News | SSMU collects testimony from students regarding academic accommodations

Testimony to be used to dispel university-wide inconsistencies

From August 18 to September 11, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) collected testimonies from students and recent graduates regarding their experiences with academic accommodation at the University.

Spearheaded by SSMU VP University Affairs Erin Sobat and SSMU Academic Research Commissioner Aishwarya Singh, the project gives students a platform to share their experiences getting accommodations for both mental health issues and physical illnesses.

Students shared their stories via an online survey. However, unlike previous SSMU surveys, it was not anonymous and asked participants to go into much more detail.

“I think a challenge with doing this project is that it requires people to share some very personal and intimate details about their experiences at McGill that not everyone has the energy or capacity to do,” Singh said in an interview with The Daily.

Despite that, speaking to The Daily over the phone, Sobat said SSMU had received a “good number” of testimonies.

“I think a challenge with doing this project is that it requires people to share some very personal and intimate details about their experiences at McGill that not everyone has the energy or capacity to do.”

Sobat explained that the goal of the project is not only to gather testimonies, but also to follow up with students who are willing to share their stories publicly, in order to build a case against the current academic accommodations model at McGill.

It will argue that the current system in place for granting academic accommodation, which requires supporting documentation (for example, a doctor’s note), is inconsistent across faculties and discriminates against students under the Charter of Student Rights.

Difficulties with supporting documentation

“Existing procedures are largely inconsistent and borderline discriminatory across the University because, first of all, our current practice around requiring supporting documentation is really more focused on [the fact that students are] unwell or proving a certain degree of need as opposed to actually getting access to care,” Sobat said.

In a phone interview with The Daily, a U3 International Development Studies student who wished to remain anonymous, also highlighted the burden on students.

“The system makes sense theoretically, but as a student, it’s very difficult,” they said. “I had a huge panic attack […] before an exam, and I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I was throwing up, and at 6:00 in the morning I wanted to be asleep, but I needed to guarantee that I could get a doctor’s note to miss that exam.”

“I think students should be given a grace period,” they added. But they admit it is difficult to “make the system more accessible to students without questioning the integrity of students.”

“The system makes sense theoretically, but as a student, it’s very difficult.”

According to Sobat, SSMU tried to reduce the need for medical notes in certain cases last term by discussing granting academic accommodations without a note for first time requests. While the model wasn’t implemented, many faculties have agreed to allow first time exam deferral requests without a medical note.

University-wide inconsistencies

However, there remain discrepancies in regard to granting academic accommodations across faculties. Larger faculties like Arts and Science let individual professors decide whether supporting documentation is required, Sobat said. Other faculties, like Law and Agriculture, have a centralized model, where accommodation requests go through their student affairs office.

Both Sobat and Singh believe the current academic accommodations model gives too much discretionary power to individual professors and administrators.

Singh highlighted the fact that at other schools, such as the University of British Columbia, “their equivalent for the Office for Students with Disabilities has actual authority. You submit your documents, you get approved for academic accommodation and they literally tell your [professors] that they have to provide you with these accommodations.”

According to Sobat, testimonies have so far revealed that students feel the need to justify themselves and their need for accommodation, which often means disclosing their health problems or disabilities to a professor.

“We think that professors are obviously partners in learning, they need to be involved in the accommodations process […] But they shouldn’t be a) the ones deciding whether or not a student receives that accommodation, and b) they shouldn’t need to receive disclosures or specifics of a student’s condition,” he said.

“They’re obviously not generally trained to be evaluating those kind of things and it opens the student up to not just awkward situations but also potential discrimination,” Sobat continued.

“[Professors] shouldn’t be a) the ones deciding whether or not a student receives that accommodation, and b) they shouldn’t need to receive disclosures or specifics of a student’s condition.”

When asked about the administration’s perspective regarding academic accommodation, Sobat noted that SSMU is working with Dean of Students Christopher Buddle to create a working group on the matter. The group will gather research regarding accommodation policies and look at existing models across McGill faculties to suggest improvements on a faculty-by-faculty basis.

Singh said that whether the administration recognizes the problems with its academic accommodations model or not, “it doesn’t take away from the fact that […] you put students in a really precarious place, and also in a really inconsistent place [because of the discretionary power given to professors].”