As we can see from the quotes above, disability is a complex human phenomenon with multiple overlapping definitions. According to the Accessible Canada Act, disability “means any impairment, including a physical, mental, intellectual, cognitive, learning, communication or sensory impairment — or a functional limitation — whether permanent, temporary or episodic in nature, or evident or not, that, in interaction with a barrier, hinders a person’s full and equal participation in society.”

In a more nuanced definition, the World Health Organization states that “disability is part of being human…Disability results from the interaction between individuals with a health condition, such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and depression, with personal and environmental factors including negative attitudes, inaccessible transportation and public buildings, and limited social support.”

It is also important for us to understand how disability is defined under the Ontario Human Rights Code, since all post-secondary institutions in Ontario fall under its jurisdiction. The following is taken from the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Policy on Accessible Education for Students with Disabilities (2018). Section 10 of the Code defines “disability” as:

  1. any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical coordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impairment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,
  2. a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,
  3. a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,
  4. a mental disorder, or
  5. an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997.”
  6. The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Policy on Ableism and Discrimination (2016), meanwhile, recognizes that the definition of disability has evolved over time, and may now include conditions that aren’t listed in section 10 of the Code. They acknowledge that disability should be defined as broadly as possible.

    An important point that is not made clear in these definitions, is that disabilities may be apparent (visible) and non-apparent (invisible). Visible disabilities are readily apparent to others, such as physical disabilities, while invisible disabilities are not immediately apparent, such as chronic illnesses or mental health conditions. Also, some disabilities may be episodic, such that the person experiences fluctuations in the impact their disability has on them, or some good days and some bad days.

    Disabilities are incredibly common. In fact, Statistics Canada reports that in 2017, 22% of the Canadian population aged over 15 had at least one disability. They also report that in 2017 mental health-related disabilities were the most prevalent type of disability among youth aged 15-24. While this may not have been the case 20 years ago, a growing proportion of students registered with disability services offices are living with a mental health related disability, and this is changing the climate on campus, as well as the need to reflect on practices.

    In one study by Fichten et al. from 2003, extrapolation of the data collected from institution administration suggests that there were over 100,000 students with disabilities (documented or not) enrolled in a Canadian post-secondary institution, but that only one quarter to one half of them were registered to receive disability-related services. Meanwhile, according to the Canadian University Survey Consortium from 2011, 9% of undergraduates and 7% of graduate students self-reported having a disability. This is to highlight that disabilities are common on post-secondary campuses and that the numbers of students with disabilities and the number of students registered with the disability services office will often differ.

    Photo of Student Writing with Pen at Desk

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