearing Impaired

    Medical

    Physical

    Psychiatric

    9. Please assess your level of comfort understanding Psychological or Psychoeducational assessment reports that come to your office Poor ; fair; good; excellent; depends on the report

    10. Please assess your level of comfort understanding Medical or other documentation that come to your office Poor ; fair; good; excellent; depends on the report

    11. Do you have anyone with whom you can consult if you are feeling uncomfortable with the documentation provided? Yes No

    12. Do you consult with members of each department to determine in a recommended accommodation is appropriate for a particular course? Yes No Depends

    13. Do you feel able to determine if a requested accommodation violates the essential requirements of a course?

    14. Do you feel you have the right to deny a requested accommodation if it comes from a professional? Yes No

  • a. If No, what if anything would help you feel more confident? _____________________________________________________
  • 15. If No, is true for all disability groups? Yes No

    16. What relevant legislation allows you to recommend that a student be accommodated (check all that apply)

    a. Charter of Rights and freedoms

  • b. Institution specific regulations
  • c. Ontario Human Rights Code
  • Other (Specify) ______________
  • 17. To the best of your knowledge, in your province which of the following professionals are able to diagnose a learning disability? Check all that apply


    Yes

    No

    Psychologist (Ph.D)

    Psychological Associate (M.A)

    Medical Doctor

    Speech and Language pathologist

    Social Worker

    School teacher (B.Ed)

    Guidance or special education teacher

    Chiropractor

    18. If a family doctor diagnoses someone with ADHD, must your Disability office provide academic accommodations? Yes No

    19. Approximately what percentage of students arrive at your office with incomplete or inadequate documentation of their disability? LD/ADHD


    Type

    0%

    < 10%

    10 - 25%

    26 - 50%

    51 - 75%

    75%

    LD/ADHD

    Brain Injury

    Vision Impaired

    Hearing Impaired

    Medical

    Physical

    Psychiatric

    20. In your opinion, are high schools overdiagnosing/overidentifying learning disabilities? Yes No

    21. In your opinion, are high schools providing excessive supports to students with disabilities? Yes No

    22. In your experience, what percentage of students have been provided with inappropriate or excessive accommodations in high school?


    Type

    0%

    < 10%

    10 - 25%

    26 - 50%

    51 - 75%

    75%

    LD/ADHD

    Brain Injury

    Vision Impaired

    Hearing Impaired

    Medical

    Physical

    Psychiatric

    23. What types of inappropriate accommodations have been provided (please check all that apply)

  • a. Extra time
  • b. Unlimited time
  • c. Scribes who do more than take dictation
  • d. Clarifiers who do more than rephrase the questions
  • e. Educational Assistant’s who do the work for the student
  • f. Other (specify)______________________________
  • 24. In your opinion, what percentage of students come to your office wanting a diagnosis of a disability in order to access funding opportunities such as Canada Study Grant or other financial bursary program, or to obtain a student loan reduction?

    None, <10%, 10-25%, 26-50%, 51-75%, >75%

    25. In your experience, what would you estimate is the percentage of students presenting for accommodations who, in your opinion, are not truly disabled?


    Type

    0%

    < 10%

    10 - 25%

    26 - 50%

    51 - 75%

    75%

    LD/ADHD

    Brain Injury

    Vision Impaired

    Hearing Impaired

    Medical

    Physical

    Psychiatric

    26. In your opinion, do you have any concerns that parents are intervening in their children’s academic environment more than is reasonable? Yes No

    27. If yes, in what way are they interfering? (check all that apply)

  • a. Insisting on getting the diagnosis they want?
  • b. Interfering with their child’s advocating?
  • c. Diagnosis shopping?
  • d. Coaching their child to exaggerate deficits in order to receive accommodations?
  • e. Insisting on the accommodations they want
  • f. Other (specify)_____________________________
  • 28. Have you or your office ever had decisions challenged through a formal internal grievance or legal proceeding (including Human Rights)?

    Yes No

    29. Have you ever suspected a student of faking, exaggerating or magnifying a disability in order to receive accommodations or access to bursaries or services?

    Yes No

    If No, thank you for your participation.

    If YES, please continue with the following 3 questions.

    30. In your experience, what would you estimate is the percentage of students presenting for accommodations who, in your opinion, are not truly disabled (i.e. are not substantially impaired in their ability to carry out normal life functions and activities of daily living)?

    None <10%, 10-25%, 26-50%, 51-75%, >75%

    31. In your opinion, which type of disability category is most vulnerable to being exaggerated or faked? Please rank order


    0%

    < 10%

    10 - 25%

    26 - 50%

    51 - 75%

    75%

    LD/ADHD

    Brain Injury

    Vision Impaired

    Hearing Impaired

    Medical

    Physical

    Psychiatric

    32. In your opinion, what percentage of students with LD &/or ADHD have exaggerated or magnified their deficits in order to access academic accommodations


    0%

    < 10%

    10 - 25%

    26 - 50%

    51 - 75%

    75%

    LD

    ADHD

    Contributors

    Allyson G. Harrison Ph.D.
    Queen’s University, Kingston, ON

    Joan Wolforth Ph.D.
    McGill University, Montreal, PQ

    Email: harrisna@queensu.ca


     

    International Journal of Disability, Community & Rehabilitation
    Volume 11, No. 1
    www.ijdcr.ca
    ISSN 1703-3381