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Any Canadian university or college student is familiar with the dangers of navigating their school’s campus in the dead of winter. The slick, ice-covered concrete steps which lead up to the library and the slippery, wet floors outside the dining hall can wreak havoc on pedestrians, bringing down even the best of us in one foul, embarrassing crash.

If you’ve ever sprained an ankle and tried to navigate those corridors with a pair of cumbersome crutches, the complications are double what you might face on a normal day. Now imagine trying to get from your dorm room to the dining hall, to your morning midterm on a wintry day as one of the thousands of students across Canada who use a wheelchair. It’s a whole different ballgame, right?

Those slippery, sloped floors become even more hazardous and the ice covered stairs are flat-out impossible.

The use of a wheelchair is just one of the many challenges that face tens of thousands of Canadian university and college students with disabilities, each type of disability presenting a new and unique challenge to overcome in the hopes of getting a post-secondary education.

For Melissa D., a student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, ON, the challenges with university came not with the physical layout of the campus, but with the increased workload and volume of reading required of her in her first year – she has a learning disability.

At 19, Melissa graduated from her Toronto-area high school with top marks. She was a high achieving student who participated in a number of extra-curricular activities and upon entering first year, planned to continue that path at WLU. Partway through her first year however, she began to experience difficulty in her classes. She was still putting in the same amount of energy and enthusiasm to her school work, but it didn’t seem to be enough; the volume of readings was simply too much for her to accomplish in the time given by her professors to get it done.

“I just couldn’t keep up. I would stay up late and work my butt off but there just seemed to be so much reading that I couldn’t stay afloat and I started to fall behind.”

After noticing that her difficulties were starting to be reflected in her marks, Melissa went to her school’s counselling centre and health centre where she was diagnosed with adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). At first, she was given medication to combat her symptoms, but the treatment was not successful. Then, she visited the WLU Accessible Learning Centre (ALC) where she was given an educational assessment and was assigned a counsellor who looked more closely at her learning style.

“What I found most helpful and what helped me get back on track was working with my counsellor. They coached me on different learning strategies and explained that I simply learn in different ways than the university system typically teaches. I didn’t need drug therapy; I just needed that little extra accommodation.”

Through the ALC, Melissa was set up with a system that worked for her learning style, including audio and visual aids in the classroom and was allowed extra time to write her exams.

“Being able to take more time to write exams was a huge help,” she explained. “I knew that I had the knowledge to do well on the exam but I just wasn’t able to get all the words down on paper fast enough. As soon as I was given the extra time, my grades starting improving.”

Like WLU, most universities and colleges in Canada have in place a network of services and accommodations for students with any severity of disability, which include but are not limited to: vision, hearing and mobility impairments, learning disabilities, mental illnesses, chronic illnesses, chronic pain, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders.

Specifically, these accommodations are academic adaptations or modifications that provide students who have disabilities an opportunity to succeed. These adaptations are ways to make life just a little bit easier for the student and can include physical access to facilities (e.g., wheelchair accessibility, ramps etc.), exam accommodations or other services, and auxiliary aids (e.g., a note-taker, tape recording of lectures).

For Melissa, the biggest hurdle was allowing herself to accept that she needed the extra help.

“At first, I was really embarrassed about being ‘disabled.’ I knew that I was smart and capable but I had begun to feel stupid because I couldn’t learn the same way that other people did. Now, I know that this is manageable and in some ways I am lucky. I am able to look at things differently than other people do; I can think outside the box and I have loads of energy. Now I just know how to use that the best way.”

And she is not alone. Marc Wilchesky, executive director of Counselling and Disability Services at York University, sees dozens of students come into his office every week, each with different levels of abilities and learning styles.

“We have more than 2,500 students who are registered with us and who have documented disabilities, so it’s not just a few people here and there.”

These numbers seem to be the standard at campuses across the country, with the number of students using accessible learning centres on the rise with each passing year.

“The number of students accessing our services has been steadily increasing,” said Gwen Page, manager of the Accessible Learning Centre at WLU. “We have experienced a five percent growth in the past year alone at our office and that is due to a number of factors. The number of students is increasing, awareness of the services available to students is increasing, and identification of extra needs is being identified at earlier stages of the student’s life.”

Wilchesky recommends that if you are experiencing difficulties coping with your course load, or have trouble managing the campus due to a physical challenge, to come and speak with someone in your campus’ accessibility office.

“Also, one of our main focuses is confidentiality,” he explained. “We make sure to take a strong position on privacy and confidential support for each student that comes in to our office.”

For Melissa, the decision to get the extra help was the right one.

“Going to the Accessible Learning Centre was so worthwhile for me. Instead of continuing to struggle and feel like a failure, I got help and got back on track, and it’s made a huge difference.”

Photo: adlaphotography/Thinkstock