Photo | Rosa Kumar
Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA) is an organization led by mad and disabled students at the University of Toronto, an institution located on the territories of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of New Credit. SBA advocates for equity and the removal of barriers to accessing education. As a group of students located at the intersections of multiple identities, we are committed to resisting ableism and sanism, and to creating safer spaces for marginalized students on campus.
As students, community leaders, and advocates, we strongly oppose the proposed University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy. This policy, which is informally being referred to as UofT’s new mental health policy, specifically targets students with mental health disabilities and would allow the University to place these students on a mandatory leave of absence if (1) the student’s behaviour poses “a serious risk of harm to themselves or others” or (2) if the student is deemed “unable to engage in activities required to pursue an education.” The proposed policy raises numerous concerns for disabled and mad students, and our allies.
First and foremost, the logic framing this policy seems to indicate that the University has been providing appropriate accommodations to students with mental health disabilities. The policy itself is represented as one of last resort for the University, and it claims that it would only be applicable in a small number of student cases where accommodations are not successful or feasible. However, as the 2015-2016 Report of the University of Toronto Ombudsperson clearly illustrates, appropriate accommodations are not being provided to students. In fact, the Report states that the Ontario Human Rights Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate have been unevenly and inconsistently followed across University departments. Some academic programs were found to refuse to implement all but the most minimal accommodations for students with mental health disabilities.
Although the number of students with mental health disabilities enrolling at UofT has been rising significantly, due in large part to the advocacy work done in the disability community, the University has not matched this rise in enrolment with an increase in Disability Counsellors, Counsellors, or traditional healers. This has meant longer wait times for intake appointments at Accessibility Services and for meetings with Disability Counsellors, and unacceptable waitlists to see Counsellors for support. Given this and the findings of the Ombudsperson, the University’s proposal to place students on a mandatory and non-consensual leave without having met its obligations with respect to the Duty to Accommodate is appalling.
Another glaring problem with the proposed policy is that, contrary to the findings of numerous studies, it perpetuates the stereotype that people with mental health disabilities are prone to violence and thereby pose a risk to their communities. This perception, and its irresponsible reproduction by the University administration through a policy that targets people with mental health disabilities as a known and identifiable group, is an act of discrimination. As history and current events have repeatedly shown, it is particularly people located at the intersections of marginalized identities—racialized, queer, and trans people with mental health disabilities—who bear the brunt of these unfounded stereotypes, institutionalized discrimination, and violence. Furthermore, research has shown that people with mental health disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and that gender and age are more reliable predictors of violent behaviour than mental health disabilities.
Equally troubling is the callous approach to students with mental health disabilities should they be in distress or experiencing crisis and at risk of harming themselves. How can the University, which purports to be a community that “embraces the broadest range of people, that helps them achieve their full potential” justify evicting members who are in need of urgent support and care, who need to be embraced by their chosen community? Rather than holding space for its community members that are in crisis, the proposed policy would enable the UofT administration to remove students from their classes, their colleagues, and their student community.
Other potential impacts of this mandated leave of absence include the removal of students from campus housing and the revocation of financial assistance through programs like OSAP and the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment for Persons with Permanent Disabilities (BSWD/CSG-PDSE), as maintaining one’s student status is a condition of access to student funding and housing. Graduate students who are often employed by the University could also lose their jobs and primary source of income if placed on a mandated leave of absence. Removing financial supports for students experiencing crisis will only exacerbate their distress and increase the barriers to access that they will be facing. For international students with mental health disabilities, the policy is especially concerning, as being placed on a mandated leave could put their study permit in jeopardy.
Returning to studies after being placed on a university-mandated leave presents its own indignities. In order to be able to return to their studies, students must apply to the Vice Provost Students in writing and are encouraged to provide documentation from a healthcare practitioner attesting that they are able to return “safely” to their studies. At the discretion of the Vice Provost Students, students may be subject to a psychiatric risk-assessment or behavioural assessment, and reacceptance is in no way guaranteed.
Given the enormity of the consequences of this policy on students with mental health disabilities, the Office of the Vice-President and Provost should be concerned that it will deter students from seeking the support and guidance they may need, leaving them increasingly more isolated. Faculty and staff wanting to refer students to mental health supports may hesitate to do so for fear of reprisal on the student.
On Friday November 10th, SBA released a letter in resistance to the University-Mandated Leave Policy. As of the time of writing this Op-Ed, over 400 students, staff, and faculty have signed on, and two of five University of Toronto student unions, APUS and UTGSU, have endorsed the petition. We collectively call on the Office of the Vice-President and Provost to immediately revoke the proposed policy, to do their due diligence by engaging in a broad and in-depth consultation with disabled students and the wider disability community, to increase the mental health supports available on campus, to hire additional counsellors and traditional healers, and to increase funding and staff at Accessibility Services. The University is obligated to meet its Duty to Accommodate, and we call on UofT to do so before instituting punitive and harmful policies.