By Anne-Louise Fournier, Laval University & Bruno Hubert, Laval University
During their university studies in Quebec, students with learning disabilities (LDs) are included in the category of students with disabilities (SWDs). Similar to students in Ontario, university students with LDs must communicate with the university’s Bureau d’accueil et de soutien aux étudiants en situation de handicap (BACSÉSH) [Office of Welcome and Support for Students with Disabilities. Ontario colleges and universities usually refer to such offices as an Accessibility Services Office] in order to take advantage of accommodation measures for the courses that they are taking. Whereas originally the organization of services and accommodation measures for such students was the responsibility solely of the BACSÉSH, administrative and teaching staff members are now being asked to be more involved. It is no longer a matter of simply providing individual measures to meet the needs of these students, but rather of rethinking education to make it more inclusive for all students . Thus, this study was carried out at a Quebec university in order to find out how SWDs perceive the services provided to them and to identify the facilitating conditions and obstacles encountered during their university attendance. In this context, the facilitating conditions are those supports and accommodations, which the student perceives as aiding in their academic success.
Increase in the Number of Students with Disabilities
In Quebec, an increase in the number of SWDs can be observed in all universities. From 2013 to 2018, the enrolment of SWDs doubled, increasing from 8,201 to 16,304 . These data reflect only students who chose to officially disclose their situation to their educational institution. There is no doubt that the enrolment of SWDs is actually higher. The greater presence of students classified as having a disorder* (e.g., learning disorders, mental health disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorders, or language and speech disorder) largely account for this increase. For the 2017‒2018 academic year, the data from AQICESH (2018) reveal that students with disorders represent 69% of the population of students with disabilities. Finally, the largest subgroup of SWDs is that of students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (38%).
* A note on terminology: Specific learning disorder is a medical term used for diagnosis. It is often referred to as a “learning disorder.” “Learning disability” is a term used by both the educational and legal systems .
Students with disabilities were provided with a questionnaire that gauged the students’ perception of the support services provided to them and identified any facilitating conditions or obstacles they may have encountered. In total, the questionnaire comprised 81 questions, including compulsory and optional questions, organized into the following groups: socio-demographic issues; accommodation measures; provision of services by the BACSÉSH; disclosure of functional limitation; obstacles and facilitating conditions; letter of attestation of academic accommodations; relationship with professors; and management of exams.
In total, 417 SWDs responded to the entire questionnaire in the winter 2018 session. Due to the size of the sample, the results are considered to be representative, with a 95% confidence level. The average age of the respondents was 28 years (19 to 61 years), and most of the respondents were women (69.3%). Nearly two-thirds of the respondents (65%) fell under the group of students with a disorder (e.g., learning, mental health, attention deficit, autism spectrum) and the rest presented with a functional impairment (e.g., an auditory, motor, organic or visual impairment). Finally, many respondents (69.3%) made their first appointment with the BACSÉSH between 2015 and 2018, which would seem to indicate that more than half of the respondents are current students or recent graduates.
Distribution of Respondents by Functional Limitation (N=417)
|(N = 417)||(N = 4,033)|
|Functional limitations||Auditory impairment||9||2.2||3.2||-1.0|
|Traumatic brain injury||6||1.4||1.4||–|
|Attention deficit disorder||203||48.7||47.1||1.6|
|Language and speech disorder||2||0.5||0.8||-0.3|
|Autism spectrum disorders||6||1.4||1.3||0.1|
|Mental health disorders||34||8.2||8.9||-0.7|
(1) Data collated by the university’s BACSÉSH based on the medical certificates provided by the students
Services and Accommodation Measures Provided to SWDs
At the university studied, SWDs must take the initiative to communicate with the BACSÉSH. Their first contact is generally intentional on their part, based on their perceptions that the services and accommodations provided by the office were useful. For nearly half of the respondents (46%), their perceptions were based on a previous experience, since they “were already using similar services in another educational institution.” The reason cited most frequently, i.e., by 70% of respondents, for making an appointment with the BACSÉSH is the following: “I wanted accommodations for my exams.” The other two reasons given most often were as follows: “I was having difficulties in my studies” (43.6%) and “I needed services (interpreter, note-taker, coach, etc.)” (34.5%).
