Opinion

Accommodations at colleges should go both ways

By HARLEY DAVIDSON
Columnist

Imagine you’re working at the local butcher and your normal job is cutting meat, but one day the boss comes in with a bag of flour and says you’ll need to start making bread for anybody who needs it. He says you’ll be working overtime to prepare the bread, but you won’t be getting paid for the extra hours. Wouldn’t you feel a little disrespected? Might you even have a little anxiety?

Well, that’s a similar situation facing post-secondary teachers in Ontario, except the flour is mental health issues and the bread is student accommodations.

It’s ironic – teachers in post-secondary institutions are bound to face greater stress than ever with regards to student mental health. And considering the alarming increase in student mental health issues across Ontario, highlighted by an Ontario Universities and Colleges Association (OUCHA) survey of over 25,000 students from 20 post-secondary schools in Ontario, it seems they’re justified.

On top of that, in January of 2016, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) made a controversial decision to redefine student accommodations for those who suffer from debilitating disabilities, including mental health issues.

Some of the new accommodations include interim accommodations, which allow students to access accommodations while they are still waiting for medical documentation, and retroactive accommodations, which allow students to rewrite tests, re-submit assignments or have grades re-weighted if they were suffering from mental health issues when they originally completed them.

All of this, while necessary, means a lot more work for both teachers and institutional offices for student disabilities.

Why is this an issue? Because there aren’t currently any return accommodations for teachers that have to make these sorts of accommodations, regardless if they end up having to do hours of extra work.

You might think that’s just part of a teacher’s job, but another addition to the OHRC guidelines is that students also no longer have to divulge medical information to their professors. So is it their job? And should it be?

I should probably mention that, from my experience at Niagara College, the professors have been extremely willing to help in any way they can, and generally care about the health of their students. They want to see students succeed. I’m not saying teachers don’t want to help. I’m saying it should be fair to the teachers too. They’re people too.

The processes of registering for student accommodations goes through a student disabilities office, but teachers are the ones who actually need to go back into the tests, schedule new times for students to write them (sometimes with further accommodations considered, such as private testing rooms, etc.) and then go back and re-mark them, X times per year.

The real question is: are teachers going to get extra pay for this? Nobody knows, but they currently don’t.
The not-so-popular Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, thinks we need to make sure college and universities have the support to properly equip teachers to deal with student mental health issues, but there is no definitive plan yet, for some legitimate reasons.

“This is an issue that is going to continue to evolve, and yes we have a mental health strategy in the province, but we need to make sure that the resources are allocated in a way that supports people,” said Wynne.

“The reality is that we have more access to training for elementary and secondary teachers on some of those issues… but do I believe that educational institutions need to have trained personnel to help young people to deal with mental health issues? Yes, I absolutely do believe that.”

And Wynne is right. With the complexity and range of teachers and institutions in Ontario, it’s hard to just wave a wand and get things done.

Colleges and universities are public institutions, yet while there is a handbook available from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), which outlines a framework for addressing student mental health issues, each institution has its own standards and processes to deal with them, as long as they comply with OHRC guidelines.

With the number of students affected by a wide range of disabilities and mental health issues in Ontario, it seems we need a more standardized way to handle these issues, on both ends. After all, transferring the stress onto someone else doesn’t really fix the issue.

In the end, teachers are role models for students, and students often trust that their teachers will know what to do when they ask for help. But teachers aren’t mental health professionals. These new guidelines of separating teacher involvement might just be the right way to go, but if teachers are going to be forced to make bread, they should also make the dough.