Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Social Affairs, Science and Technology

Issue 2 - Evidence - April 15, 2010


OTTAWA, Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology met this day at 10:29 a.m. to give consideration to the issue of the accessibility of post-secondary education in Canada.

Senator Art Eggleton (Chair) in the chair.

[Translation]

The Chair: Welcome to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.

[English]

We continue with our examination today of accessibility to post-secondary education in Canada. Our particular theme today is students with disabilities.

I want to welcome two of our colleagues who are here in substitute capacities, Senator Dawson and Senator Plett.

Welcome to the witnesses that we will hear from today. First let me introduce Yolanda Muñoz, Coordinator, Quebec Association of Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities. She works with the Quebec Association of Post- Secondary Students with Disabilities, which advocates for post-secondary education accessibility for all students. She has worked as a professor at McGill University on gender and disability issues.

Yolaine Ruel, Past President, and Gordon Dionne, Secretary Treasurer, are from the Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-Secondary Education — very specific to the topic. It is a national group of professionals committed to the ongoing creation of accessible, equitable and inclusive post-secondary learning environments for students with disabilities.

Ms. Ruel has worked at the University of Ottawa since 1988, and Mr. Dionne is an access service adviser in the Office of Students with Disabilities, OSD, at McGill. He is a psychologist and has also been an advisor in the OSD for five years.

Welcome, also, to Claudette Larocque, Director of Public Policy and Programs for the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. It is a national voice for persons with listening disabilities and those who support them. Their membership is about 10,000. She is also a member of several federal advisory committees and consults with provincial and territorial learning disabilities associations.

Our final group is our public servants — Nancy Milroy-Swainson, Director General, Office for Disability Issues, and Glennie Graham, Senior Director, Canada Student Loans Program at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, HRSDC. Ms. Graham is here in a supporting role and the seven minutes will be taken up by Ms. Milroy- Swainson.

That is it. Welcome to all of you. It would be appreciated if you could keep as close to seven minutes as possible in your opening remarks. I will go in the same order unless you prefer another order. I will start with Ms. Muñoz.

[Translation]

Yolanda Muñoz, Coordinator, Quebec Association of Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities: Honourable Senators, on March 11, 2010, when Canada ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it demonstrated its responsibility towards citizens with disabilities. The ratification of this convention addresses the fact that, here as elsewhere, there is still a long way to go to ensure dignity and equal opportunities for persons with disabilities. In Quebec, post-secondary students with disabilities face many challenges in spite of the efforts of schools, the government and other bodies to support equal opportunities in education.

At present, the reasonable accommodation model dominates the everyday life of students with disabilities. This means that disabilities are still considered individual ``problems'' and are resolved retroactively and temporarily on a case-by-case basis. This vision of persons with disabilities is highly medicalized, requiring that students undergo medical examinations —at their own or their families' expense — to determine whether they should receive the necessary accommodations to pursue their studies. Finally, since accommodations are granted individually, students find themselves isolated through special treatment, or forced to use facilities or access routes reserved for persons with disabilities.

However, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has handed Canada a new challenge: to implement an approach encompassing ``universal design'' and inclusive education so that accommodations may become a solution of last resort, and above all, to ensure equality among emerging client groups, meaning students with learning disabilities.

At present, several measures have been taken to guarantee equal opportunities in education for persons with learning disabilities, but access to services is complicated and costly. Moreover, the Quebec Association of Post- secondary Students with Disabilities, or QAPSD, has found that target groups generally don't know about assistance programs that support post-secondary students with disabilities and promote equal opportunities in relation to students without disabilities.

The Convention defines the ``universal design'' model as ``. . . the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. `Universal design' shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed.'' As such, the ``patient'' is the environment and not the individual; solutions are useful for everyone, not just for one person, and are therefore permanent. This way of understanding and resolving issues related to functional diversity is a proactive social project that aims to stop accessibility problems before they occur.

The reasonable accommodation means that each student is considered as an individual case. However, this also means that each individual student has to deal with several issues simultaneously: transportation, housing, negotiating with each professor, et cetera. This situation involves enormous effort, something that students without disabilities don't have to face, of course.

Quebec's Loans and Bursaries Program is a great help for students with disabilities, as is the Allowance for Special Needs Program. Nevertheless, the latter program has become a problem for university students, who all of a sudden become employers. This means that they have to find trustworthy employees, know how to defend themselves against abuse, or simply have the disposition to terminate a working relationship that does not serve their interests. Previously, offices serving disabled students managed financial resources, hired staff and, if necessary, assisted students in the event of conflicts.

The QAPSD conducted a survey of its members in June 2009 which found that post-secondary students with disabilities are very isolated from other students. They don't often participate in extracurricular activities (study groups, parties, sports groups, et cetera), and obstacles related to transportation and accessibility make their inclusion in the school environment more difficult. Survey participants said that prejudice is the greatest hurdle they face. In fact, disability awareness is not a part of students' general education at the primary, secondary or even post-secondary levels.

Quebec universities do not offer programs of study on disability, such as exist elsewhere in Canada. Courses concerning disability are peripheral, and most research activities are related to medicine rather than human rights. Ignorance and indifference are the most obvious results of this serious flaw in the education of Quebec's new generations. As such, when we speak of ``diversity,'' we think of religion, culture, ethnic groups, political opinion, et cetera. Functional diversity, however, is not mentioned as an important part of the wealth of a society built on the ideals of equal opportunities and justice.

To implement the ``universal design'' model, changes need to be made at all levels of the education system. We must help students and teachers without disabilities understand that equal opportunity measures are not privileges but essential conditions to guarantee access to education to all members of society.

What we propose is a profound transformation of society, in which people with or without disabilities clearly understand the value of functional diversity as an indisputable expression of the human condition. We must share the responsibility of building an environment for everyone. As long as society in general and the education system in particular refuse to accept this profound transformation, the situation of persons with disabilities in Quebec will lag behind that of other provinces. It is our hope that the commitment Canada has made by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will serve as the first step in ensuring equal opportunities in education throughout Canada.

The Chair: Thank you very much.

[English]

We will now proceed to the two witnesses who will split their time. They are both from the Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-Secondary Education.

[Translation]

Yolaine Ruel, Past President, Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-secondary Education: Our association represents post-secondary institutions, career colleges and universities. I do not think that I need to repeat the previous comments. They accurately reflect the situation.

Over the past few years, we have noted a significant increase in the number of people with one or more disabilities in our post-secondary institutions. This is very good news.

However, it does have an impact on the resources available for the provision of services. These resources are often fragmented. Allow me to summarize the situation for the benefit of you all. In some provinces, financial assistance is given directly to the individuals themselves rather than to the entity providing the program to the student. Eligibility rules governing specific programs mean that one disabled student will be able to access the services while another in the same program and university will not.

This is worrying, especially in light of the fact that the type of disabilities our student population now comes to us with has changed. In the past, we mainly dealt with students with mobility or sensory disabilities. Now we are witnessing a major increase in the number of students with learning difficulties. They now make up one of the largest groups. For the first time this year, British Columbia is seeing more students with mental health issues.

Indeed, the Ontario College Health Association has issued a report, which while not alarmist, does deal with the issue in a very serious manner. The report calls for concerted action in the post-secondary sector to tackle the issue at source. The Association points to the devastating impact of mental health on the post-secondary population. Often mental health issues manifest themselves in early adulthood and our institutions are not currently equipped to accommodate and properly support these students.

