Carleton Emerging as International Role Model on Services for Students with Disabilities

By Dan Rubinstein
Photos by Chris Roussakis

Long considered the most accessible university in Canada, Carleton is emerging as an international role model as other countries seek to improve services for students with disabilities as a step toward enhanced employability and social inclusion.

Carleton’s hosted a delegation of government, not-for-profit and educational sector representatives from the International Initiative of Disability Leadership (IIDL) on Nov. 29, part of a three-day visit to the National Capital Region organized by Employment and Social Development Canada’s Office for Disability Issues.

The day at Carleton, with guests from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and United States, began with a tour of some of the spaces on campus where services for students with disabilities are delivered, including the McIntye Exam Centre.

Named after Nancy McIntye, a former longtime staffer at the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities (PMC), the exam centre is designed to meet a variety of needs during scheduled tests, with quiet rooms, computers loaded with specialized software, natural lighting and other features.

These services reflect the fact that since 1990, when the PMC opened, the community of students with disabilities at Carleton has shifted from 90 per cent physical disabilities, such as mobility and visual impairment to 90 per cent learning disabilities and mental health challenges.

“Our students,” said Dean Mellway, acting director of Carleton’s READ (Research, Education, Accessibility and Design) Initiative, “get the support they need to remain on track.”

There are more than 2,500 students with disabilities at Carleton, roughly 10 percent of the student population. That’s above average for a Canadian university, according to Mellway. Most post-secondary institutions are in the five- to eight-per cent range.

These figures stood out to Lorna Sullivan of the Australian NGO UnitingCare Queensland. Even the most accessible universities in Australia, she said, don’t come close to Carleton’s level of inclusion.

“There isn’t the expectation among many young people with learning disabilities in Australia that they can aspire toward a university education,” said Sullivan. “Part of what the IIDL can do is link people like Dean to people at home, so we can help advances spread across the globe much more quickly. That’s our whole purpose in being here — we see innovation happening around the world, and we can learn from what universities such as Carleton are doing.

“Australia is really just beginning on this journey. We’re just starting to talk about real participation in the workforce and economic fabric of society.”

As part of that transition, Australia has introduced a new National Disability Insurance Scheme, a $22-billion annual program that “will provide about 460,000 Australians under the age of 65 with a permanent and significant disability with reasonable and necessary supports they need to live an ordinary life … and achieve their goals, including independence, community involvement, employment and well-being.”

“We need to understand what’s possible and take this conversation back to Australia,” said Anne Skordis, a general manager at the agency tasked with implementing the new program. “We need to bring best practices from other countries into our policy discussions.”

The motivation for Australia’s new approach, she said, is economic. Although $22 billion is a significant sum, it’s an effective investment toward independence, health and social participation. “The long-term economic gain is huge,” said Skordis, “and education is fundamental to this shift.”

After the McIntyre Exam Centre, the tour group led by Mellway visited the PMC offices, where disability adviser Somei Tam explained Carleton’s collaborative approach to accommodation, from work with faculties and departments to joint efforts with the library to provide texts in accessible formats.

Carleton operates under the parameters of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the province’s Human Rights Code, said Tam. “There are proactive standards that the university as a whole is mindful of,” she said, “in addition to our mandate to provide individualized accommodation.”

The tour included a visit to Prof. Mojtaba Ahmadi Advanced Biomechatronics & Locomotion Lab in the Canal Building, where Carleton’s research on assistive devices for mobility and rehabilitation was showcased.

The event culminated in a panel discussion in Richcraft Hall introduced by Suzanne Blanchard, Carleton’s vice-president (Students and Enrolment). The panel focused on job opportunities and barriers to employment for students and graduates with disabilities.

“This is the most exciting time to be involved in disability work,” said Mellway. “I’ve never felt the potential that we have today because of so many people taking up the charge. The biggest issue is employment. We’ve come so far, but we’re still a long way from where we need to be.”

Dean Mellway leads a tour of Carleton.Dean Mellway leads a tour of Carleton.Dean Mellway leads a tour of Carleton.Delegats speak during a tour of Carleton.Prof. Mojtaba Ahmadi gives a tour of the Advanced Biomechatronics & Locomotion LabProf. Mojtaba Ahmadi gives a tour of the Advanced Biomechatronics & Locomotion Lab