Op-ed: Accessibility is a worthy investment; The Accessibility Services volunteer note-taking system is not hitting home for many students
By Chandrashri Pal and Nadia Kanani
Note-taking is a recognized accessibility need for students with progressive hearing loss, deafness, poor vision, ADHD, and various other learning, sensory, and physical disabilities, disorders, and impairments. This service is an essential accommodation for departments that have historical and existing systemic barriers to entry for disabled students, such as sciences, technology, engineering, math and architecture (STEMA).
For example, note-taking services for students with low vision allows for better contextualization and interpretation of math, equations, graphs, diagrams, and code languages, a necessity for disabled students for whom STEMA classes may otherwise be inaccessible. Lack of access to notes, especially in the STEMA fields, often means that disabled students have to switch out of those subjects.
It is therefore imperative that lecture notes, textbooks, exams, quizzes and all class materials are made available in alternative formats in order for disabled students to have equitable access to education.
At the St. George campus, the note-taking program is administered through Accessibility Services. The program relies almost entirely on volunteers; students in the same class as those in need of notes are asked to sign up as note-takers with Accessibility Services. In return, volunteers receive a certificate from Accessibility Services. If the volunteer takes on note-taking positions for multiple classes, they may be eligible for co-curricular record accreditation through U of T.
The current volunteer note-taking program has over 1500 volunteers and serves over 1200 disabled students. Fortunately, U of T provides volunteer note-taking as one way to level the playing field for registered students with disabilities.
However, the volunteer system has many limitations that create additional barriers for students with disabilities. One of the first challenges of this system is that it is dependent on professors making an announcement in class in order to recruit volunteers. Many professors do not make this announcement, make it only once, or fail to adequately emphasize the pressing need for volunteers.
In addition, reliance on a volunteer-based system — as opposed to hiring paid note-takers — frequently leads to a lack of consistent note-taking in class. Rather than submitting and uploading lecture notes after every class, note-takers often submit and upload their notes every few weeks. Thus, lectures notes are not uploaded in a timely manner and students often do not have access to the lecture materials prior to midterms, course assignments, or labs.
Lecture notes are often shared in formats that end up being inaccessible; for example, handwritten notes that are not readable by screen readers are virtually useless to students who need to access them.
In addition, it is rare that tutorial notes are provided to students, as it is not required for volunteers to share notes from non-lecture based class sections. In fact, there is no formal mechanism in place for students to be able to request note-taking for tutorials, labs, or field courses if they require them.
Not having access to notes promptly after lectures take place makes it difficult for students with disabilities to absorb lecture material and work through it in the sequential manner necessary for complete understanding, or to learn through the framework in which the material is intended to be taught.
In sum, due to the inconsistent submission of lecture notes, lack of guidance for note-takers, and failure to provide note-takers in non-lecture based learning spaces, disabled students are placed at a significant disadvantage. As a result, rather than levelling the playing field, the note-taking system at U of T systematically leaves disabled students behind and struggling to catch up in their courses.
The university’s reliance on an almost entirely volunteer-based system for note taking is puzzling, as the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) claims to provide $250 per class per semester for note-takers through the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment (BSWD/CSG-PDSE). Funding through this grant is decided on a case-by-case basis using a standardized application.
While all students with disabilities requiring note-takers should, in theory, be able to get funding for this service, there seems to be an uneven distribution of this government-allocated money. At U of T, many students who have received funding for note-takers repeatedly advocated for this service prior to being approved.
Across the province, we find that some universities and colleges consistently pay for note-takers while others, including U of T, do not. Inconsistencies also exist within U of T, which raises questions about how Ministry funding is being allocated to students. If it has been determined that a student requires note-takers, why is funding for note-takers not being provided? What are the reasons for relying on a volunteer-based note-taking program?
While U of T is is considered a publicly-assisted institution, education here is still framed through notions of meritocracy, competition, and performance. From this perspective, competition is regarded a necessary precursor to research innovation. Within the context of accessibility needs, this competition-driven system has significant consequences for disabled students. In the case of note-taking, disabled students are represented as having an ‘unfair advantage’ or a ‘competitive edge’ over their peers when they receive lecture notes from a classmate.
These unfounded perceptions lead to both professors and non-disabled students de-valuing the importance of note-taking services and, at the same time, create an even more hostile classroom environment for disabled students. Programs that are inaccessible remain inaccessible, while the lack of support often pushes disabled students out.
Without a broader discourse on equity and a reconceptualization of classroom accommodations as accessibility needs, the conversation remains focused on individual needs. Such an approach cannot lead to meaningful structural changes. In order to have a note-taker system that works for disabled students, it is urgent for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and U of T to begin to engage with disabled students and to center our needs.
Chandrashri Pal is a Board Member and the current Vice-Chair of Students for Barrier-free Access. Nadia Kanani is the Advocacy and Volunteer Coordinator at Students for Barrier-free Access.