Failure by health services, disabled-student assistance entities and Federal and Provincial programs to co-ordinate action results in students who have been let down by the support system, have failed to complete their studies, in whom a significant amount of money has been invested to get them to university and who ultimately often become a burden. This situation is replicated within the family and employment setting, which leads to significant health care costs. These peoples' lives will quite possibly be a bit more miserable than they would have been had more been invested in diagnosis and strategies. The recent report, which came out in December 2009, clearly states that needs must be identified earlier. The focus must be on tightening up the system and on co-operation.

I would like to deal with one last issue before I give the floor to my colleague. One of the most harmful aspects of the current systems — and this does not only apply to universities and governments — is fragmentation. It costs the same — but is a lot less effective — to provide resources in a fragmented, piecemeal fashion as it does to pool them together to tackle the issues in a more comprehensive manner. What is required is a change in culture and an end to handouts and this piecemeal approach. While this might often look good, it is not sustainable in the long term and does not result in students finishing their studies. They end up floundering about in the system and there is no return on the investment in them.

[English]

Gordon Dionne, Secretary Treasurer, Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-Secondary Education: I will talk about three specific issues we have come across in our work. They seem to perpetuate year after year.

Across Canada, the various provinces, through legislation and charters, can all agree on what constitutes a disability. However, when we get into the provincial funding that is given to students with disabilities, each province has a different definition of what constitutes a disability and what level of funding that individual may receive.

That reduces mobility of students across the country. If they were to change residences, then of course a student from B.C. may not necessarily be recognized as having a learning disability if he or she comes to Quebec, because there is no funding for students with learning disabilities at present; they are not recognized for funding purposes in Quebec, for example.

That is one of the issues we face across the country. As we work with different students from different provinces, they all fall under different regulations and jurisdictions.

The population has also changed. More and more students are entering into master's, doctoral and post-doctoral degrees and they have disabilities. Often, because they have taken reduced course loads throughout their undergraduate degree, they have less money available for them for their master's and doctoral degrees, or they run out of funding halfway through because they have run out of semesters of eligibility for money. Therefore, they get halfway through a program and have to take part-time jobs or abandon their degree for a couple of years and try to come back. That is another issue currently facing students with disabilities with regard to higher levels of education.

Currently, there are difficulties with access to skilled service providers across the country. There is a large problem with the availability of sign language interpreters, for example. Every province is decrying that they do not have enough. It is difficult to find interpreters for students who have hearing impairments and require sign language interpretation, or it might be difficult to get them to move or to come to your campus.

For that issue, it must be brought about that sign language interpretation is a viable career; it is a useful occupation, and training programs should be encouraged and brought forward.

Finally, there is the issue with regard to access to print materials. Students with print disabilities include those with vision impairment, reading disabilities and other learning disabilities. Currently, access to print materials is done on an ad hoc basis, campus by campus. They are adapting materials for students by essentially turning them into digital text. The students can use a computer which will read materials to them via a voice program.

There is a lack of coordination between publishers and campuses. Some provinces have a sort of provincial repository for these digital texts, but not all. There is a lack of resources, a lot of wasted time and a doubling of efforts. The same textbook might be adapted in four different universities in three different provinces, and that sort of thing. There needs to be some coordination there.

The Chair: Thank you both very much. Now we will go to Claudette Larocque from the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.

Claudette Larocque, Director of Public Policy and Programs, Learning Disabilities Association of Canada: Good morning, honourable senators, witnesses and members of the audience. The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada is pleased to be a witness at this Senate committee. Our presentation will relate to barriers for post-secondary students with learning disabilities.

The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, LDAC, is the country's oldest not-for-profit organization that provides a national voice for persons with learning disabilities. We are membership based and represent a diverse mixture of individuals, families, professionals, and provincial, territorial and community-based learning disability, LD, organizations.

You have copies of my presentation, so I will not go into detail as to what a learning disability is. I will say that, as the name implies, a learning disability interferes with the ability to learn and often results in a person performing below his or her ability level.

Learning disabilities are invisible; they are lifelong and they may run in families. Learning disabilities can occur with other disorders — mental health conditions, attention deficit disorder or any other mobility as well. Learning disabilities are not the same as mental retardation, autism, deafness, blindness, behavioural disorders or laziness. Learning disabilities are not the result of economic disadvantage, environmental factors or cultural differences. Living with a learning disability can have an ongoing impact on friendships, school, work, self-esteem and daily life. People with learning disabilities can succeed when solid coping skills, accommodations and strategies are developed.

Currently, according to the 2006 participation and activity limitation survey of Statistics Canada, PALS, learning disabilities underwent a large increase between 2001 and 2006, not only for children but for adults with learning disabilities as well. Among children ages five to fourteen, learning disabilities joined chronic conditions as the most common form of disability.

According to PALS 2006, of all the children with disabilities in this country, more than half have a learning disability. In terms of post-secondary students with learning disabilities, 13.9 per cent of people have learning limitations. According to the PALS definition, a learning disability is difficulty learning because of a condition such as dyslexia and attention or hyperactivity problems. People with learning limitations ages 15 to 64, regardless of severity, were enrolled in a school or university with 81.8 per cent attending on a full-time basis. Three-quarters of them in school were between the ages of 15 and 24. PALS 2006 also reported that 14.7 per cent held a college or non-university certificate or diploma, 10.6 per cent held a trade or registered apprenticeship certificate, 4.4 per cent had a bachelor degree, and 4 per cent had obtained education above a bachelor's degree.

Ontario is the only known province where statistics are recorded by disability service offices, DSOs, on students with disabilities at post-secondary institutions. It is reported that in 2008, at the college level, 7,785 students with learning disabilities were registered with their disability service offices — triple the number from any other disabilities. This is an increase of 10.1 per cent over a five-year period. At the Ontario university level, for the year 2008, 5,546 students with learning disabilities were registered with their disability service office, double the number from any other disabilities. This is an increase of 17.9 per cent over a five-year period.

Regarding current barriers to sources of funding for students with learning disabilities, an amount of support received from one funding source is frequently determined by a student's eligibility and amount received from another source. For example, in Ontario, students with disabilities who are not eligible to receive support through the Ontario student assistance program, OSAP, may not be eligible to receive disability-related support such as the Ontario disability support program, the Canada study grant for the accommodation of students with permanent disabilities, the Canada access grant for students with permanent disabilities, the OSAP bursary for students with disabilities, or the Ontario special bursary plan.

This practice places students with significantly different expenses, due partly to their disability, at a disadvantage in terms of addressing their educational-related expenses. Funds to pay for disability-related accommodations are often difficult to find once a student is deemed ineligible for federal and provincial financial aid packages. For graduate students, scholarship and grant applications do not permit taking into account disability-related expenses or the reduced course load by students with learning disabilities.

Students with learning disabilities have to put extraordinary efforts into school work, leaving them little or no time for part-time employment to supplement their income as most post-secondary students do. If they choose to work, it is often to the detriment of their studies, highlighting the risk of burnout and poor academic performance. Expectations that students with disabilities work to supplement their costs must be reduced.

