Why are exam accommodations so hard to access?
Why are exam accommodations so hard to access?

Despite what the Globe and Mail might like us to believe, the last three years have had a tremendous impact on our collective mental health and wellbeing. And while demand for mental health supports has been on the rise, access has not increased at the same rate, nor in an equitable way. A recent study in Canada and the United States found that four in ten students have reported poor mental health, with women, non-binary and gender diverse students more likely to experience stress, anxiety and exhaustion. While the federal government promised to allocate $500 million for mental health services for post-secondary students, budget 2023 fell short. Overall, it’s been rough. And there’s no more stressful time of year for students than exam period. 

Stress is cumulative. As the pressures on students increase throughout the semester, exam period carries much of that weight. Mental health issues are exacerbated, putting many folks into crisis-mode. And, like every issue impacting students, those who are already structurally excluded face greater barriers to resources and support. While there are some accommodations in place to alleviate stress, they continue to be extremely difficult to access. This is especially true for students who are disabled, neurodivergent, and/or experiencing mental health issues. 

While the Covid-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on student mental health, it’s also created an opportunity to do things differently. Remote and hybrid learning alternatives made post-secondary education more accessible than ever—an initiative the disability justice movement has spent years, and continues to, advocate for tirelessly. This also happened while many started experiencing long-covid, a condition which often makes traditional classroom learning and assessment difficult. The need for alternative modes of learning was (and remains) pressing! 

But, as Covid-19 restrictions were lifted over the past year, we’ve all but lost this incredible progress. “I think a lot of disabled students during COVID really benefited from the whole online and hybrid model that schools had to take on,” said Brittany Hannah, a disability advocate and student at the University of Guelph. This is a huge step back, with an even stronger impact during exam period. Students who are already stretched, experiencing exclusion, and with little power, must once again bear the onus to advocate for themselves in order to be on an even playing field with their peers. 

So, all that being said, how do these accommodations work? While the Human Rights Code mandates that all students have a right to accessible education without discrimination, much of the actual logistics are left to the discretion of instructors, rather than the institution itself. With several accommodations categorized as “supplementary” (such as memory aids, calculators for exams, or recording lectures)—instructors can simply say no. This leaves students with few options. This process, in itself, has an intersectional component, as contract instructors and teaching assistants across the country—who continue to be underpaid and overworked—must bear the responsibility to create accessible learning settings rather than investing in campus-wide policies and supports. “Accommodations shouldn't be up to individual professors; accessibility should be embedded into the university from the ground up,” said Kinnery Chaparrel, founder of the University of Guelph Disability Community.

Many colleges and universities have specific programs tailored for students with disabilities and those experiencing mental health issues. These offices provide support and help students get accommodations where possible. However, an additional barrier is the burden of attaining proof that students need in order to access these resources. Applying for accommodations is both onerous and costly. It often requires referrals, doctor’s notes, and learning evaluations—which may add up to thousands of dollars. For students from low-income backgrounds or those in need of immediate help, this simply isn’t a viable option. Many just give up.

Learning accommodations, and accessibility on campus overall, is a systemic issue. The problem is that institutions across the country simply don’t treat it that way. At each and every level accessibility is individualized—up to the student to take on the labour of advocating for themselves, up to disability support offices to determine whether their documentation entitles them to assistance, and up to the instructor on whether they are willing to follow through on accommodations. Those with intersecting identities, who are already experiencing barriers, have an even harder time navigating this system. 

While public pressure often helps to push institutions in the right direction, many of the resulting initiatives feel surface-level and performative. Western University graduate student, Ashton Forrest, has spent years advocating and working with the university to make it more accessible for students with disabilities. Despite her hard work, the administration has yet to make meaningful changes, “There's money there but it's what the university chooses to prioritize with that money. And it's kind of frustrating for students with disabilities [because] we all pay tuition.” In order to make real progress, colleges and universities need to recognize that education is not a privilege, it’s a right. Because really, stressing about exams is hard enough.