What motivated you to make an appointment? (N=417)
|I wanted to have accommodations for my exams.||292||70.0|
|I was having difficulties in my studies.||182||43.6|
|I needed services (e.g., interpreter, note-taker, coach, etc.).||144||34.5|
|I was curious to know what services are provided.||55||13.2|
|A friend recommended that I make an appointment.||44||10.6|
|A professor recommended that I make an appointment.||29||7.0|
The vast majority of respondents reported that they were satisfied with the services of the BACSÉSH, in particular, the specialized services (e.g., interpreter, coach, note-taker, tutor, etc.) (98.8%), equipment (e.g., laptop computer, three-wheel electric scooter, digital recorder, etc.) (93.7%), services provided by counsellors (92.1%), technical and computer support (e.g., digitization of books, recording of lectures/readings, etc.) (90.5%), and advertising and visibility of the services provided (83.2%). Of the respondents who said that they were dissatisfied, the two reasons mentioned most frequently to justify their dissatisfaction were the following: “I didn’t receive the services that I wanted” and “I did not have support after my appointment.”
Assessment of the BACSÉSH [Office of Welcome and Support for SWDs] (N=417)
|Services provided by counsellors||92.1||4.5||3.4|
|Advertising and visibility of the services provided||83.2||6.7||10.1|
|Technical and computer support||90.5||9.5||0|
Use and Assessment of Accommodation Measures
Of the various accommodation measures available, the five most frequently used measures are as follows: additional time on exams (74.3%), a quiet exam room (68.6%), spelling and grammar correction software (25.4%), note-takers in class (23.3%) and a laptop computer at exams (20.9%). It should be noted that, of these accommodation measures, four pertain to exam taking. Overall, a particularly high satisfaction rate is observed. More specifically, 92.5% of the respondents consider that the accommodation measures used in the context of their studies are “essential” (74.8%) or “sometimes useful” (17.7%).
Which service(s) or accommodation(s) have you used?
|Additional time on exams||310||74.3|
|A quiet exam room||286||68.6|
|French correction software||106||25.4|
|Laptop computer at exams||87||20.9|
|Laptop computer in class||76||18.2|
|WordQ (or other speech synthesis software)||29||7.0|
|Documents in digital format||22||5.3|
|Adapted exam schedule||20||4.8|
Accommodation Measures on Exams
The survey was carried out at a university that promotes the inclusion of SWDs in their programs of study. Thus, the logistical management of exams is not centralized at the BACSÉSH [Office of Welcome and Support for SWDs] but is provided by the various faculties and programs. The latter use classrooms set up for exam taking with accommodation measures, or rooms that allow for isolating students with disabilities, located near the classrooms where the exams are taking place for the student group as a whole. In addition, the administrative staff and the professors are involved in the logistics associated with exams. In general, many SWDs said that they “agree” with the following three statements: “My professors and the faculty did a good job of managing my requests for accommodations on exams” (77.8%), “The information that I received in response to my questions was sufficiently clear and accurate” (76.2%), and “The day of the exam and the way that the exam unfolded with accommodations was consistent with my expectations” (73.2%). Of the various respondents, 21.3% mentioned that they did not use “all of the accommodation measures listed in their [accommodation] letter].” Several students explained that they made this choice based on the nature or anticipated level of difficulty of the exam.
Relationship with Faculty Members
According to the institutional procedure of the university studied, students must present their accommodation letter to their professors during the first two weeks of courses in the session. The professors are, therefore, aware of the presence of SWDs in their courses and of the accommodations needed, and they are required to follow the recommended services and accommodation measures. However, if the teacher considers that difficulties are encountered in applying the measures in terms of the course objectives or requirements, he or she is encouraged to discuss this with the student and the BACSÉSH counsellor in order to explore alternative solutions. The findings underscore that even if this process suits most SWDs (80%), it is problematic for a certain number of them. In fact, some said that they “agree” with the following two statements: “My relationship with my professors was influenced by my functional limitation” (24%) and “My professors openly expressed that accommodations were extra work for them” (10.6%).
Of the various obstacles impeding academic progress according to SWDs, the one most frequently identified is “financial difficulties” (38.4%). The second one concerns “teaching or evaluation methods that are inappropriate for their functional limitation” (30%). Of the different themes related to the obstacles experienced by the SWDs, the one mentioned most often involves “negative attitudes of professors or students towards me” (26.1%). In fact, 27.8% of respondents mentioned that they “had hesitated before using the services and accommodation measures available at the BACSÉSH”, and 12.7% of respondents declared that they “never mentioned their functional limitation to another student.” Finally, it is noteworthy that one-quarter of the respondents (25.2%) consider that they had experienced “no obstacles” in the context of university studies.
Have you encountered any of the following obstacles during your studies? (N=417)
|Teaching or evaluation methods that are inappropriate for my functional limitation||125||30.0|
|Negative attitudes of professors or students towards me||109||26.1|
|The process for requesting accommodations at exams||96||23.0|
|Architectural layout of the university||30||7.2|
The social support network of SWDs stands out as a key component of facilitating conditions. Thus, the data collected indicate that, in addition to the university’s accommodation measures and assistance services, many of the SWDs considered “the availability and openness of the counsellors” at the BACSÉSH (53.2%), “the availability and openness of my professors” (47.5%), and “the availability and openness of my classmates” (44.4%) as being facilitating conditions in their educational pathway. Some respondents (5.8%) also mentioned their own perseverance and the support that they received from different people (e.g., physician, friends, family, etc.).