Typical accommodations and services required for students with learning disabilities are an up-to-date assessment for learning disabilities, extended time, tutoring services, note-taking services, learning strategies workshops, audio textbooks, prolonged program due to their disability, and adaptive technology. This may include laptops, speech recognition software, text to speech software, organizational software, talking calculators, electronic dictionaries, et cetera.

Due to this invisible disability, students with learning disabilities must get an up-to-date assessment that must be no more than three years old to prove their disability. This is unlike the more visible disabilities that are not required to provide the same level of documentation.

Students can access the Canada study grant for up to 75 per cent of the costs for an assessment up to a maximum of $1,200. It is some help, but not the full cost of assessment, which can be in excess of $3,000 in some areas. The student has to pay for the assessment, which is a barrier, and can be reimbursed only if they are confirmed to have a learning disability. Any other diagnosis is invalid for reimbursement, which is also another barrier.

Service providers struggle with this because the Canada study grant is linked to the student assistance program and requires parents to use whatever resources they have available, including their RRSPs. This linkage eliminates students every year from having assessments covered.

According to PALS 2006, individuals with learning disabilities used far more assistive devices than any other type of disability. The average was 3.8 different types of assistive technology per person.

The issue of costs associated with the prolonged program is compounded by the definition of `part-time' and `full- time' studies for students with disabilities. There are certain policies for students with disabilities where a full course load is less than that of the overall student population.

A student with a disability taking a reduced course load of 40 per cent will take 10 years to complete a standard four-year university undergraduate program. This is six years longer than his or her non-disabled peers taking a regular 100-per-cent course load. This is a concern for LDAC as it is an issue of equity of access for students with disabilities.

The Chair: May I ask you to go to your recommendations. We are well past the seven minutes allocated.

Ms. Larocque: Regarding financial aid and debt repayment, we recommend balance and more grant aid than loan aid to students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities are often required to take reduced course loads for full-time status, thus prolonging their time in school and their debt. Consider extending access to financial assistance over a longer period of time with an incremental reduction in loans and an increase in grants as they continue to work satisfactorily towards their degree.

Reconsider requirements for financial aid specific to students with disabilities, even if they are not eligible for basic provincial or federal assistance.

Adjust funding formulas for students with multiple disabilities that require separate and distinct accommodations and assistive aid instead of basing funding on the assumption of a singular disability.

Consider including longer grace periods for loan repayment, partial loan forgiveness for this population, income tax breaks on direct loan payments from paycheques, loan interest reduction or elimination options, income and/or employment contingency loan payment scales.

Regarding assessment of disabilities, the recommendation is to build a subsidized amount, non-loan, into their financial aid package. For institutions that conduct disability assessments for their students, provide a government grant to fully or partially subsidize the costs associated with the assessments and any infrastructure cost, such as personnel, equipment, instrumentation, et cetera.

Provide a tax break for a considerable portion or all of the cost for a disability assessment if the assessment determines a disability and not just a learning disability.

The Chair: Thank you very much. We will now hear from our officials from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

Nancy Milroy-Swainson, Director General, Office for Disability Issues, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada: Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.

[Translation]

I am accompanied by my colleague Glennie Graham, Acting Director of the Canada Student Loans Program at the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

[English]

The office for disability issues works with key stakeholders to promote the participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of community life, including education. The Canada student loans program, which Ms. Graham represents, provides financial aid to students, including students with disabilities.

You have already heard from many other witnesses, and I am sure you are aware that the issue is complex in terms of supporting students with disabilities. Students with disabilities face a number of barriers and challenges while attending college and university, including financial barriers, accessibility and accommodation barriers, and barriers to social inclusion. They also face employment and income disparities after graduation, which may pose a challenge for students who need to repay loans.

[Translation]

Student financial assistance is the main tool available to the federal government's in promoting access to education and the elimination of financial barriers.

[English]

The Canada student loans program has a mandate to improve access to post-secondary education by removing financial barriers. The program provides both loans and grants to students with a demonstrated financial need.

[Translation]

The program assists groups that are underrepresented in post-secondary education establishments, such as students with permanent disabilities, students from low and middle-income families and those with children.

[English]

In the last two years, there have been significant changes to the Canada student loans program, including the introduction of the new Canada student grants program and the new repayment assistance plan.

Under the Canada student grants program, the federal government provides predictable, broad-based grants to targeted groups of students, including students with permanent disabilities, students from low and middle income, and students with children.

[Translation]

The Permanent Disability Repayment Assistance Plan enables borrowers to make reasonable repayments based on income and size of family. The Canada Student Loans Program pays the interest and capital not covered by the borrower's reasonable monthly instalments — even if they are zero — to ensure that the repayment period does not exceed ten years.

[English]

The office for disability issues is also exploring ways it can help make post-secondary education more accessible to current and future students with disabilities in order to improve participation and completion rates, as well as enhance their social and academic experiences.

For example, to that end, the office for disability issues is considering the creation of an accessibility guide for use by post-secondary institutions. The guide will serve as an information, awareness and planning tool to promote campus and education accessibility for students with disabilities across Canada. It will also help to provide guidance to service providers who are looking to create or improve disability policies and services at their institutions.

[Translation]

I would like to conclude by emphasizing the fact that the federal government is aware that students with disabilities face additional barriers. As a result, specific steps have to be taken to help them access post-secondary education and to increase the number who graduate. The government is using the mechanisms available to it within its jurisdiction to eliminate barriers and to provide equal opportunities for all.

[English]

This concludes my opening remarks. Ms. Graham and I will be happy to answer the questions that the committee has. If you wish, before questions, Ms. Graham could provide you with more detail on the programs.

The Chair: Thank you very much.

We have heard from some of the experts who have appeared before us previously that more than just financial barriers are involved in limiting access to post-secondary education. There has been a fair bit of emphasis on things like parental education and motivation, or their preparation in secondary level for post-secondary education.

As you have said today, and as others have said, people with disabilities experience unique barriers. Living expenses would probably be higher for them, for example, or it might take a longer period of time to complete their education. Getting summer or part-time jobs is not as easy for people with disabilities. Specialized supports that they need may not always be readily available. Perhaps, also, a lack of institutional sensitivity can be a factor in whether they stay and complete their post-secondary education. I am sure there are others, but these are amongst the unique barriers.

You also talked about the financial barriers. Are the financial barriers bigger than perhaps they are in some other sectors of the population?

Since we have federal officials here at the other end of the table, the second part of my question is what do you think the federal government can do to deal with the immediate priorities, the most difficult challenges that you would say disabled people possess with respect to getting into post-secondary education?

Ms. Muñoz: As I said before, it is important to put an end to, and overcome, all the cultural prejudices against people with disabilities. It is very important to work with non-disabled, people without disabilities who have still not acquired disability, to learn that they are equal. The equalization of opportunities is not a privilege. Most of the other students make them feel a little bit isolated. Why does this person have more time to take examinations? Why do they have more time to deliver their papers? They do not understand that it is a matter of social justice. They do not see it like that. That is in cultural terms.

In financial terms, from what I have heard so far and what we have heard as an organization of students with disability, and I am talking on behalf of them, is that they have a really hard time tracking how to have access to the available programs. The programs are there, but they sometimes do not know that they exist. Our work is to inform them, but it is a huge labyrinth for them to have access to the rights that have been put in place.

The Chair: Tracking and cultural change are two excellent points.

