Following a two-year battle with a student and the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), York University will no longer require students to disclose mental health diagnoses before receiving special treatment for exam writing, assignment extensions, and other accordances. The issue of disclosure is highly contested at McGill, but the more fundamental issue at stake is in regard to accommodations. While the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) is working hard to ensure that it meets the growing demand for its services by standardizing its own procedures, such systematization must extend across the university campus. The McGill Senate, and student representatives to the Senate, must push for a uniform system for accommodating the needs of students.
Service Point, the OSD, and McGill Mental Health Services (MMHS) offer distinct and overlapping services to students seeking academic assistance. While the OSD and MMHS are admittedly understaffed, underfunded, and overexerted in the face of growing demand, a policy from Senate need not focus on these services. Instead, it ought to identify the possibilities for improved support in the classroom—not just for students with disabilities. Such a code must exist for each possible issue, whether it is a mental illness, a death in the family, or an injury, so that students know what they must do in order to receive the accommodations they need.
At McGill, a student must submit a diagnosis to the OSD in order to receive accommodations; however, students with mental illnesses often do not perceive their own illness as a disability, and thus do not register with the OSD. Consequently, professors are bestowed with substantial discretion over a student’s request for extra assistance, time, or support. There are some professors who will ask for a diagnosis, even though it is not within their rights to do so. Other professors may unilaterally decide that if a student misses a midterm, or an assignment for any excuse, their final grade will be weighted differently.
Mental illnesses typically develop and manifest in an individual’s late teens or early adult years, and are more likely to develop while in a high-stress environment, such as university. Though the nature of a mental breakdown is fundamentally sudden and unpredictable, some professors do not accept notes after the fact. Moreover, the OSD is essential for students to procure notes that will be accepted by professors. As far as the York case is concerned, some may claim that there is cause for concern—not needing to provide a diagnosis seems like an opportunity for abuse of the system. Yet there are no statistics to verify such a claim. The overwhelming sentiment is that accommodations will help those students who need it the most; they should not be punished because of the potential for slackers to take advantage of the greater flexibility.
A consistent system would ensure that professors and students have equal, fair expectations as to what the McGill system is and is not capable of. Professors must be held accountable so that their decisions are not arbitrary. In addition, all professors must understand that it is not always possible to get a note for acute mental illness. Any such policy must also detail the possibilities for recourse. For example, the university must decide whether a death certificate is required when a student claims a death in the family as a reason for absence. Students will therefore not have to cater to the distinct requirements of each professor, which is especially important when dealing with a personal tragedy.
Student senators are, therefore, the important link. This past year they were instrumental in creating a policy whereby no course could have a final worth more than 80 per cent of the final grade. More recently, the Senate passed a policy where a withdrawal can be removed from a transcript, if the student withdrew from university for a semester for a documented reason. Senate must do the same here.
Accommodations are an essential component of the university experience. While education is the priority, there must be entrenched guidelines so that students are not faced with additional stresses when handling a family emergency or personal issue. The current standards of each part of the McGill services chain are exemplary given their various constraints, but remain incomplete due to the recalcitrance of professors. Implementing an overarching, absolute procedure that details the guidelines for providing accessions is essential to protecting students and the educational standards of the university.