Inappropriate Teaching or Evaluation Methods
With the diversification and increase of the student population, professors are facing new challenges. The heterogeneous needs of students cause us to reflect on which educational strategies to favour [25, 62]. However, the professors and lecturers hired for their leading-edge expertise in fields with specialized content do not usually have specific training in pedagogy. Thus, certain traditional methods of teaching, such as class lectures, still seem to be widespread at the postsecondary level . Furthermore, in the context of this study, a significant proportion of the respondents (30%) mentioned that either the teaching methods or the evaluation methods were inappropriate for their functional limitation. The comment of this respondent speaks volumes:
“When I have to be passive in a course, I have trouble maintaining my attention. I need to be active. Unfortunately, most of the courses are not designed with this in mind. In addition, because of my ADHD, I have problems with multiple-choice exams. I over-analyze things and I consider all the possibilities, which sometimes leads me to the wrong answer, even if I have a very good understanding of the concept.”
Such traditional teaching methods are particularly unsuitable for some SWDs. In order to eliminate certain barriers to learning, the approach frequently favoured must rely on a combination of a variety of instructional practices, such as is the case for inclusive instructional approaches (e.g., the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) model) [32, 54].
This approach, which has been established for a few years now in a number of school settings, has enabled researchers to assess its impacts on students and professors . Thus, professors have generally observed an improvement in teaching, and a decrease in requests for accommodation measures. For students, this approach contributes to improving the learning process, self-determination and academic motivation . In general, adapting a course following an inclusive instructional approach has many advantages and results in better school success . In this regard, a number of universities have developed training courses, and online resources are now available free of charge (Center for Applied Special Technology -CAST, UDL Guidelines, UDL Universe), thus helping to support teachers in acquiring new instructional strategies. This gives us reason to believe that promoting these resources and recognizing inspiring experiences could serve as incentives to encourage professors to review their pedagogical practices. However, it is clear that, in spite of the research and resources supporting the changes to be made, the pedagogical environment at universities is still very much an obstacle to the full participation of many students with a functional limitation.
Fear of Being Discriminated Against
More than one-quarter of respondents (27.8%) mentioned that they hesitated before using the services and accommodation measures available at the BACSÉSH. One reason evoked to explain this hesitation is undoubtedly the fear of negative attitudes on the part of professors or peers―a reality that has been well documented by many authors [14, 20, 26, 27, 59]. Even though SWDs have been present for more than 20 years at the university studied, this research reiterates the perception of prejudice against SWDs, both among professors and peers. Such prejudice has consequences for the educational pathway of SWDs, leading some to refuse to reveal their functional limitation and to not take advantage of accommodation measures. Some studies provide extensive documentation of the discriminatory attitudes perceived by SWDs [6, 24]. In addition, this reluctance to use services for SWDs can also stem from a desire for autonomy, or from a fear of being perceived as less competent [40, 43, 59, 61]. SWDs mentioned being afraid of living with a label, in the eyes of peers, as one respondent indicated here:
“I don’t feel like being judged or labelled. In addition, I’ve had note-takers who have revealed to other students that they were taking notes for me. I didn’t like it for this information to be going around.”
This testimonial is not surprising, considering that 12.7% of respondents have never mentioned their functional limitation to another student, to avoid being judged about it. As in other studies [10, 30], respondents also reported their concerns about the perception of faculty members. They stated that lecturers and professors might imply that they were incompetent or might express that they were not happy with the accommodation measures. Some respondents seemed to share this worry, since 10.6% of them mentioned that their “professors openly expressed that accommodations were extra work for them.” Until such time as university education is truly inclusive for all students, the disclosure of functional limitation will remain an unavoidable prerequisite for obtaining accommodation measures or services. This is therefore an obstacle centred on the attitudes and sociocultural factors of the environment.
The aspect that has been given the most scrutiny by the scientific literature  relates to the impacts of services and accommodation measures for the academic progress of SWDs. In the context of this study, the results obtained indicate that a very large majority (92.5%) of the respondents consider that the accommodation measures provided by the BACSÉSH are “essential” or “sometimes useful” for their studies.
Two respondents provided more specific explanations about the positive impacts of accommodation measures, in the following comments:
“The accommodations helped me to reach some of my goals, for example, answering all of the questions on exams,” and “The accommodations helped me to come closer to reaching my full potential.”
