SFU’s Centre for Accessible Learning is not accessible

CAL’s large hurdles don’t actually help students with disabilities

Think twice before going to CAL for learning accommodations. PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

by Anonymous

I recently delved into the process of obtaining learning accommodations from SFU’s Centre for Accessible Learning (CAL). But I was shocked to learn that receiving support would require weeks of my time and energy, and would only force me to settle for the absolute bare minimum. These services that are intended to promote equity in learning are overly bureaucratic, limited, and lack sensitivity with vulnerable cases; in short, they are inaccessible.

In October of last year, I was hospitalized for a psychiatric condition, which caused me to miss a week of classes and severely impacted my ability to keep up with my courses. However, despite a letter from my family doctor and an ER psychiatrist, I did not have enough documentation to register with the CAL. Nonetheless, I met with one of their advisors. 

However, I came out of the meeting frustrated by the inaccessibility of receiving accommodations, and entirely overwhelmed by the amount of information thrown at me. Like many students, I did not have the privilege of being able to see a private psychiatrist to provide me with the necessary documentation, nor did I have the time to get in touch with a psychiatrist at SFU before the registration deadline. So I did what a CAL advisor urged me to do: I dropped all of my classes. The situation was out of my hands and it was made very clear to me that I should just “wait until my condition improves” to enrol in courses again. 

I know I am not the only student who has dealt with these circumstances. Serena Bains, an SFU student and member of the SFU Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance (DNA), revealed to me that the CAL appeared to be the only option at SFU to receive learning accommodations. But when they spoke to members of DNA, “everyone had recited how inaccessible accommodations were.” They explained that obtaining documentation was not worth the hassle to “receive hardly any accommodations.” This is the same reason that prior to my hospitalization, I had never reached out for support, and it seems like the reason many others had not as well. 

Bains further explained how they had also encountered trouble with receiving immediate accommodation after being hospitalized. 

“I thought that my situation was dire enough that CAL would have to provide me with significant accommodations. I entered the centre visibly upset and was told that I needed an appointment and that I couldn’t speak to an advisor.” 

While Bains managed to provide enough documentation to receive an appointment, they were told that they could not receive accommodations unless they went through SFU’s Health and Counselling Services (HCS). 

This bureaucratic process and its necessity for students to “prove” their condition creates a barrier for those who require accommodations, but do not have access to diagnostic privileges. It is significantly counterintuitive to expect students with disabilities, like those with psychiatric disabilities, to complete long and complicated processes just so they can have the same opportunities for academic success as those without. This aid is a necessity for students, yet SFU treats it as though it’s a privilege. 

I can see why these extensive requirements for documentation are needed — to prevent students who do not have disabilities from making false claims. But it is ableist to expect students with disabilities to just “push through” the excessive documentation process, especially when their case is particularly sensitive or complicated. Besides, if a student is struggling enough to falsify claims for support, that should be enough grounds to at least receive some help, documentation or not.

Bains elaborated that when they finally received documentation from HCS, they were “provided with 13 pages of highly sensitive and triggering medical records.” They noted how the paperwork was re-traumatizing and included documented quotes from healthcare professionals that criticized their character. It is entirely unfair that a process intended to support students can become an emotionally triggering ordeal. Students should not have to relive trauma, or feel as if their condition is being invalidated to receive minimal accommodations like access to lecture recordings or 15 extra minutes to complete an exam.

I am lucky enough that I was able to gather the right documentation in time for the Spring semester, but many are not in this position. Some students are limited by their ability to deal with the CAL registration process and cannot actively advocate for themselves. Some are even discouraged from attempting to register, or are expected to accept that they will not be able to receive all the help they need. At the end of the day, the CAL’s services are intended to instill equity at SFU but this is impossible if these very services are inaccessible.