Ontario Postsecondary Students with Disabilities Face Unique Challenges

College and university students with disabilities face significant financial burdens and a number of barriers that can strain their ability to successfully complete their education…

Toronto, February 3, 2011 – College and university students with disabilities face significant financial burdens and a number of barriers that can strain their ability to successfully complete their education.

According to a new study commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), students with registered disabilities take longer to complete their education, which can significantly increase the cost of their education. They also face unique challenges in finding employment, as well as balancing the demands of work and school, says the study Assessment of Debt Load and Financial Barriers Affecting Students with Disabilities in Canadian Postsecondary Education, Ontario Report.

The study reviewed the impact of educational debt and financial barriers on students with disabilities in Ontario colleges and universities, based on interviews with student participants from 14 universities and five colleges who are registered at their school’s disability services office. The study also included an on-line survey randomly administered to a broad cross-section of students with disabilities at Canadian colleges and universities and an analysis of data from Statistics Canada.

Conducted by Tony Chambers and Melissa Bolton of the University of Toronto and Mahadeo Sukai of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students, the study found a significant range in the types of disabilities in participants, with almost half reporting a learning disability and more than 25 per cent a mental disability.

Nearly half of all student participants in the study expected to graduate with a total debt of more than $20,000 and 81 per cent were concerned about the amount of debt they will incur by the time they graduate. Nearly 40 per cent of the students with disabilities were altering their postsecondary pursuits due to educational debt or financial barriers. Previous HEQCO research has shown that students with disabilities attend and graduate from postsecondary institutions at lower rates than non-disabled students.

While many of the challenges facing students with disabilities are applicable to all students, there are several unique obstacles. Students with disabilities take longer to complete their education, largely due to either their disability and/or government requirements regarding course limits. They also face an increasingly challenging work environment, as many struggle with the demands of work and school coupled with restrictions limiting the types of work and opportunities available.

Another obstacle for students with disabilities is the additional expense of assistive aids, medication and support services, including the cost of being assessed to receive full documentation of their disability, which alone can exceed $3,000. Much of these costs are being borne by the students, yet without these services and resources many students would be unable to complete their postsecondary education.

Given these additional expenses and financial challenges, the study calls for an adjustment to government financial aid programs for students with disabilities, focusing more on grants than loans and extending financial assistance timelines as well as funding eligibility.

Many sources of government and institutional support and information are available to help students both with the costs of disability expenses and services to assist them in addressing educational challenges. However accessing this information through print or web documents can be challenging for many students with particular disabilities. As a result many students never take advantage of some of the services offered. The study suggests more effective coordination of institution-based services and resources and improved communication of these tools to students with disabilities.

About the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario is an arm’s-length agency of the Government of Ontario dedicated to ensuring the continued improvement of the postsecondary education system in Ontario.  The Council was created through the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario Act, 2005. It is mandated to conduct research, evaluate the postsecondary education system, and provide policy recommendations to the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities with a view to enhance the quality, access, and accountability of Ontario’s higher education system.

For further information, please contact:

Matt Ross
Research Communications Officer
Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario
(416) 212-3797