By: Lindsay Dorder, Master’s student (Health Sciences)

Introduction: “Knowing thyself”

Students are all uniquely receiving and interpreting information (1,2). A word or phrase could ultimately have different meaning and emotional attachments for a student (1,2). Therefore, it is of utmost importance that those delivering some form of a lesson or lecture, recognize where their internal biases are creating chasms that propel towards failure for students who are disproportionately affected by forms of social and structural inaccessibility (3,4).  For students with disabilities, this can create additional barriers for their academic success, which is why the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) exists. Therefore, having chances to teach does not mean you are inherently and directly achieving student success. (5,6) This is not a passive goal. Specifically, in my experience, no matter how many diversity, equity and accessibility trainings an employee receives, it will not amount to professional change if it is not an active process of learning and re-learning strategies of information delivery. I am continually integrating and critically internalizing this iterative process through my work of ally-ship. In the classroom, this process could require regularly checking in with the students, regularly assessing your biases, directly addressing barriers, and ensuring that student voices are not engulfed by the majority. Additionally, without recognizing how past educational attainment has influenced a student (4,7), one cannot fundamentally and successfully achieve pillars of accessibility. This means addressing the way we deliver information by becoming student-centered (5,6).

The Arguments: “Breaking through the Past”

This iterative and student focused approach agrees with the Paul Menton Centre’s (PMC) guide to determining Essential Requirements for accommodating student’s with disabilities (8). Specifically, the underlying framework of this article is a requirement called Skills Analysis, and is described as, “What pre-existing abilities or skills must all participating students possess?” (8). To explain this notion, I will present two arguments in support, which could be combined with simple monthly student check-ins through a mode that best suits them, such as polls, or in-person feedback.

Firstly, until quite recently, I’ve naively assumed that all high schools and elementary schools in Canada equally provide the educational tools for all students to succeed in university. During my high school days, bridging the gap between high school and university was never about the roots of disparities, but instead hinges on the student’s own ability to remain academically stringent. This is a flawed narrative that must shift to recognizing where and how the education system has failed to even provide an equitable chance to build a bridge. For instance, on March 10th, 2020, during the Right To Read public inquiry, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) tweeted: “Tonight we heard about a ‘two-tiered’ school system—one for ‘ordinary’ kids and one for kids with reading disabilities that is filled with delays, lowered expectations, high anxiety, tears and family and financial stress.” Through a series of tweets, the OHRC reported lived experiences of current child and youth students, parents and educators. These lived experiences show that underlying social and structural factors are at play before students with disabilities reach university. For example, an elementary student with a behavioural disability may be punished by being removed from the classroom (3). This is one method in which past educational experiences amalgamate against students with disabilities—punitive removal creates gaps in academic skill and social interaction (3).  Therefore, Skills Analysis should recognize how a lack of pre-existing abilities or prerequisite knowledge could be due to frequent periods of systematic disadvantage. Importantly, a recent scoping review by Mayor et al (2019) highlights how there is an “educational opportunity gap” in Canada as there is in the United States (7). They highlight how current research understandings of the systematic disparities in educational success is severely lacking perspectives of intersectional identities; for instance, racialization, LGBTQ+, disabilities, and more (7). Thus, being able to recognize how one’s own biases are working against accessibility is an active process of self-awareness and putting actions behind dismantling these factors that are creating barriers.

Secondly, as seen by the work of Gibbs and Coffey (2004), if a teacher is trained in being learner focused, this will produce better student outcomes and satisfaction (5). This is because the students will be encouraged to maintain deeper connections to learning (5). This work is supported by a recent study of Mahon et al (2019), who also found that being student-centered provides benefits not only to student success but also benefits the teacher’s self-confidence and personal growth (6). Thus, the foundation of the approach I would use in the classroom is a continuous needs assessment that begins from the onset of the class and consistently would allow me to reflect on how my delivery of content and classroom management is adversely influencing accessibility. To accomplish this, I draw upon work supporting the power of self-reflection (3, 6) for dismantling barriers students may face. Ultimately, successful accessibility in the classroom comes as an active process between the student and the teacher. We must work to empower underrepresented groups to succeed, especially because education is a provincial jurisdiction (9). For instance, research conducted on the educational disparities between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students, from a British Columbian cohort, found that Indigenous students had an incidence of various disabilities that was two and a half times higher than their non-Indigenous peers (9). With this work, we can begin to critically assess how intersections of race, disability, and social factors are affecting the academic success of the diversity of students in Canada.

Conclusions: “Transfer what you know”

I am currently working in a field that prioritizes determinants of health, and this lets me recognize the importance of upstream factors and root causes. For example, an upstream factor for developing Diabetes Mellitus could be income which affects food security, and so results in obesity that may increase one’s risk of diabetes. (10,11) The AODA has seven broad themes (12) where I can see a transfer of my current knowledge of equity and inclusivity alongside TA workshops that address subjects of group management and the importance of communication. For instance, the workshops of “Active Learning Strategies for Improving Student Engagement” and “Resources and Referrals 101” both touched on learning about your students in order to optimally manage the class. In addition, my own lived experience as an Afro-Indigenous woman from the Caribbean will greatly influence how I approach a classroom if given the opportunity to teach. In closing, draw parallels between the training you receive to critically understand how to best pave academic success for students with disabilities, who all have unique identities and lived experiences.


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