[Translation]

Ms. Ruel: When I refer to a change of culture, I am talking about the way people perceive disability. I have made numerous presentations recently on the new Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. People really only think about this issue when it affects them and continue to consider disability as something that only happens to others. However, in actual fact, it can happen to any one of us. By the age of 65, 47 per cent of Canadians have a disability. For instance, I might trip on the rug on my way out and I will be one of the 47 per cent. Then of course death affects 100 per cent of Canadians. No one escapes that. We have to recognize everyone's abilities.

A culture change means that we have to start seeing disability as diversity. We are all people and students with different ways of learning, reading and living. If we recognize our differences we accept that some people will do more, others less and some will do things differently. However, they all represent the complex nature of our society. This new approach will better equip us to deal with the increasingly complex nature of life. Changing culture goes well beyond any one system.

[English]

The Chair: How can the federal government help in some of these areas that you are identifying?

Mr. Dionne: There is a framework that comes out of disability studies called the social model of disability that talks about disability as a difference, and it just becomes part of diversity at that point as opposed to being ``less than'' in some ways. It becomes part of the mosaic of Canada.

It is more about promoting that in that way and getting away as much as possible from the charity model, which is somewhat that these poor people need this extra money and cannot survive without it, as opposed to that they have a right to it. It is a switch in that way.

The Chair: A switch in the approach.

Ms. Larocque: I agree with what Ms. Muñoz and Ms. Ruel said about cultural differences. Public education and attitudinal change are what is needed. Also, there is great difficulty separating educational-related needs and disabilities-related needs. That is where the confusion starts. Unless you have that understanding of the barriers and the impact that they have, it is very difficult to move forward.

The Chair: Ms. Milroy-Swainson and Ms. Graham, how can the federal government help with culture, tracking, and getting the information to people who do not seem able to get it?

Ms. Milroy-Swainson: I will speak to a couple of things we are doing on the non-financial side and then Ms. Graham can speak to the financial side.

The government's and Canada's recent ratification of the UN convention is an important step and will help create a culture that is more inclusive and will normalize everyone.

We also manage a program called the social development partnership program, disability component. That program has as an objective supporting both organizations' capacity and projects that are intended to address and remove barriers to social inclusion. So we do support a number of organizations that work directly, both with people in the disability community and outside the disability community to foster awareness, acceptance and social inclusion.

The Chair: What about the communications aspect? Ms. Muñoz was saying that people just do not know how to get a handle on what is available and possible. Perhaps Canada student loans is part of it.

Glennie Graham, Senior Director, Canada Student Loans Program, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada: I want to give the committee a sense of some of the new measures that were put in place in September 2009 that address some of the concerns people have put on the table.

First, we have a grant for students with disabilities in the amount of $2,000 per school year. Second, we have a secondary grant for students with permanent disabilities that is up to $8,000 to help with the costs of the equipment and services they need to help them with their studies.

So far this year, we have given 16,700 students a grant for a total of about $30 million a year. Ms. Milroy-Swainson touched on our new grants for low- and middle-income students. Those grants are available for each year of undergrad studies, so it is about access and ensuring they have the resources needed to complete their studies. Our data shows that 67 per cent of the students who receive grants for permanent disabilities also received the grants for low and middle income.

That is a positive step in that it is non-repayable finance and it is for each year of study. The grant for low-income students is $250 per month over an eight-month study period, and the middle-income grants are about $100 a month for a regular eight-month period. That is a big improvement in the amount of non-repayable student assistance that they have. That also reduces the amount of loans they need to acquire.

We are very interested in giving students with disabilities and students in general money up front to help them access, but we know that they also have trouble in repayment, so repayment is a big part of what we are interested in assisting students with.

This year we have put in place a stronger safety net than has ever been in place for students in general, and for students with permanent disabilities in particular. It is a two-part program. The first part is a permanent disability grant. Once a student who has a permanent disability that prevents them from working or further study is out of school, they can apply to have their loans forgiven. This year, I believe that over 900 students with a disability have had their loans forgiven.

The repayment assistance program for persons with disabilities is an additional program. We also have a repayment assistance program for students without disabilities, and it is somewhat income contingent.

We assume that many students with disabilities go into the workforce and are able to pay back their student loans. We know that their incomes are often lower and they may not work full time, so we have adjusted the repayment assistance program for persons with disabilities to ensure that they never pay more than 20 per cent of their monthly income on a student loan. If their income is less than $20,000 a year, they have a zero payment and the government will begin immediately to pay down the interest and the principal. The loans of students with disabilities will never take more than 10 years to pay off. For students without disabilities, it will never take longer than 15 years. In our view, that is a very innovative and important program.

We are also interested in non-financial barriers from a program point of view. We have put in place two projects. One is giving students entering into the Canada student loans program an entrance module which we take them through. It gives them information about their loans because, often, students do not understand the complexities. They do not really understand that they have to pay their student loans back, so it is an educative process.

We also do exit interviews to help them with their payments so that they know what is available to them should they get into trouble.

The second interesting thing we are doing with respect to non-financial barriers is embarking on an experiment with the Province of British Columbia, wherein we are choosing a number of high schools in lower socioeconomic areas and doing a hands-on intervention with the students. We are talking to them about student financial assistance, what is available to them, helping them hands on, taking them through websites to show them the careers that are available, the assistance that is available, and helping them to apply for both financial assistance and university.

This is a two-year program. We are starting in the fall, and we want to see whether the groups that we do the interventions with are in school a year later and how they are doing. We have a control group as well, and we will see whether it makes a difference.

We are very concerned about the non-financial barrier aspect as well.

Senator Eaton: My question is easy and basic: Are we talking about learning disabilities or physical disabilities or both?

Ms. Milroy-Swainson: We are talking about both.

Senator Eaton: Are there numbers for learning disabilities and physical disabilities across Canada? Do we know what percentages there are even in the student body?

Ms. Muñoz: No, and as a matter of fact, this is an issue that shows the lack of interest in this population. The last census that I found through a lot of research is from 1997. It is a lot of time. There is a huge gap in the information available regarding the population.

Senator Eaton: It seems you can hardly proceed if you do not have the basic numbers.

Ms. Milroy-Swainson: We have a little information. We know data about the number of people in the population with disabilities, which is 14.3 per cent, up from 12 per cent five years ago.

Senator Eaton: Regarding that 14 per cent, what percentage is of an age that would be looking to access higher education?

Ms. Milroy-Swainson: That is of the whole Canadian population, so I would say the population between 15 and I am not sure what the upper end is in terms of looking for education.

Senator Eaton: Would half of that be the potential population?

Ms. Milroy-Swainson: I do not have those figures. I know that, in 2009, 8 per cent of university students reported having a disability, and 11 per cent of college students reported having a disability. In 2009, 2 per cent of university students had a learning disability, and 3 per cent had a mental health disability. That is over half of all students in universities that report having a disability.

Senator Eaton: Do we know how many university students there are? Can we figure it out roughly? Do we know what we are dealing with?

Ms. Milroy-Swainson: I do not have those figures with me.

Ms. Graham: I have more of a breakdown in terms of ages 15 to 24. The rate was 4.7 per cent. That is about 195,000 Canadians. When you use 15 to 64, the rate rises to 11.5 per cent.

Ms. Ruel: Across Canada, it is more or less 3 per cent, depending on the program.

[Translation]

Senator Eaton: In the student population?

Ms. Ruel: The student body on campus. For example, the University of Ottawa has roughly 38,000 students. More than 1,000 students are registered with access services. More than 50 per cent of them have learning difficulties. If you include those with mental health issues and attention deficit disorders, then you are talking about three quarters of them. In other words, 750 of the 1,000 on a campus of 30,000.

If financial assistance is on an individual basis, it means that all of those 1,000 students have to make applications. They all have to fill out one, two, three forms each to access the services. The bodies authorized to help them fill out the forms are completely overwhelmed because funding has not kept pace with demand for services. Of course, I represent those services on campus. Now that we are dealing with students with mental health issues, we are totally ill-equipped to accommodate and support these students or to apply for medical certificates.

The huge amount of red tape involved means that we are able to spend less time on developing strategies and raising awareness on campus. A shortage of time and resources make these initiatives very difficult. Universities are in deficit at the moment and are not providing the extra funding which would enable us to take on skilled staff and to provide adequate services to keep up with demand.

On the other hand, money is available. Do not misunderstand me, support is available but for each student, we have to make several applications. It goes without saying that we advocate a systemic approach and greater investment in support services to ensure that more time is actually spent properly supporting students instead of filling out individual forms for each service required.

[English]

Senator Eaton: You are talking about universities. Does it also include colleges and trade schools?

Ms. Ruel: Absolutely, and colleges and trade schools have a higher number.

Senator Eaton: Would it be possible to have one registry in Canada? You are talking about an Internet system where people look at the trade school or university and see what is available.

Would there ever be a registry for people with disabilities? For instance, if I have a disability in X and I apply to the University of Ottawa, I just give them my reference number. Meanwhile, I have gone to the main registry and I am accepted as a person with disabilities. It would go for drivers' licences and educational help. It would be a national registry, so all the universities would not have to go through and verify everything. Has anybody thought of doing something like that? Is that a possibility?

Mr. Dionne: I will go back to your statistics question briefly. I can speak for Quebec, and at the Quebec association of universities, which I think has 18 members, we do statistics yearly, so we have statistics on the breakdown of different disabilities of students who have registered with our offices. We have been doing that for the past five years. We have those numbers, at least in Quebec. I am sure other provincial associations do similar things.

With respect to the national registry, the difficulty is that, given that at least for educational purposes every province defines things differently, it becomes difficult, and every school has different levels of requirement as well. It will make it difficult to do that, especially for the more hidden disabilities and complex things.

Senator Eaton: Like what, for example?

Mr. Dionne: Like learning disabilities and/or mental health conditions that can be chronic in nature but episodic in crises. It could make it more difficult in that a student may be fine except for the two weeks of final exams, for example. It becomes more difficult to know what the needs are, and that is why they list them out, that they require these things on a daily basis and that sort of thing.

Ms. Larocque: I agree with Mr. Dionne. It would be more difficult to track those students. You also find across the country that a lot of the disability service offices that universities and colleges have are asking students to present themselves to their offices so they can provide the documentation that says they have a legitimate disability.

Senator Eaton: Would they not trust a national registry that had pre-vetted them? I am thinking of the myriad of paperwork that must follow a person with disabilities all through their life, whether it is getting a driver's licence or a home loan. One could simplify the whole thing, like your driver's licence, so that you go in, you present it, and you are accepted. It is a bona fide passport.

Ms. Larocque: Many people with disabilities do not need accommodations at the university. Many people who have disabilities do not present themselves at the disability service offices.

For those people, they would have a hard time saying that they have a disability at the university level.

Senator Eaton: I have a child with a learning disability and he has been tested. The results of that test would go into a national registry and be available whenever he needed or wanted it, instead of going through a second, third, fourth time of being vetted.

Ms. Graham: I was going to go back to a parochial point on what we know about how many people with disabilities are at university. Our program services about 365,000 students and 4.3 per cent, I believe, of our clientele who get Canada student loans are people with permanent disabilities. Our data is not great, but one thing we want to look at is perhaps figuring out what kind of disabilities and get a better sense of who those students are. It is a small piece but, certainly, from our perspective it is important to get a sense of who the students with disabilities are and their needs.

Ms. Milroy-Swainson: Certainly, there have been discussions about whether or not the federal government could issue a national identity card for people with disabilities. We have looked at that and had discussions with stakeholders. The issue is the one that was first raised. Because different programs both at the federal and provincial levels have different criteria, there is no one definition of disability and that is a challenge in trying to have a registry or an identity card. Until there is more harmonization on that front, I think it would be a challenge.

Senator Seidman: We can see how difficult it is to define disability to begin with, to say nothing of the type of disability and then to quantify them. It is clear another issue along this line of discussion would be there would be many who would not want to be stigmatized by a label and be in a registry, so that just adds a further complication.

We know that in defining ``disability' a lot depends on medical classification systems and the like, so we are into a whole morass of multidisciplinary issues. I would like to focus on the situation, Ms. Muñoz, that you described in Quebec, where post-secondary students with disabilities face many challenges that are not being met and which seriously restrict their access and participation. You presented a rather powerful description of so many basic inadequacies from the perspective of the students themselves, which is what I am interested in.

You did a survey in 2009 and I am curious about your membership, the number in this association, the Quebec Association of Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities, and what regions of Quebec they might come from.

If we look a bit at the socio-demographic breakdown, do they all have the same problems with access or are there different issues? We talk about access issues for people with disabilities and I am thinking it is just not with disabilities; there are a whole series of subgroups of people with disabilities. Are there different issues in the cities, perhaps in the regions, in the linguistic communities in Quebec, for example? Are there different issues among different age categories?

Then — and you may have already touched on this with Senator Eggleton's question — do you have recommendations to increase access and normalize, rather than isolate students from the students' perspective themselves, and perhaps just a couple of really pragmatic items that might be especially relevant from the vantage of the federal government?

Ms. Muñoz: Thank you for that interesting question and the opportunity to speak about it.

We have a very limited membership now because we are a small association. We do not have many members. We have about 120 members. However, we have the capacity to go before the ministry of education to advocate for the rights of students with disabilities. We network with other associations. We make enquiries as to whether someone is a student, and ask whether there is a problem and inform them of their rights. We try to let everyone know in all the small associations with whom we network that there are many programs available for financial support and counselling. As well, we try to empower them to disclose their disability because sometimes it is stigmatized and they do not really want to speak about it. They are afraid that they will be mistreated. There is a lot of hate speech related to disability in general — labels such as ``retard'' and others.

Of course they are afraid, and this is mainly people with psychiatric conditions that they really do not want to disclose. I agree with Ms. Ruel and Mr. Dionne that it is very important to make a shift of paradigm, to work more on universal access than on reasonable accommodation alone, first, because it is more cost effective. If you adapt a new building from the beginning, the price would be 1 per cent of the entire cost of building. These are formulas created by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, where I also had a chance to work. It is much cheaper to plan everything in order to make it accessible for all than to make accommodations.

What is happening now is that the solutions come after. A person must ask for the accommodation for the accommodation to be provided in Quebec. That is how it works now. If there is no one who needs a ramp, it will not be built. There is a law that says every new building has to be accessible, but at some point there is always something that will not be considered, and we always have these problems.

Senator Seidman: I am just curious, to go back to your 150 members, have you done any socio-demographic breakdown of these members in terms of where they live in Quebec and what linguistic groups they are from? Then, I would like to know if there is a difference among these different socio-demographic groups in terms of their needs, in terms of their barriers to access?

Ms. Muñoz: Yes, most of our members are in urban areas because we have more opportunity to reach them, but we are also trying to get to the Gaspésie. However, we have a very limited budget. We function with $68,000 per year for salaries, rent and everything, so we do not have the ability, but we are trying to use new technologies to reach those populations because, obviously, the new generation is more accustomed to virtual classrooms and such things to become informed of their rights and how to navigate the system.

Also, I think Ms. Larocque as well has detected this. People with learning disabilities have a hard time understanding what they have to do to have access, because the process is so complicated. That is an important point.

Linguistically and from age, there is also a group that has been underrepresented here — students that do not go to the CEGEP. They are adults as well. This is post-secondary. In general, we have heard there are no persons with disabilities there and that is not true. There are many people with disabilities there, with few resources devoted to them. As well, we have many immigrants and many people who have acquired a disability later in life who are trying to acquire new skills to regain employment.

The Chair: Does anyone else want to weigh in on this?

Senator Martin: Thank you so much for your presentations today. We have just scratched the surface. Other senators have alluded to the complexity of this population of Canadians who have physical as well as learning disabilities, and some of those hidden disabilities that we do not necessarily like to talk about, such as mental illness.

As an educator in high schools and middle schools, I have come across many students with such specific cases as well as home situations where they may have a lot of support or very minimal support. You then also introduce language gaps and cultural differences and it becomes very complex indeed.

I have one question to pose to you that makes us look at it from a different perspective. We often look to our universities and colleges to take the lead, and it is higher education. In my career in education, I started in high school and then went to middle school. In terms of dealing with students with disabilities, physical or learning or other, in an elementary school a student with a learning disability may be in a class of nine with a team of two or three teachers and aides who work with those students. Then you get to the middle school and it may be 1 in 30, maybe 1 in 20, depending on the classes they are in. In high school it may be 1 in 150. If it is that grade or even higher, the ratio becomes much greater. I think there is an even greater leap and gap when you get to the university and college levels because we make these assumptions that now they are adults when, really, certain dependencies and support must be always in place for people with disabilities.

Have you as an organization or other representatives thought about looking at the models that are in the elementary and high school lower levels? What is being done to look at ways that this can be carried on? These gaps are too big. We talk about access, but once they get there the support may not be there, and then we are looking at many dropouts because the challenges increase.

Have you done any kind of bridging in that sense? I almost see you being the advocate for these students because that does not exist in university and colleges, as far as I know. What role do you see yourself playing? Could this kind of communication help students access as well as be successful in post-secondary institutions?

Ms. Ruel: I do not know what the ratio is, but it varies from one institution to the other. Some institutions benefit from funding from students. There is student dollar for the tuition fees, so some smaller institutions benefit from funding from students because they would not be able to operate properly. With my experience of 10 years as a manager of a service, I know that professors need more training, that students need to access more money to pay for assessments and for note-takers, and we try more and more to empower. There is a good thing in empowerment because, if it is a permanent disability, it allows the person to develop skills that will be useful in the workforce. It is not always easy and not always feasible because they have at the same time to do homework; on top of that, they have to advocate, to meet with the professors, to fill the paper form. There is money and there is no doubt about it, but it is always complicated. For any student it would be complicated. We are not talking about it being complicated only for people with disabilities.

It is the same with accommodation. They have to register in advance to write their examination with accommodation. Many, many students miss the deadline. Some people say that they are not taking their responsibility. I always say that, if you would ask the 35,000 other students to register in advance for their final examination, half of them would fail the deadline. There are always more things to do for students with disabilities. Some institutions invest more in their accessibility or disability offices. I see the difference. There is more education, more awareness done with professors. The environment is better equipped to welcome people and there is less stigmatization as students do not have to always ask, to always prove, and the pressure is always on the students. If we have structures and services on campus that are fully staffed, skilled and trained, much work could be done before, and when students come into the classroom it would be much easier and success would be higher. The return on the investment would come much faster.

Coming back to mental health, we ask what the campuses are doing about mental health issues. We are talking about anxiety. When tuition fees are high, when the workforce is difficult to enter, and when the environment is just not going so well and there is not always good news, anxiety is the pressure. Being at university is no longer a privilege. It is not just high-class, achieving students from rich families. Now it is a necessity. If you are not going to university, you will have a hard time accessing jobs for the rest of your life. Opening the door and letting students with disabilities access university but not being diagnosed, not being supported, not being equipped with all the strategies that are necessary for the rest of their lives, they will be a burden in the workforce. The social cost will just go on and on and on with children, with education, et cetera.

Of course, I have a pro-systemic and a pro-environment approach. It is the universal design principle, moving away from the medical model with medical certification proving all the time that I deserve to have extra time instead of just looking at different training. It was proven that, just for examinations, students would not need extra time if you would say that, for the next five questions, just answer three. Just having the choice and the empowerment would change very much.

Senator Martin: In terms of the file that each student may have, because it does follow them through the years, I am curious how accurately it gets transferred to university professors that teach them. As a classroom teacher, I would be able to go back and access these files and know what the record showed. For certain students who cannot write but have to do oral examinations, unless the teachers are aware, those things can get missed. How accurately would those files follow these university students? That would make a big difference in their success.

Ms. Ruel: At the post-secondary level, the files remain at the access service. It is very important; it is crucial. All students are admitted based on their marks. There is no admission based on charity or needing a certain number of persons with disabilities in our campus. It does not work this way. Since 1982, in the human rights code, all students are admitted at an equal level. As soon as they are admitted, we need to accommodate.

The point is that they are adults. It is neither a rehabilitation centre nor a hospital. They are students with a disability. The accessibility or disability office keeps the records. It is something that stays within the service; it never goes to professors. A person might say, ``We need to know that there is a diagnosis,'' but we are not obliged to know what that diagnosis is. However, we need to know about the impact on the learning environment. That is the most important thing. That is what we disclose, and that is what we hope the student discloses to the professor by saying, ``I am allowed to have extra time. I have a disability that is well documented.'' The information does not go to the professor, but the student is welcome to discuss it with the professor.

Senator Martin: That is an important piece of information. I understand they are adults, but it is only one summer between high school graduation and first year of university. That is critical information to a teacher with respect to how that student may be given certain considerations with assignments, and tests, and so on. That could make quite a difference for their success. It may involve educating the students who are in post-secondary education institutions to ensure that they advocate for themselves, but, if they cannot do so, organizations like yours and others could do that. That would be critical.

The Chair: I need to move on. We have next Senator Callbeck from Prince Edward Island.

Senator Callbeck: Welcome. Thank you for your presentations.

Mr. Dionne, you mentioned a lack of skilled service providers. How big is that problem? Do you feel there are things that the federal government could be doing here to improve the situation?

Mr. Dionne: Sensitizing or publicizing the availability of these kinds of careers would be beneficial. One of the main shortages is in the area of service providers in sign language. The federal government can assist by supporting promotional campaigns through employment and the creation of training programs or opportunities to engage in training programs at that level.

Senator Callbeck: Do we have any statistics on that? Do we have any idea how many more people we could use in the area of sign language?

Mr. Dionne: We did a survey and we designed an ad hoc committee for sign language interpretation issues. I did not bring the statistics with me today, but we can certainly forward them to the clerk for you.

Senator Callbeck: That would be great because I was wondering how major this issue is.

You spoke about key government ministries coordinating their efforts. You also talked about the definition of ``disability.'' Have there been efforts made to do this? Has this ever been on the agenda of the Council of Ministers of Education when they meet?

Mr. Dionne: I am not sure. I do not know that answer. I work at McGill, which is an institution that takes information from all the provinces. I often see different sorts of forms and have to fill in different kinds of funding requests and deal with different definitions. I know that there are different ones in existence across the country, but I do not know that there has been a lot of pull together to say, ``Let us unify this system.'' The issue is at the level of funding. All the provinces have a similar definition of ``disability'' as a person and as a society, but when you get into the funding of them in post-secondary education, that is where the difficulties arise as to how they are defined.

Senator Callbeck: Have there been discussions on this with officials in the Canada Student Loans Program?

Ms. Graham: I was about to interject on that. We have been working with our provincial colleagues on having a common definition for purposes of student financial assistance. In fact, we have a fairly strong federal-provincial committee that governs the Canada Student Loans Program, because the provinces deliver the front end of our program. Reporting to that committee is a special committee looking at issues of disability. One of the things involved there is the definition and ensuring that there is consistency across the country.

Senator Callbeck: Is that a committee that has been set up or has it been in existence for some time?

Ms. Graham: The Canada Student Loans Program has been in existence since 1964.

Senator Callbeck: I know that.

Ms. Graham: The committee on disability has been in place since about 2000 when we went to direct loan programs. An issue that is foremost for that committee is all-around learning disabilities. It is a fairly new issue that we are dealing with. The committee looks at a variety of issues centred on disability.

Senator Callbeck: I was reading about the on-site support services at universities, colleges and so on. I thought it said that they are only used by 30 per cent of university students with disabilities, although studies have shown that the students who have used these services have benefited greatly from them.

Can you tell me why only 30 per cent would use them?

Ms. Ruel: The disability, by itself, is neutral. Having a disability does not mean that you will have an obstacle or a barrier to education. Most people in a wheelchair at the University of Ottawa campus find it to be 85 per cent to 90 per cent accessible. Having a declared official disability does not mean that you need special accommodation. In many cases, there is a spectrum of disability. For example, someone with mental health issues can be safe for many years if the environment prevents them from becoming more stressed, or if people are better trained to avoid behaviour that would provoke or make more problems. The person does not have to disclose or does not need any accommodation.

In addition, they are young adults; they have lived with the disability. With technology, medication or the environment, sometimes there is no need to disclose. There are also stigmas, but that is another problem.

Ms. Muñoz: There are other types of people, namely, people with chronic illnesses, who are also starting to learn that they can have access to the benefits of being part of the services because they need more time to sleep or they need medicines, and so on. They are not aware that they can have access to these services.

Senator Callbeck: How do you suggest that we make them aware?

Ms. Muñoz: We must think about education not only in terms of disability and so on, but also in terms of thinking about disability as a social issue and about not putting everything on the individual's shoulders. We must understand that disability is a relationship between individual functions and how the environment is conceived. That is why I insisted during my presentation that we need to work more on disability studies.

In the United States, there are disability centre studies everywhere. Here, disability studies are a marginal field of study that does not deserve a lot of attention. We need to work harder in terms of constructing more disability theories.

Senator Callbeck: I wanted to ask about the assessment fee because it has been mentioned a couple of times. The student has to pay for the assessment. Is that a barrier? How much money are we talking about?

Ms. Larocque: We are talking about a lot of money. For learning disabilities, in order to get an assessment done, you need a psychologist who specializes in the field. Assessments run anywhere between $1,200 and sometimes up to $3,000.

Many of the students who come to the universities or colleges do not have the assessment because the public education system in their province or territory did not provide them with that assessment. They know they are a student at risk, so they provide them with resources. In order to identify them with a diagnosis, they would have to provide them with actual services. In order to not do that, they only identify them as a student at risk.

Many of the students do come without the assessment at the college and university and that is why there is such a huge influx of students requesting an assessment at the college and university level.

The Chair: Does HRSDC provide funding for that assessment?

Ms. Graham: Through the program I am not exactly sure about that. I know that, when they do apply for the programs for repayment on disability, they do need a doctor's certificate or whatnot. I have not heard that as an issue in my program, but I can certainly get back to the committee with that.

The Chair: If you could get back to the clerk, and we will provide that information. That sounds like a fair barrier. Many of these people have low-income levels, and to have to put out that kind of money is a barrier and needs attention.

[Translation]

Senator Dawson: There have been comments about solutions. Just our being here today and the broadcasting of this hearing is an opportunity to educate members of Parliament, who are an important target audience. It is an opportunity for them to send a message about an issue that is neither exclusively federal nor provincial jurisdiction, but rather shared jurisdiction.

Unfortunately, despite post-secondary education being a shared jurisdiction, nine times out of ten federal initiatives are not implemented in Quebec. Are the Heritage Canada partnerships and programs implemented in Quebec? Is the situation one where federal government funding is transferred to the Quebec government and where co-operation and implementation to do not apply in the case of Quebec? Can any of you answer that question?

Mr. Dionne: I can give you a very specific answer. Disabled students wishing to take advantage of grants and financial assistance for services require a medical certificate filled out by a physician. There are four possible types of disabilities that students may have; visual, hearing, motor or organic. Organic disabilities cover impairments to any part of the body other than the brain.

As a result, students with mental health issues, attention deficits or learning difficulties are not eligible for these grants or financial assistance with services. Some of these students get help, while others do not. However, the Act does not provide for mental health issues and the Quebec Ministry of Education, which has been assessing the situation for some time now, considers this to be an emerging constituency.

Senator Dawson: Therefore, Heritage Canada funding is not available to these people?

Mr. Dionne: No, not for this segment of the student body. However, assistance is available in other areas of the country. In Quebec, students are not able to apply for this financial assistance.

Senator Dawson: Quebec universities, CEGEPS and associations provide assistance but is there federal-provincial co-operation? Is there a forum for the Quebec Ministry of Education to sit down with Heritage Canada or the other provinces to look at how the various institutions can share best practices?

Are students who decide to ``cross the river'' to study out of province at either the University of Ottawa or the Université du Québec à Gatineau faced with even more impediments or are things made easier for them?

Ms. Ruel: Financial assistance is different in Ontario and Quebec. In Ontario, out-of-province students are eligible for the same services as anyone else. It is not the student's home province that matters but rather where they are studying. As far as access is concerned, you would have to ask the ministry.

The forms are different as are the definitions and the ways of accessing information. We currently have students from New Brunswick, Alberta, Western Canada and of course Quebec. Each time the forms, definitions and financial assistance available are all different.

In some provinces, no financial assistance is available for specific services while in others money is no object. The issue now is whether the provinces are talking about this situation. It would be desirable for them to do so because the services are highly fragmented.

Instead of dividing up the money, a better strategy would be to pool it and to agree on a way of investing it to get more positive results. In my opinion, this is a very important recommendation.

[English]

Ms. Graham: With respect to student financial assistance, the Province of Quebec and the territories of NWT, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut do not participate in our program but participate on the intergovernmental FPT, federal-provincial-territorial, committee. They are there, and they interact in terms of the issues around disability.

The Province of Quebec receives compensation in the form of an alternative payment, in lieu of participating in the Canada Student Loans Program. Within that context they have received in the past — and I assume they will continue to receive in the future — compensation for our grants and programs for persons with disabilities and for our loan program in general.

Senator Dawson: That is without any assurance that it will be used in that context?

Ms. Graham: No, in our legislation there is a reference to the fact that, in order to receive an alternative payment, the jurisdiction must provide programming that has substantially the same effect as the federal programs. Each year, there is a process that we embark on with the Province of Quebec and they indicate their legislation, the kinds of programs they have, and we then look at that and determine how much their alternative payment will be.

It is always after the school year. For example, for this school year, 2009-10, we have begun a process where we have written a letter to Quebec, they will give us an assessment of their programs against ours, and then under legislation we must pay them by January 2011.

The Chair: Getting people into post-secondary education starts with them becoming graduates of high school. We are told that twice as many people with disabilities have not completed high school as compared to those without disabilities.

How do we get people through the secondary level so we have a better chance of getting them into the post- secondary level? Is there a role for the federal government? We know the further down the educational ladder we go, it is more provincial jurisdiction. Who would like to comment on that?

Ms. Muñoz: The ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has created a common ground with respect to the commitment the whole country has towards the international community and its citizens regarding inclusive education, which is Article 24.

This is the first and the most important thing because, eventually, the federal government will have to provide a report to the steering committee in the United Nations, and you will have to work together to create these reports for the steering committee. There might be alternate reports from the NGOs, non-governmental organizations, regarding what is going on here.

The Chair: You are saying that, eventually, they will have to address this high school graduation program because it is part of the reporting mechanism.

Ms. Ruel: Yes, because Article 24 of the convention clearly talks about improving the graduation level, so there is a concrete commitment.

Ms. Milroy-Swainson: That point underscores that education for students with disabilities at any age is a complex matter, and requires not only accessible and welcoming institutions but also communities which are accessible and cultural environments that are appropriate.

The federal government has programs in place to support this broader approach. For example, again, the social development partnerships program provides three kinds of funding that support this. First, we provide funding on an annual basis to 18 organizations representing people with disabilities, and the goal of this funding is to support these organizations in identifying and helping society respond to issues related to people with disabilities, so creating more of a social inclusion, cultural awareness.

It also supports the community inclusion initiative, which specifically is intended to support social inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities, and really works hard to both raise awareness outside the disability community about disabilities and improve attitudes. It also tries to encourage and support the involvement of people with disabilities in various types of social, educational, economic and sport activities.

The third part of that funding is project funding where we provide resources to a broad range of organizations for initiatives specifically intended to support inclusive education, support transition between school and work, and create supports for people with disabilities. All of these help foster the social inclusion of people with disabilities, which then in many ways creates attitudes that support them, even wanting them to go forward on that front, so that is an important program.

A second program is the enabling accessibility fund which was renewed in the past budget. This program is eligible for various organizations, not actually universities, but it helps ensure that the community is more accessible to people with disabilities, whether it is information and communication technology, physical accessibility or transportation accessibility. If you cannot get to a school, it is hard to be part of that school community, so we use those tools available to us to support that broader cultural inclusion.

The Chair: Those things you have just described you are saying are not only applicable at the post-secondary level but also at the secondary and post-secondary level, so they should help out to get more high school graduates?

Ms. Milroy-Swainson: As well, there are a number of programs that target children and education in primary levels.

Ms. Graham: One other thing announced in the last budget is pathways to education Canada, and it is specific to children with disabilities, students with disabilities, but certainly for underrepresented individuals. That is community based to get into the high schools, mentor them and so forth. Part of that constituency will be students with disabilities.

Ms. Ruel: In Ontario for many years, there has been money for transition programs, and the experience of transition programs is showing us that, more and more now, we have students with learning disabilities at the university level who mentor at the high school level to teach how to use the learning technologies.

We have a project with OCRI, Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, with the University of Ottawa, and we realize that the training of high school teachers about learning technologies is not enough which impacts the students. First of all, they have to be successful in high school to be admitted to university, so if they do not have access to those technologies, they can hardly make it at university. We now try to pair students from the university to work with high school students, and they also work as role models, so we hope in the future, by having the students talking to each other, it will improve at least the perspective of those students.

Senator Callbeck: I have one question, Ms. Larocque, on your recommendations that I would like you to clarify. Number 3 said to reconsider requirements for financial aid specific to students with disabilities, even if they are not eligible for basic provincial or federal assistance. Can you give me an example of what you might be talking about?

Ms. Larocque: There was an example given in my presentation, I believe on page 3, where, for instance in Ontario, a student did not qualify for a Canada study grant for the accommodation of students with permanent disabilities. Because they do not qualify for the Ontario student loan, they do not qualify for the grant. You need to qualify for one in order to get access to all the other ones, so it is very difficult for those who do not qualify for that one program to be able to go to school and get the financial funding to help with their expenses, both their disability and educational expenses.

Senator Callbeck: What is the main reason they do not qualify for that?

Ms. Larocque: They may not qualify because, when they make application, their parents may be making too much money. There are different reasons why they may not qualify, but it comes down to there is money there from parents. They may not qualify because their parents make too much money, but the parents do not have the money to provide them with all the educational accommodations they need, especially with adaptive technology. Many parents are left having to take money from their RRSPs in order to purchase the adaptive technology for their child to attend university or college.

Ms. Graham: To qualify for the grant programs that I described, you have to first qualify for a Canada student loan, and essentially you need to be assessed on your financial need. The premise of the Canada Student Loans Program is that it is to make up a shortfall in funds. We expect parents and students to contribute to financing their education. Based on an assessment that is done at the provincial level, it is determined whether you can access a loan based on financial need.

The Chair: Is it sufficiently sensitive to the concern that Ms. Larocque raises?

Ms. Graham: You can appeal a decision, so you can go back to a provincial government. We do not do the front- end assessments and applications, but certainly provinces are willing to reassess based on information that maybe was not provided, or exceptional circumstances, that sort of thing. There is a bit of flexibility in that.

Senator Martin: Ms. Graham, you mentioned that you will be testing or launching a program in British Columbia this September. With the success of that, are there plans to continue in other schools in B.C. or perhaps across Canada? That is a bridge that would fill a gap between high school and university.

Ms. Graham: We are excited about it. It is based on an experiment done in the U.S. to great success. We are piloting it with the Province of B.C. which allows us to go in the schools. Our contractors will go into the schools. We will assess the outcome and evaluate that to see whether it makes a difference. From our discussions with other provinces, there is a real interest in looking at how and if and how much it would cost to implement that across the board.

Senator Martin: It sounds like a worthwhile program.

The Chair: That is it. We have reached the end of our meeting. Thank you to all of you who have come today. You have provided us with valuable, thought-provoking information that we will have to consider as we go down the path towards recommendations. We still have many meetings to go and hope to have a report out in the fall.

With that, I will officially adjourn this meeting.

(The committee adjourned.)