Dalhousie’s student accessibility centre (SAC), located inside the Killam Library, is limited in their work by a small number of employees, according to a recent report from the Law Students Society and Dalhousie Student Advocacy Society.
“When I talk to other students and they say ‘I put in [a request for] accommodations and didn’t hear for six months’ or ‘nobody returned my email,’ there is the flip side that [the SAC] has this giant workload,” said newly-elected disabled students representative for the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) Meredith Brison-Brown.
The report, published March 8, investigated student accommodations and support within the law school.
“The University of Saskatchewan has 14 staff members, and the University of Victoria has 16 staff members in their respective accessibility centres. Their student populations are both just over 20,000 students, which is comparable to Dalhousie’s student population. However, the Dalhousie student accessibility centre has just six student access advisors,” reads the report.
The student accessibility centre provides various academic accommodations for students with a range of disabilities in a way that avoids students having to directly confront professors.
Some of these accommodations include extended time for exam writing, use of assistive technology in exams, distraction-free environments for exam writing and stop-clock breaks.
To receive these accommodations, students submit a request form to the SAC along with other required documentation, depending on the nature of the accommodation. They also book an appointment with a student access advisor to review the request. The advisor then contacts the student’s department to arrange the accommodations.
Student access advisors often maintain communication with these students to ensure their accommodations are being provided and check in about other accessibility-related concerns.
Lack of student access advisors
While the SAC has few staff, the number of student access advisors is even lower, according to the SAC. Their manager of student affairs, Jen Davis, said the staff includes only four full-time advisors, with two administrative staff, one manager and one director.
“It would be great if we could have more resources,” said Davis in an interview with the Dalhousie Gazette.
One of the challenges caused by this small staff is wait times when applying for accommodations. According to the report, students have experienced “extremely lengthy wait times in receiving their intake appointment and in receiving confirmation of their accommodation.”
Students reported having to contact professors directly for specific accommodations while waiting for a response from the SAC, which is prohibited.
Davis emphasized that meetings are confidential, and that the centre has extended its hours from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., or 6 p.m. on some days. They are also still taking virtual appointments.
“For students who want to connect, there is no requirement to have a diagnosis to have a conversation, to see what resources they can access,” said Davis.
SAC valued despite small staff
The report surveyed disabled students about their experiences getting support and accommodations from both the law school itself and from the SAC.
“Students felt that the Student Accessibility Centre should receive more funding, but otherwise a majority of students had positive experiences at the SAC,” read the report.
Brison-Brown said their own experiences with their accessibility advisor have been great.
“She responds quickly and with compassion, and I have been able to get my accommodation needs met through her,” said Brison-Brown.
“The SAC advisors are incredibly empathetic and have created a very comfortable
environment for students to bring forward accommodation requests. However, the SAC faces
incredible challenges due to a lack of funding,” the report reads.