Accessibility Services at Ontario Colleges and Universities: Trends, Challenges and Recommendations for Government Funding Strategies was written by Sophie Lanthier, Ryan Tishcoff, Spencer Gordon & Julia Colyar.
Demand for accommodation and accessibility supports in Ontario has grown significantly and funding has not kept pace
Over the past decade, demand for accommodations and accessibility supports in postsecondary education (PSE) has grown, particularly for disabilities that require ongoing intervention. A new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) finds that in the college and university sectors combined, registrations through Offices for Students with Disabilities (OSDs) increased by nearly 80% between 2013-14 and 2020-21. In the university sector, mental health and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) registrations increased by 76% and 107%, respectively, since 2016. Despite the increased demand for accommodations and supports, government funding has not increased to reflect increasing accessibility needs. OSDs rely on institutional funding, as well as special purpose grants provided by the Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU). Provincial government funding for special purpose grants to support accessibility needs was static from 2016 to 2022, resulting in a 23% decrease per student.
The Ministry’s special purpose grants distributed $54 million to postsecondary institutions in 2022-23. The largest grant, the Accessibility Fund for Students with Disabilities (AFSD), distributes $32 million annually. Institutions provide MCU with annual reports and/or financial statements for each grant they receive. HEQCO reviewed all public institutions’ AFSD and Support for Apprentices with Disabilities reports to calculate annual OSD registrants and per-student funding from 2013 to 2022. Interviews were also conducted with key subject-matter experts from OSDs, system-wide committees, advocacy groups and MCU. These interviews focused on how institutions use grants and internal funds; how services have evolved to meet demand; and how institutions evaluate the effectiveness of services.
The growth in demand for accessibility supports has been accompanied by increased complexity of supports required. Students increasingly present with multiple disabilities at once; seek support to overcome barriers beyond their registered disability (involving social determinants of health); and do so across a wide range of learning environments, such as experiential learning and remote classrooms, which became more common during and after the pandemic.
In the absence of increased government support to match demand, OSDs are implementing new tools and delivery models that can have a beneficial impact for all students. These include expanded service delivery models, expedited intake processes and innovative technologies and tools to replace costly alternatives and alleviate service loads. While these strategies can help relieve bottlenecks, they cannot eliminate them entirely. Meeting the increased demand has fallen on institutions as expenditures to support accommodation needs rose by 14% from 2016 to 2019. Underfunding is notably acute for universities with university per-student funding having dropped to 67% of what colleges received in 2021-22.
The Postsecondary Education Standards Development Committee (PSE-SDC) and the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) have called on MCU to provide adequate and stable funding, noting that adopting such an approach would require significant training and investment. Echoing the OHRC and PSE-SDC, HEQCO offers the following recommendations:
- Increase funding to all institutions. We recommend an increased, permanent and sustained funding strategy, rather than top-ups or add-ons.
- Consolidate funding programs and reduce the number of grants to better reflect students with multiple disabilities and needs, simplify reporting and build stability.
- Revise annual reporting to capture data on the complexity of required supports and program impacts. These data can inform funding allocations with a focus on outcomes.