Recommendations proposed to address reasonable accommodation

In an effort to address a number of concerns brought forward to Senate last year, an ad hoc committee has developed a number of recommendations on how to address certain academic issues at the University of Manitoba.

The committee, which was established by the Senate executive committee, has proposed recommendations on how the university community could better address accommodation for students with disabilities, degrees notwithstanding a deficiency, and the authority of deans, department heads, and faculty members related to academic requirements.

In regards to accommodation, the committee’s report noted that there was “a general lack of awareness” in the university community about the various types of disabilities and the university’s obligation to provide accommodation.

The committee also noted there were certain sections of the university’s accessibility policy and procedures for students with disabilities that “could be refined to provide greater consistency, clarity and transparency for students, instructors, and staff.”

Reasonable accommodation should be offered, as long it enables the student to display mastery of their academic program and does not create undue hardship for the university, the report explains.

“The integrity of the university’s academic programs as approved by Senate, is a paramount concern, and is a bona fide reason for the denial of certain accommodations,” states the report.

Juliette Cooper, chair of the ad hoc committee, explained the committee felt that reasonable accommodation should be situation specific, depending on the academic requirements of their program and the availability of resources.

In regards to academic requirements, the committee proposed that each academic unit identify which requirements were essential to their program and consider alternative methods through which students could fill such requirements.

“These rationales will guide the work of university administrators, such as Student Accessibility Services, and provide support for the university’s position, should a dispute be elevated to the Human Rights Commission or the courts,” the report explained.

It was also proposed that policy be created surrounding the delegation of authority of deans, department heads and faculty councils to approve or recommend the substitution of academic requirements.

As well, it was suggested that policy be created regarding who has the right to appeal decisions related to accommodation, at what point such appeals could occur, and that a committee be created to address academic accommodation concerns raised by students with disabilities or their course instructors.

In their response to the proposed recommendations, the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) have recommended that there be clearer language when dealing with accommodation in undergraduate programs versus graduate programs of study.

As well, UMFA has asked that it be made clear who should determine what constitutes the mastery of academic requirements, the role of academic staff in determining essential academic requirements, and what recourse instructors can take if they disagree with the accommodation being provided.

“The recommendation [surrounding accommodation] is very general and does not address concerns giving rise to the establishment of the ad hoc committee,” wrote Sharon Alward, vice-president of UMFA, in a response submitted to Senate on behalf of UMFA members.

Alward also raised concerns with the proposed recommendations surrounding the rights and responsibilities of instructors, pointing out that the committee’s report does not recommend that academic staff have the right to appeal a decision related to a proposed accommodation, or be included on the proposed committee to discuss accommodations.

“Particularly with respect to graduate programs of studies, there should be a right for faculty members other than course instructors to raise concerns regarding academic accommodations as they affect comprehensive exams and thesis/dissertation requirements,” Alward wrote.

Camilla Tapp, president of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU), said UMSU finds the proposed recommendations to be overall positive, but that there are issues with certain aspects of the recommendations that may need to be addressed.

Tapp explained UMSU has some concerns over the current language surrounding degrees notwithstanding a deficiency as a means of accommodation — “as the goal of educational accommodation is to ensure the student has the same academic mastery of their field as anyone else.”

Tapp stressed the importance of ensuring students have access to reasonable accommodation so that all students are given equal opportunity when pursuing their post-secondary education.

“It’s very easy to say that a faculty will ‘reasonably accommodate’ a student with a disability, especially when to do otherwise is to be in violation of the law,” she said.
“However, when it actually comes to making that accommodation, many times misconceptions and biases creep in. That’s why it’s so important to ensure faculties have clear and supportable requirements that actually reflect the learning that goes on in that faculty.”

The finalized report of the ad hoc committee is slated to be submitted to the Senate executive committee this month.