In general, the impacts are significant for SWDs. As highlighted in several studies [13, 21, 26, 46, 55], accommodation measures help to reinforce their feeling of belonging to the student community and to increase their sense of competence, particularly when taking exams. In spite of a belief shared by most of the respondents, namely, that accommodation measures are “essential” to their studies, the desire for autonomy prevails for certain SWDs, and this is expressed through their desire to be able to select evaluation methods where they can use accommodation measures. Indeed, in the context of exams, 21.3% of the respondents reported that they do not systematically use all of their accommodation measures. This is illustrated by the following comment written by a respondent: “It depends on the type of evaluation. If it’s a multiple-choice exam, I use only the additional time and the quiet room. I don’t necessarily use the full time allotted. It depends on the content of the exam.”
Support Provided by Counsellors for SWDs
Another facilitating condition that is commonly analyzed in the scientific literature  concerns more specifically the support provided by BACSÉSH counsellors. Many of the study respondents said that they were satisfied with the services provided by counsellors (92.1%) and mentioned that one of the factors that facilitated their academic progress was “the openness and availability of the BACSÉSH counsellors” (53.2%). These findings underscore the importance of providing SWDs with welcome services and an individualized needs assessment for the purpose of preparing an intervention plan. The use of diversified coaching measures, based on a more in-depth understanding of the needs of SWDs, is a crucial component of an appropriate intervention plan [3, 26]. Personalized coaching can be carried out in a number of ways, such as actively listening to the needs identified by students, providing basic information about the services provided, identifying strategies to help them to learn, and collaborating with professors, to name a few.
Relationship with Faculty Members
Finally, the last facilitating condition that stands out in the scientific literature  concerns the quality of the relationship with professors. The comments made by the respondents on this subject were particularly eloquent about the availability and openness of certain faculty members. By way of example, here are the testimonials entered by two respondents: “Some meetings took place before the exams to see if I was well prepared and if I had a good understanding of the subject. Some professors gave me additional exercises, and I had to go over them with the profs at their office,” and “I was always given the accommodations that I was entitled to have. None of the professors refused them. I never had any problems with deferring an exam. All of my professors, without exception, were very understanding.” In that vein, the findings indicate that one-third of the respondents (33.3%) consider that “their professors are willing to make adjustments to their teaching and assessment strategies.” This is a considerable proportion, given that 45.3% of the respondents did not respond to this statement, which seems to imply that they did not make any requests of their professors. Finally, the respondents mentioned certain strategies supported by an inclusive instructional approach as successes: frequent breaks during lecture classes, feedback about evaluations, having clear steps to carry out for a long assignment, etc.―the success of these strategies is another argument in favour of investing in pedagogical support for professors.
From the standpoint of the SWDs in this study, there is no doubt that the respondents appreciate the services provided and that they consider them to be well-founded since 92.5% of respondents view them as essential. This high satisfaction rate lends support to the efforts made by the BACSÉSH of the university studied and indicates that there is no need for a major overhaul of services.
“The BACSÉSH makes it possible to obtain support when we approach the faculty. It helps to prevent situations of distress and isolation. The help I obtained allowed me to successfully resume and complete my program.”
It is incumbent upon the university educational setting to listen to the needs expressed by the students, particularly considering the current growth and diversification of the student population.
While certain obstacles hinder their academic progress, a significant proportion of the respondents (25.2%) mentioned that they had not encountered any obstacles during their studies. For some, this situation can probably be explained by a combination of facilitating conditions, such as the use of accommodation measures, support from their social network, the use of technical aids and compensatory strategies. In addition, the findings obtained also highlight that positive attitudes on the part of professors and inclusive instructional strategies are determining issues of importance to SWDs. These issues merit greater attention since they contribute to enhancing SWDs’ sense of belonging to the university community and facilitate learning for the student population as a whole.
Anne-Louise Fournier has been working in academic achievement at the Université Laval student help centre since 1991. Initially hired as a psychologist to provide individual counselling and group workshops, she later became coordinator of disabled student services in 1998. She has contributed to the development of teaching guides and awareness-raising tools for faculty. She also lead the adoption of best practices for academic accommodations to support students with disabilities and enable them to achieve their full potential. Since 2010, she has been involved in an international discussion group focusing on new disabilities and new challenges from a comparative reality perspective.
Bruno Hubert is a research and planning officer in orientation and support services for students with disabilities [BACSESH] at Université Laval. He has five years of experience showcasing the knowledge and experience of school system stakeholders and researchers through projects at the Centre de transfert pour la réussite éducative du Québec (CTREQ). Mr. Hubert has a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a Master’s degree in Research Practices and Public Action from the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS).