Disabled students in Canadian universities obtain academic accommodations through an individualized service approach. The implementation of these learning supports is dependent on students' ability to navigate institutional policies and procedures that require engagement with faculty who are variably willing to respond. This study documents the experiences of disabled students and their professors as they worked to make these individual arrangements on three Nova Scotia university campuses. Findings centre the relational elements of accommodation procedures and expose their potential to reinforce and naturalize the marginal status of disabled learners while also elucidating the possibility for meaningful systemic change. Findings also situate the student/faculty relationship as an important site of inquiry and analysis for Canadian post-secondary institutions working to become more accessible for a diversity of disabled students.


Emergent thinking about the relational nature of post-secondary disability support structures offers Canadian scholars new avenues to probe the links between specific disability accommodation practices and the student/faculty relationships they produce. However, continually focusing on individual accommodations allows institutions to minimize their responsibility for diverse course pathways, and it places the burden of ensuring inclusive university learning on disabled students themselves (Aspis, 1997; Dowse, 2001). Studies of post-secondary disability experience in Canada do exist (Coriale, Larson, & Robertson, 2012; Easterbrook et al., 2015; Erten, 2011; Hutcheon & Wolbring, 2012; Marquis et al., 2016; McKenzie, 2015; Mullins & Preyde, 2013; Warick, 2004), but few have substantively explored disability as a reality that is lived and produced within student/faculty relationships (Bruce & Aylward, 2021), and they have rarely investigated how these connections might help to structure institutional and pedagogical practices that value student diversity. Inspired by the work of Tanya Titchkosky (2011), this research calls attention to the importance of the relational elements embedded within accommodation procedures by exploring how they contribute to perceptions of post-secondary participation and belonging.

Post- secondary Learning and Disability

Post-secondary accommodation policies commonly position disability as "an individual 'problem to be fixed,' rather than an opportunity to reconceive what inclusion 'means' in higher education" (Cox, 2017, p. 559). Disabled students are usually taught they must develop knowledge and skills related to discussing their disabilities and asserting their learning-specific needs and rights to achieve academic success (Holsberg, Test, & Rusher, 2019; Shaw, Madaus, & Dukes, 2010; Test, Fowler, Wood, Brewer, & Eddy, 2005; Walker & Test, 2011). Yet, this approach represents an individualized skills-based approach that can privilege deficit-focused methods and impose hierarchical and mutually anxiety-provoking student-faculty relationships (Claiborne, Cornforth, Gibson, & Smith, 2011).

Nevertheless, university faculty possess generally positive attitudes toward accommodating disabled learners. Several research studies have explored the overall perspectives of university professors regarding accommodations for disabled students, and results revealed broad agreement with the ideal of teaching all university learners (Alghazo, 2008; Jensen, McCrary, Kramp, & Cooper, 2004; Murray, Wren, & Keys, 2008; Smith, 2010). In fact, university faculty in some contexts have demonstrated more favorable attitudes toward disabled students than any other higher education campus partners (Polo Sanchez, Fernandez-Jimenez, & Fernandez-Cabezas, 2018). There are, however, post-secondary context conditions that demonstrate the limits of professors' willingness to support disabled learners (Lightfoot, Janemi, & Rudman, 2018).

These limiting conditions often appear rooted in instructors' thoughts about particular disability types, specific accommodation requests, and concerns over fairness to non-disabled individuals (Cook, Rumrill, & Tankersley, 2009; Hindes & Mather, 2007; Rao & Gartin, 2003; Skinner, 2007). Some faculty believe inclusive practice represents an additional workload that should be built into academic planning (Bruce, 2017; Smith, 2010). Yet, student support structures on university campuses fail to recognize this perspective when they delegate responsibility for disability supports to staff outside of the classroom, situate those professionals as the experts on disability and learning, and thereby solidify notions that inclusive practice takes place outside the student-faculty relationship (Oslund, 2012).

Post-secondary disability accessibility is an institutional structure understood to encompass the regulations and specific allowable adjustments intended to facilitate the participation of disabled learners. As a continuation of special education approaches common to primary and secondary public schooling, post-secondary accommodations tend to focus on the provision of substantially separate compensatory programs that aim to alleviate the naturally occurring and biologically determined impact of what is considered impaired functioning (Danforth & Gabel, 2006; Gallagher, 2006). Within this framework, academic accommodations at university are frequently defined by students and faculty as alternative test and exam arrangements, tutoring and academic coaching, note taking and scribing services, use of assistive technologies, and adapted assignment formats and due dates (Bruce, 2017).

Publicly-funded post-secondary education institutions in Canada generally have centres for accessible learning staffed with professionals who coordinate individual accommodations for students with documented disabilities (National Educational Association of Disabled Students, 2018). In Nova Scotia, the government funds accessibility resource facilitators who coordinate academic accommodations on each university and community college campus for students who self-identify and provide proof of disability. Notably, roles and responsibilities for this staff position stem from institutional disability policies, so a wide variety of campus-specific accessibility procedures exist across the province (Post-Secondary Accessibility Services, n.d.). The common thread is, however, government and institutional policies that consistently utilize a highly individualized approach that places the onus on students to self-identify as disabled and self-advocate in order to make specific academic arrangements (Aylward, 2006; Bruce & Aylward, 2021).

The experiences of both disabled students and their professors within this highly individualized service-provision approach in Nova Scotia have not been substantively investigated. Neither has the student/faculty relationship been probed for the knowledge it can generate about the perceived place of disability and disabled students in Nova Scotia universities. Therefore, this study explored how disabled students and their instructors understood and experienced the relational elements embedded within formal disability support structures and how those experiences informed their perspectives on disability and belonging in higher education. The main question guiding the research was: How do student/faculty accommodation-related interactions and relationships shape disabled student and university faculty perspectives on the place of disability in post-secondary learning environments?

Theoretically, the study is grounded in a poststructural understanding of ableism as a preference for specific abilities articulated as the idealized yet unattainable species-typical and therefore fully human individual (Campbell, 2001; Wolbring, 2008). Ability is good and disability is bad - purportedly separate phenomena that nonetheless depend integrally on each other for their very existence and preservation (Goodley, 2014; Titchkosky, 2007). Ableism, and more specifically neoliberal ableism, inextricably links educational belonging to the desired demonstration of normalcy and ability (Goodley, 2016), or to one's ability to emulate normal as a sign of disabled success (Bruce, 2017; Campbell, 2009). It is connected to, "A contemporary society that increasingly seeks to promote the species typical individual citizen: a citizen that is ready and able to work, productively contribute, an atomistic phenomenon bounded and cut off from others, capable, malleable and compliant" (Goodley & Lawthom, 2019, p. 235).


In this article, we share knowledge generated within the first author's doctoral research. She identifies as blind and works to centre disability as a vital form of lived experience that has important implications for generating and analyzing data (Kerschbaum & Price, 2017). The lived experience of disability works to disrupt epistemological and methodological assumptions that sustain deficit understandings of and remedial responses to disabled people (Tremain, 2005). Accordingly, a critical qualitative method utilized active semi-structured interviews to position participants as legitimate sources of knowledge about their own experiences. It recognized their contributions, along with those of the first author as interviewer, in the co-construction of knowledge (Holstein & Gubrium, 2011). The research explicitly aimed to foreground the under-represented voices of disabled students (Beauchamp-Pryor, 2012; Hutcheon & Wolbring, 2012; Vickerman & Blundell, 2010), and to engage the perspectives of university faculty who have lived experience of disability, most often gained through teaching, that might offer valuable insight into how relational elements of accommodation procedures shape disability experiences on university campuses (Titchkosky, 2003, p. 7).

Research Setting and Participants

Interview data were generated at three small liberal arts universities in Nova Scotia, Canada. These particular settings were chosen because the institutions have comparable disability accommodation policies and procedures, similar student enrollment and faculty complement, are primarily undergraduate in their focus, and have similar program offerings at both undergraduate and graduate levels. A total of 30 disabled university students and 16 of their instructors were interviewed over a period of seven months across two semesters, and interviews ranged from 35 to 90 minutes in length. There were 10 student participants from each campus constituting a representative sample of disabled students based on available statistics for the number of students seeking disability services (K. Penny, email communication, April 12, 2016). There was a distribution of seven, four, and five faculty participants across the three university sites.

Ethics approval was received from all three university research ethics boards, and all participants signed and returned informed consent forms. Interviews were conducted in a private accessible room in the Education Department at each participating university. All participants were asked in advance about any required disability accommodations, but wheelchair accessibility for one student and ASL interpreting for another were the only accommodations required.

Disabled student participants were those who had completed the required medical and/or psychological assessments, and had provided their respective institutions with sufficient documentation to establish eligibility for disability services. Therefore, they had qualified by providing adequate documentation to demonstrate a 'legitimate' or 'bona fide' need for accommodations (Roberts, 2012). Student participants were pursuing an assortment of degree programs and were at various stages of completion. All but one was an undergraduate student; one was an undergraduate certificate student, and one was a Master's student. Areas of study included business, child and youth study, classics, communications, community development, computer science, education, engineering, French, history, human kinetics, kinesiology, math, music, nursing, nutrition, political science, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and tourism and hospitality management. Students applied for learning supports under the labels of anxiety, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, auditory processing, Autism Spectrum Disorder, bipolar disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, circulation, deaf, depression, diabetes, dyslexia, hearing impairment, limited use of one arm, mental illness, migraines, mild learning disability, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, reading and writing disabilities, seizures, sensory processing, spinal cord injury, and traumatic brain injury.

Within the context of the interview, each student participant was asked if they would be willing to provide the name of at least one faculty member who had, from their perspective and experience, effectively supported their learning. Emphasis was placed on identifying instructors who had engaged with the student in the process of implementing individual accommodations. Each identified supportive instructor was then contacted by the researcher using their university email address and invited to participate. Those who responded in the affirmative were sent a consent form, and an interview was scheduled for a time and at a place of their choosing on their respective campuses. This recruitment process was explicitly intended to support the amplification and contextualization of disabled students' under-represented voices. It also constituted a reflexive strategy employed by the first author that aimed to work against the positioning of faculty as capable of only marginalization and discrimination (Pillow, 2003).

Faculty participants were from a variety of academic disciplines and held a range of work experience. All but one were full time employees. Academic disciplines included biology, business, classics, earth and environmental science, education, environmental and sustainability studies, history, kinesiology, marketing, math, physics, psychology, religious studies, and women's studies.

Data Analysis Strategies

Analysis of interview data processes meant confronting and resolving many arguably ableist standards for determining analytic rigor. Qualitative data analysis software programs are largely inaccessible to screen reader users, and the accepted procedure of creating interview transcripts for analysis as textual data (Markle, West, & Rich, 2011) is a highly visual task. Blind methodologies (Bruce, 2020) were therefore developed as a way of centring disability (Kerschbaum & Price, 2017; Price & Kerschbaum, 2016) within a fully accessible and rigorous process.

Working extensively with the interview recordings using the bookmarking feature of Kurzweil 1000, a fully imbedded partial transcript was created within each recorded interview. This mode of transcription supported the maintenance of an already established auditory connection to each participant while simultaneously addressing the pragmatic need for text that could be accessed for purposes of coding and writing (Bird, 2005). Individual interview profiles were subsequently written as a way of crystalizing thinking and elucidating different patterns, perspectives, and details (Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005). A set of broad initial codes were subsequently developed to organize the data into common themes and salient discussion points (Saldana, 2009). A return to the interview recordings alongside a review of the interview profiles and initial codes led to the development of three relational categories; relations of resistance, relations of compliance, and potentially transgressive relations. Titchkosky, 2011, pp. 12-13) theorizes access as perception, as talk and conduct, and as a form of consciousness that leads us to ask how access can be an interpretive move that puts people into different kinds of relations with their surroundings. This relational frame usefully supported further coding of the data within the following thematic categories: (1) reinforcing and naturalizing marginality; (2) conditional university membership; and (3) understanding and valuing diversity. As the following sections will demonstrate, multiple obligatory interactions associated with the organization and implementation of academic accommodations produced a variety of conditions that made visible a variable sense of post-secondary belonging for disabled learners.

Uncertain Classroom and Community Membership

Student and faculty engagement with the relational aspects of accommodation procedures at the three participating institutions exposed the ways these interactions can and do convey a variable sense of university belonging. As detailed in the following discussion, participants in this study experienced this variability in the positioning of student and faculty accommodation workload and in the differential validation of that work for faculty and students, the pressure to conform communicated through the presence of normative expectations, and the exasperation generated by physical and environmental inaccessibility. Faculty members exhibited varying levels of teaching capacity, and disabled students often felt as though they were provisional members of their classroom communities. There were, however, professors who demonstrated a substantive understanding of and appreciation for diversity that generated meaningful commitments to the creation of supportive and equitable teaching and learning circumstances.

Reinforced and Naturalized Marginality

The everyday work of organizing and implementing accommodations through institutional procedures and the associated engagement with faculty calls attention to the ways these processes and interactions can work to maintain and even naturalize the marginal status of disabled students. These findings expand on the documented consequences of the often unrecognized additional workload for disabled learners (Kioko & Makoelle, 2014; Mullins & Preyde, 2013) by exposing a significant and under-reported consideration of inherent inequities related to how this workload is positioned and valued by faculty and students. For students, diagnostic and documentation requirements were discussed as onerous yet inevitable, and faculty reinforced this perspective. Professors, in contrast, worked to minimize their own accommodation-related workload, argued that it should be validated in ways they were not generally willing to extend to students, and seemed largely unaware of the personal and academic consequences students lived as a result of the accommodation-related energy they were constantly required to expend. As this student described, there is extensive effort associated with securing documentation that the school will deem acceptable, and this can lead to delays and deferrals that can generate significant academic risk.

I went home for reading week and went and got another psych ed report done and again, it wasn't enough for her to give me accommodations for whatever reason, and so my accommodations here, after all that, that took probably about a month and a half. (S 42)

The delay referenced in this quote was in addition to the delay experienced because of the stated inadequacy of her original disability documentation. The total delay in obtaining academic support was actually a semester and a half. The additional workload was therefore accrued as she chased acceptable documentation, and the extra work and associated delay jeopardized her academic progress.

This additional student labour was sometimes recognized by faculty, but it was often naturalized as an expected reality of disabled student university learning. Faculty didn't similarly naturalize their own accommodation-related workload though. They positioned it as something to be reduced, managed, and more substantively validated by their respective institutions (Cook et al., 2009; Rao & Gartin, 2003).

Professors discussed as supportive by students did indicate an understanding of the onerous nature of these added expectations. Some said they understood making individual academic arrangements was stressful and labour-intensive for disabled students. However, only two seemed to grasp the somewhat inequitable nature of that required effort.

No one else had to do that extra little step, and so in some ways that's unfair, but I don't know what's to be done about it, but I don't know, I don't know how to get around that … it's unfair I guess is the way to put it, there's nothing to be done about it … I would not accommodate it though, they're going to have to do that extra work forever. (F 62)

This juxtaposition of empathetic faculty musings with claims that students will have to do it for a lifetime communicates with disturbing clarity that extra work is deemed acceptable for disabled students. It similarly centres the perspective that the university and its faculty are not responsible for reducing or eliminating that inequity through more extensive enactments of socially just pedagogies and support mechanisms. Disabled students are therefore, in this substantive way, being made responsible for generating and sustaining their own learning access. This is the kind of faculty dialogue that often highlights the extent to which disabled students are not acknowledged as an integral part of university teaching and learning discourses because they don't conform to normative expectations of independence, ability, and productivity (Goodley, 2016).

Some students spoke of the academic consequences that this extra work can produce. In some instances, an entire academic year was lost because students were seeking out diagnosis and documentation of disability and were therefore unsuccessful in the majority of their courses. Even after diagnosis, some students said it was time consuming figuring out how to engage in learning, and the result was all too often poor academic work and negative judgments from professors. Some said they were called lazy by faculty, and others were questioned about their commitment to submitting quality work. As a result, failure and interpersonal tension became routine parts of university life making it necessary to expend energy, "Proving to people that their assumptions about you are wrong" (P 48). .

For some disabled students , the significant expenditure of energy was related to what they described as the need to conform to institutional preferences for normatively expressed intelligence. As this participant said, this can produce the internalization of normative preferences in ways that lead them to distance themselves from any sort of disability identity. They, therefore, tend to grapple extensively with their perceived incompatibility with what they believe to be the desirable university learner.

I feel that the education system isn't necessarily designed for every type of learner. There's like a traditional sense of what it is to be smart, and I feel like there's an association with I don't know, just being able to grasp things quickly, and that is definitely not me. (S 87)

This weight of pervasive normative preferences meant some students decided not to seek accommodations or to draw minimally on what was available because accepting help was difficult due to pride and a desire to be independent. Others chose not to obtain assistance saying they wanted to avoid giving themselves an unfair advantage. They knew that some faculty and non-disabled peers believed accommodations provided additional academic benefit to disabled students, and they were cognizant of institutional concerns related to potentially compromising academic standards. A number of students knew, theoretically or intellectually, that academic adaptation did not provide an unfair advantage. However, the internalization of institutional preferences for normal (Madriaga, Hanson, Kay, & Walker, 2011) meant some struggled to reconcile what they knew with what they had come to believe about post-secondary education and diversity.

Sometimes I misattribute my success to these accommodations, and I feel to myself that I am getting privileges that other people are not. But then everyone who ever hears me say that, and they're so correct, no, I come to the table with disadvantages and these accommodations bring me to a level place, so that's how I position it now, and I am much better at receiving these accommodations now. (S 6)

Often, such concerns about fairness and integrity are perpetuated by procedural obligations positioning accommodations as provisional. In this power-laden space, questions arise about creating a level playing field. The field might be level if universities proactively planned for diversity. However, continued reliance on individual support provision arguably leaves students in the midst of a minefield (Hibbs & Pothier, 2006, p. 171) produced by the necessity for students to navigate the tension that exists between faculty preferences for normalcy and their need for accommodated learning and assessment circumstances.

Students felt their professors often expected them to write tests and exams in class or auditorium environments with their peers before resorting to alternate settings. A few faculty participants said they sometimes encouraged students to try writing initial tests with their classmates, and to make a decision about substitute testing arrangements based on test results.

Most of the time our tests would finish up pretty early in the time slot, so I usually try to reassure them that they will have plenty of time, and it's usually easier to try to write it in the class … so it's often going back and forth and seeing how they did on that first test, so I usually assess to see how they found that in class and if they did have issues then we talk again. (F 60)

Faculty who followed this practice did occasionally tell students that an unsatisfactory grade would be dropped or weighted out of their final mark. Yet, the message was clear. Let's try on "normal" first; if that does not work we will move to 'special' (Norton, 1997).

Other times, drawing minimally on academic support was about students demonstrating gratitude. The commentary provided by this student participant was particularly pointed. Accommodations are clearly positioned as an altruistically provided benefit that students should appreciate rather than a human right they should be able to expect.

I think that it's an amazing privilege that the university, that any institution offers you and recognizes that we learn differently. We have different abilities and capacities to get things done … and I think that a university or any institution that recognizes that—that means a lot to me. (S 41)

This student's observations are troubling because accommodations are naturalized as a privilege. They lend credence to claims that universities are "naturally for some and not for others" (Titchkosky, 2011, p. 6), and they serve to legitimate decisions to deny individual student access to learning. notably, Titchkosky's notion that universities are naturally for some and not for others is not only applicable to academic arrangements. Normative assumptions and their associated exclusionary impact similarly pervade the arrangement and experience of the physical environment, a reality that further solidifies disabled students' conditional membership in their respective campus communities.

Conditional Community Membership

Both real and potential interactions between students and their professors exposed the myriad ways disabled students experience a conditional sense of belonging in their university communities. Institutions generally attend to physical access retroactively, and fail to associate it with marginalizing societal arrangements that potentially encumber learning (Titchkosky, 2008). Campus inaccessibility affects everything from classroom participation to student/faculty meetings. As the one wheelchair user in this study pointed out, only one accessible building on campus meant significantly reduced possibilities for booking accessible classrooms. Lecture halls were described as theoretically accessible, but awkward to enter and exit. Yet more irritating and ostracizing than described classroom conditions were faculty offices housed in completely inaccessible buildings.

Well like, I don't think it's fair … because I feel like I should be able to go to my professor, he shouldn't have to come to me. I'm not a little kid. I should be able, I'm a grown woman, I should be able to go up to them, but that building isn't wheelchair accessible. (S 71)

The relative silence of faculty participants on issues of physical accessibility was notable, especially when considered alongside the prevalent discussion of perceived accommodation concerns related to academic learning. In fact, only one faculty participant spoke in a substantive way about physical inaccessibility. She directly raised it as a fundamental inequity because it meant disabled students couldn't easily access her to obtain academic advising and support, and it directly exposed their contingent membership in the broader university community.

I get it that they're all old buildings and heritage buildings, but that's not okay. I'm on the third floor of my building and there's six flights of stairs, and there are just students who can't get up to see me. You know, I can go down stairs, it's not a big deal for me, but it's a big deal that we're not accessible because it sends a message. It just says, this isn't a priority. (F 67)

Along with such clear examples of wheelchair inaccessibility were some noteworthy access frustrations generated by inappropriate assessment environments. Exam accommodations were cited as an area of difficulty for some who said routine procedures did not account for the environmental conditions that can work against student success. Extra time on exams and a separate place to write were said to be very helpful, but failure to devote careful attention to environmental specifics engendered significant frustration for some student participants. As one disabled learner pointed out:

It's an older building, you hear people stomping around upstairs, above like the room where people write. It must be wood floors and a lot of people like wear heels, so it's very loud. And even with my earplugs, it's bad; and there's wood chairs and with the dragging. A lot of people don't, are not aware of how loud they're being when they're leaving, and the disruption that it causes. (S 21)

This was clearly an accommodation that was intended to ameliorate exam conditions, yet it actually ended up making things worse for this learner. In a similar mismatch between intent and outcome, some students reported appreciating the flexibility that exam accommodations were intended to provide while acknowledging faculty resistance as a factor that often rendered intended flexibility immaterial. Even when test and exam accommodations were proctored by university disability services staff, participants reported faculty resistance and obstruction related to the separate accommodation setting. Some students said faculty were supposed to be available on email during accommodated exams so proctors could relay any questions students needed answered, but experiences varied with this requirement. Some professors were completely willing to communicate, while others refused to acknowledge or reply to exam concerns.

There was a typo in the test, and he let everybody else that was writing in the classroom know, but he didn't let me and another student who were writing in disability access know … he told the two of us, you should have known better … I should have known what he meant, I should have known to not write up in that centre, and more or less, I should have been writing in the classroom with the other kids. (S 42)

This story reinforced what a number of students said they had experienced. Some professors simply seemed to lack concern for the equitable treatment of disabled students (Marshak et al., 2010). Students, therefore, understood with disturbing clarity that they were expected to write exams in the class with their peers if they wanted equitable access to the professor. If they chose to write in a separate setting, they would simply have to take their chances.

Resistance was also evident in some professors' refusal to approve student requests to audio-record classes. Other instructors resisted by questioning the qualifications of individuals hired to take notes—openly challenging both the student and the note taker throughout the term. Students who reported these incidents to disability services were regularly told that nothing could be done to effect positive change with the professor, a further communication of their subordinated institutional status.

I felt like, when I spoke to them [Disability Services], they kept on telling me, just read between the lines, just read between the lines. And I was like, well what do you mean read between the lines … they were like, you can just drop the course or you know, just go there and take it and just as if you're not there, you know [sic]? (S 10)

The options were therefore understood to be drop the course or put up with the arrangements as is. This form of ultimatum was upsetting for students who had no other programmatic choice. It clearly prioritized individual instructor's beliefs that they could refuse 'requested' accommodations and left them to navigate learning in an interpersonally hostile environment.

These very overt examples of faculty resistance occurred alongside more subtle, yet equally powerful, communications about their place at university. Some students genuinely felt they were viewed by some professors as an unwelcome burden. That burdensome framing of their presence in learning spaces was predictably linked to accommodation-related workload for faculty, but perhaps more remarkably to a student's known willingness and capacity to advocate for their rights and for those of their peers .

when they have a student with a disability they have a little bit more paperwork to do, or they have a little bit more to think about, and they don't really like that usually … The fact that [faculty] know that I'm a self-advocate and I'll help people, sometimes they're a little frustrated. Because professors don't want to deal with things, like they'd rather just you know, go about their merry way, teach their lecture and then do whatever. (S 7)

Disabled learners who experienced such resistance over time felt these instructors, in general, appeared to resent their presence in the classroom and the university more broadly. Many positive exchanges did take place with instructors who articulated their desire to facilitate learning and who noticeably and repeatedly publicized their availability to students. However, those positive interactions often stood in stark contrast to the ones that directly questioned disabled students' suitability for university, and some specific student/faculty interactions unambiguously indicated who did and did not belong in higher learning.

My professor said to me, you know your name comes up a lot … and that your academic standing isn't very good … it definitely created this sort of false, well it created a lot of judgments from other professors, and professors who hadn't yet had me, who would eventually have me, and that was really hard, and I felt also too, like I didn't want to do well, like that there was already this expectation that I wouldn't do well, so why bother trying? (S 57)

This compelling student contribution exposes the unequivocal harm all too often exacted by ostensibly caring actions. It reveals the enduring marginalization produced by closed door discussions that construct individual students as trouble (Youdell, 2006). Yet, these marginalizing interactions play a significant role in the meaning students make of the more helpful encounters they have with their professors; exchanges that can impact how they view their university experience.

This same disabled student who felt so unwelcome at university described a very vital contrasting interaction with a faculty member who had powerfully countered some of the damaging messages she had received. She described him as a helpful professor, a category of faculty whom students said actively valued and validated the strengths they brought to the classroom. Accordingly, they were vital interpersonal and academic connections that helpfully disrupted students' pervasive feelings of inadequacy and marginalization.

He said [in an email received the previous evening], if the universities' mission is to nurture an open inquisitive mind, you represent these qualities and many more … and it was just like, isn't that the most beautiful … and it made me cry, here I was having the worst time in school and a professor, who I admire tremendously had just said everything I needed to hear before I left. (S 57)

These were the kinds of affirming influences that acted as lifelines for many students, particularly for those who had endured some of the most injurious exchanges with faculty. Yet the positive words and actions of individual professors were not indicative of a systemic attitude conveying any sense of community membership or academic belonging for disabled learners. Neither were they generative of a broad sense of an environment where disability was valued as a desirable category of diversity.

Understanding and Valuing Diversity

Students and faculty did relate a number of perspectives that elucidated what it meant to understand and value diversity in teaching and learning environments. Interpersonal exchanges that enabled meaningful faculty/student relationships were significant because they moved teachers and learners beyond the limiting interactions often associated with obligatory accommodation tasks. Many student participants spoke of faculty/student communication as essential for success. Yet, they emphasized it need not be extensive to be significant.

I did go and see them during their office hours and we sat down for 10 or 15 minutes, and had more in-depth discussions about what it is that I need … and that if anything comes up to go back to them … that is helpful because it's nice to know that they're there and I guess, looking out for me, like it kind of felt like they're concerned for me which is nice; it's kind of personable. (S 79)

Just having faculty take a moment to ask if there is anything else a student might need, to say they are available, or to offer suggestions based on experience with other students made them seem so much more approachable. These faculty responses reduced the anxiety that often accompanied students' requests for accommodations. It also enabled more comfortable circumstances when students felt they needed additional aid.

A number of faculty worked to make themselves more available to students because they believed academic support to be a mutual responsibility. Several participants shared their belief that there is value in engaging with disabled ways of knowing. They pointed to diversity as a core element of inclusive class settings, and some specifically spoke of the richness that can emerge within learning contexts when professors make space for whole people representing the "full spectrum of humanity" (F 99). A few instructors stated unequivocally that disabled learners bring valuable lived perspectives to a diverse university community, classroom environment, and academic discourse. As one professor shared, "I want the richest classroom environment possible where students from all backgrounds, from all experiential levels can challenge me and make me think, and think about their worlds as well" (F 64).

Students similarly believed they made vital contributions to the classroom environment. They brought knowledge typically absent from academic discourses, and therefore added depth and breadth to otherwise normatively-oriented discussions. The presence of deafness, for example, presents an important intercultural opportunity for the classroom environment. Culturally deaf people represent a global community. They converse using a sign language, and they value their heritage, history, literature and culture. It is a way of life, an independent and comfortable life, an engaged way of life, and a full and meaningful way of being that contributes to classroom diversity (Cripps, n.d.).

Well, most of the time the professors are open minded, and I tell them that I am deaf, that I have a different culture, a different understanding and that I bring a different perspective to the classroom … people have assumptions about deaf people before they even meet me, and there are stereotypes that are out there … and sometimes it's tough because the classroom has two interpreters so there's really a team of three of us coming into a classroom … and then you have to explain the interpreters' role; they're there for the entire classroom, not just for me, and there's a lot of misunderstanding about that. (S 98)

This participant's clarity about the important contributions deaf students can make to the classroom focuses much needed attention on how their presence can force consideration of student diversity as a construct inclusive of Deaf, disabled, and neurodivergent students, or Deaf, disabled, and neurodivergent ways of knowing. Significantly, a few faculty participants related how exposure to these differing ways of being and doing challenged them to think differently about how to teach a class in ways that recognize and respond to a diversity of learners. Interacting with disabled students expanded some professor's understanding of how specific disabilities can intersect with course expectations and classroom routines.

