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One fifth of Nova Scotia’s population lives with a disability, the highest disability incidence rate in Canada (PALS, 2006). Equal opportunity for persons with disabilities to achieve their educational goals and be successful in their chosen fields is not simply an ideal, it is a human right and a socioeconomic imperative.
EDUCATION & EMPLOYMENT CHALLENGES
Persons with disabilities have remained one of the most undereducated and underemployed groups in Canada for decades (Linkow, Barrington, Bruyere, Figueroa, & Wright, 2013; Prince, 2014). National level research (HRSDC; 2009) indicates that 25% of persons with a disability have not graduated from high school compared to 13.5% for persons without a disability. In terms of post-secondary education (PSE), they are significantly less likely to have achieved college (21.8% vs. 26.5%), undergraduate (8.3% vs. 15.3%) and graduate credentials (5.5% vs. 8.7%), although they are more likely (14.7%) than those without disabilities (12%) to have trade diplomas and certificates. Overall, across Canada, 16.1% of youth with disabilities aged 15 to 24 left school because of their impairment, lengthening their time spent in school and presumably out of the workforce (HRDC, 2009).
PSE is more expensive for students with disabilities. They face higher costs, longer study periods and lower in-study employment earnings. Moreover, they are more likely to access greater amounts of student financial assistance and are significantly more likely to take on private loans than students without disabilities (Frenette, 2007). Ontario research found students with disabilities had the highest average bank loan/line of credit of any underrepresented group (OUSA, 2012).
Persons with disabilities are similarly underrepresented in the workforce. In the last Participation and Activities Limitations Survey (PALS; 2006), 62% of Nova Scotian adults aged 25-54 with a disability were employed, in comparison to 88% of those without a disability. Youth with disabilities are more likely to hold multiple jobs in a year, have jobs unrelated to their credential, be neither working nor attending school, and/or live in low income households (Hughes & Avoke, 2010; Prince, 2014). This means that youth with disabilities are more likely to be un- or underemployed, to be undereducated, and to be in poverty. As nearly 75% of new jobs in Canada require a PSE credential, increasing PSE achievement among persons with disabilities could drastically increase their workforce participation (AUCC, 2011).
SUPPORTS FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES
Nova Scotian institutions recognize any individual with medical documentation of permanent illness or impairment as a student with a disability, so long as they inform the institution of their diagnosis (i.e. “self-identify”) by registering with the Disability Services Office (DSO). DSO’s core responsibilities with respect to students with disabilities include (1) arranging academic accommodations and (2) connecting students with available federal and provincial funding. DSOs may also seek to improve the physical accessibility of campus, and administer targeted skills development programming.
DSOs are funded through Post Secondary Disability Services (PSDS), a division of the Department of Labour and Advanced Education (LAE). Currently, PSDS supports on-site DSOs at nine Nova Scotian universities and 13 NSCC campuses, as well as direct grants for students with disabilities. In 2012/13, PSDS distributed $1,019,370 in total to support university DSOs, as well as $1,170,000 to support DSOs at the NSCC.
Students registered with DSOs represented 5.8% of Nova Scotia’s total university enrollment and 10.8% of NSCC enrollment in 2012/2013 . However, there are significant disparities in representation levels among the universities and different NSCC campuses (see Figure 1 in PDF).
NSCAD has always had the highest percentage of students registered with the DSO, but experienced a 226% increase between 2004-05 and 2012-13. Acadia’s numbers jumped 220% over the same period, ranking first among comprehensive universities. Université Sainte-Anne has had an enormous 562% increase in service uptake in 10 years.
Community colleges historically have more students with disabilities (McCloy & DeClou, 2013). Most NSCC campuses average about 12% of their student body being registered with disability services. In 2014, the Burridge campus had a 21.6% representation rate – just over target numbers for proportional representation. Thus, the NSCC’s slower growth (68%) remains substantial, in particular relative to their higher baseline.
Importantly, the number of students with disabilities graduating has seen similar growth: 93% increase from 2004-05 to 2011-12 (PSDS, 2012). Not only are more students with disabilities making it into PSE, more are achieving their educational goals.
PREVALENCE OF IMPAIRMENTS
In addition to the increase in service uptake, there has been a dramatic change in the prevalence of particular impairments among students registered with DSOs (CAUCASS, 2011 – See Figure 2 in PDF).
Learning disabilities and ADHD have accounted for the largest proportion of primary impairments for most of the past 30 years. However, the reported prevalence of mental health impairments as primary diagnoses has more than doubled in the past 15 years, while mental health diagnoses are also the most prevalent form of secondary diagnoses. In contrast, most Nova Scotian institutions report fewer than five students identifying mobility, hearing or vision issues as their primary diagnosis; a substantial decrease from 15 years ago.
CHRONIC RESOURCE SHORTAGES
As a result of increased enrolment of registered students with disabilities and frozen funding, universities have seen a 42.2% decrease in discretionary funding dollars per student since 2008. The total amount of money given by PSDS to universities per student registered with DSOs in 2007-08 was $382.17 (not including DRF funds). By 2012-13, the average amount per student had almost halved to $220.89. Similar trends took place at the NSCC. At the same time, DSOs have been facing increasing demands for a larger variety of services; calls for them to make outreach a priority generally and participate in stigma reduction and awareness campaigns. Much of the increased demand, and many of the changes in demand, likely result from increased awareness of disabilities and reduced stigma, as well as improved supports in Primary-to-12 education, making further increases in DSO workload likely.