I have met one student who it was clear he had a different level of anxiety [not exam] … he and I would have these very frank, very open conversations about his anxiety … he pointed out that for him, …participation was very very difficult, even though he knew the material … and so what I am now doing is that there will always be a way for students to get participation marks … but they don't have to do it in a scenario where they find it difficult to function … all my participation now is a combination of in class and on line. (F 62)

These kinds of ongoing relationships with disabled students were vital sources of learning for some faculty. They exposed, for some participants, the potentially inequitable nature of particular approaches to teaching and evaluation. Once exposed, the opportunity for change in the redesign of more inclusive activities could be realized.

Connecting with faculty through shared lived experience emerged as another important validation of student diversity. Some students experienced difficulties with identifying as disabled to faculty, peers, and the university community at large. Some talked about the lengths to which they sometimes go to hide their disabilities and appear normal within the university context. Yet, regardless of students' level of comfort discussing their disabilities, their sense of themselves as valued members of the community stabilized when professors talked openly about their own experiences of disability and marginalization. Some participants saw faculty willingness to share their disability-related experiences as a sign that academia can make a place for disability. "Some of them … I was privy to information from them that you know they are not without their own struggles, so that was actually sort of relieving and inspiring" (S 6). For this student, it was meaningful to see how faculty members had managed to carve out a spot for themselves as professors, even in previous decades when mental health and disability were less openly discussed. It was representative of a significant kind of mentoring and provided a sense of belonging grounded in aspects of shared identity.

This sense of community, for some student participants, was about being able to connect with peers, as well as faculty, with whom they could relate (Dowrick et al., 2005). Students said they often expend substantial energy hiding their disabilities. So, there can be a sense of relief in connecting with others who have had similar struggles. It was seen by some as a moment of bonding, when someone actually said, "I get it" (S 58).

I think, I was really lucky because I did start at an art school where there's so many other students in a similar situation, and many of the faculty are openly also in a similar situation, so the conversations were easy and I, and I got to ease myself into having to talk about disability and things that were happening when I didn't have a diagnosis. (S 48)

Students clearly found strength and affirmation when open conversations about disability and difference were encouraged. Yet, both students and faculty did tend to return, as they discussed these important spaces, to the ever-present truth that systemic transformation was necessary. Such transformation, in their view, is the only way universities will become meaningfully welcoming of disabled students and instructors.


There was ample evidence in this study to support a useful repositioning of the disabled student/faculty relationship. Rather than understanding it as one that highlights individual student struggle and success, it can be framed as one that exposes the existence and enactment of institutional norms that naturalize marginality and continually reproduce conditional community membership for disabled learners. However, the positivity that can clearly be generated within these interactions can provide critical learning for equitable, and even transformative, student support and pedagogical practice.

Canada has recently enacted accessibility legislation, and three Canadian provinces are at varying stages of provincial accessibility legislation implementation (Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Ontario). We argue that among the strategies employed to understand and evaluate the state of accessibility in post-secondary institutions, student/faculty relationships should be further explored and prioritized for their capacity to bring light to how accessibility is being realized on campus. We further contend that the extent to which students experience a sense of belonging is an essential parameter to consider, and the evidence generated in this study clarifies that this parameter can be meaningfully elucidated through examinations of the relational components embedded within accommodation practices.

Although this study elucidates experiences of inaccessibility and faculty resistance that other researchers have established, it more vitally explicates how formal processes that are largely constructed and managed outside the academic sector (Oslund, 2016) require student/faculty engagement that reinforces and even naturalizes the marginal status of disabled learners in multiple ways. However, the data suggests powerfully that as much as these interactions and relationships can affirm and further entrench marginality, they have a largely unrecognized capacity to situate disability as valued diversity that is not being substantively explored or mobilized in university accessibility efforts.

There is transgressive possibility revealed in meaningful interactions that should, we assert, be causing universities and activists to rethink how we become more just and equitable institutions. There is inherent value in strong student/faculty alliances. Yet they are largely positioned and experienced as happy exceptions rather than sites of knowledge production enabling increased protection of disability rights in higher education. They represent a vital form of lived disability experience that can lead us to think with, not simply about, disability (Michalko, 2002). This, in turn, can be an important way of centring inequitable institutions, rather than disabled students, as problems in need of solutions (Titchkosky & Michalko, 2012).


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  1. This research was funded by doctoral awards from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Federation of University Women, and the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (Equity Through Education Award).
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