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‘It’s like a lose-lose situation’: Students report lacking accommodations at McGill

Jordan* has been registered for exam accommodations through McGill’s office for Student Accessibility and Achievement (SAA) for approximately a year. At the end of last semester, they wrote their final exams at alternate locations with extra time, as per their accomodations. When grades were released at the end of the winter break, Jordan was distressed to learn that they had received a J, a failing grade administered for failure to write a final examination, in one of their classes.

“I was so stressed out because I knew I wrote that exam […] I proceeded to email my prof for that class, and she responded saying that she did not have my exam,” Jordan said in an interview with The Tribune. “It was never sent to her.”

Jordan reached out to the SAA by email several times to attempt to resolve the issue, but says they did not receive a response, heightening their feelings of stress.

“My initial reaction is kind of anxiety. I freak[ed] out […] I was crying. I was having a breakdown. I went from that feeling of just anxiety and panic to then anger at the fact that the one resource that needs to be there to accommodate people is failing constantly,” Jordan said. 

The SAA, formerly known as the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), is the primary unit of support on campus for students with documented disabilities. It is one of Student Services eight units aimed at assisting students in overcoming academic obstacles and facilitating progression in their studies. 94 per cent of students registered with the SAA use exam accommodation services, with McGill reporting 6,000 accommodated exams issued between Fall 2022 and Winter 2023. The Tribune has received claims from students with testing accommodations about receiving subpar accessibility services. This includes experiences with having their exams lost by the SAA, being sequestered without warning after taking accommodated exams, scheduling errors, delayed responses, and slow equipment.

Beck* has been receiving accommodations for approximately two years and reported being sequestered without warning after completing an accommodated exam during an interview with The Tribune. They shared that they were writing their exam in the Exam Center, located at 3459 McTavish, while the rest of the class wrote the exam three hours later. Staff allegedly told Beck, and approximately four to five other students, that they would have to stay in the Center for three and a half additional hours after completing their three-hour midterm, with no prior notice.

Beck recalled being told by staff that though students wouldn’t be physically stopped if they tried to leave, there would potentially be a need to report it for ethical reasons.

“It was very dehumanizing, to be honest,” Beck said.

McGill media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle did not respond to a question about whether the SAA warns students before they are sequestered before the time of publication.

Remy* receives extra time for exams and a separate examination location as a part of their accommodations plan. During the Fall 2023 semester, Remy’s accommodated exam was reportedly lost.

“I wrote the exam, I studied really hard, and then turned it in,” Remy said. “And then break comes around, and I get an email from MyCourses that my grade has been updated, and I see on MyCourses that I got a zero.”

After emailing their professor, Remy discovered that the professor had not received the exam from the SAA. Both the professor and Remy allegedly attempted to contact the SAA to resolve the issue. Remy reported having to go through the process of calling and emailing several times without receiving responses before deciding to go to the SAA office in-person, where they say they spoke with staff who did not know where the exam ended up.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, well, you probably did this already, but did you check with the other classes that were writing at the same time as me in the same room?’ And [the staff member was] like, ‘That’s a great idea. I’ll check that for sure,’” Remy said.

According to Remy, the SAA staff member they spoke to promised to call them with updates, but a week went by with no response.

“I go in-person again, and I was like, ‘Why haven’t you called me?’” Remy said. “It’s like a one-sided relationship [….] I couldn’t even focus on my schoolwork because I didn’t want to retake the class […] It was so stressful.”

Jordan also reported having scheduling issues with their midterm during the Fall 2023 semester. They claimed to have contacted the SAA via phone and email, only to be met with delayed responses. Given that the SAA informs students of the exact location and time of their accommodated exam one business day before it takes place, they felt there was very little time to resolve an issue if one was to come up. 

“When they mess up, which they do, they don’t give you any time to try to fix their mistake,” Jordan said.

Supported by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), Special Researcher on Academic Accessibility and Accommodations Mina Pingol conducted a research report on student experiences with the SAA’s services during the 2022-2023 academic year. Pingol collected the responses of 66 students and recent alumni and noted similar complaints. The report found that students testing with the SAA frequently received incorrect instructions regarding the location, scheduling, and duration of examinations. In addition, the report found that students were concerned about receiving their exam location notice only one day in advance.

Mazerolle told The Tribune that such errors are uncommon, and that SAA holds meetings with delegates from student groups to receive recommendations and reviews feedback shared through their website or through appointments to ensure they are meeting students’ changing needs. 

“While human and system errors are relatively rare, they can and do happen,” Mazerolle wrote. “Student Accessibility and Achievement takes these very seriously and works with those involved to find the best possible solution to the problem within the regulatory framework that governs our actions.”

Beck also criticized the SAA’s inadequate accommodative equipment. 

“I also had an accommodation for if you wanted to type on a computer instead of writing [by hand] […] You would have to press a key [on the computer] like 10 times for it to work, or if you pressed the backspace button it would delete a bunch,” Beck told The Tribune. “So it created a very stressful writing experience to where the next time I had to write an exam, I actually chose to not have the accommodation, because I was like, ‘I would rather just deal with the problems I have writing than have to deal with this buggy computer system.’”

While some students mainly reported issues with the examination accommodations offered by the SAA, others reported difficulties with services offered by Access Advisors. In a written statement to The Tribune, Deputy Provost Fabrice Labeau expressed that the role of the SAA Advisors is to develop individualized accommodation plans with students who have documented disabilities based on diagnosis-related barriers. The statement listed exam accommodations, note-sharing, resources for learning, assistive technology, and animal accommodations as some of the academic accommodations provided by the SAA.

Jordan reported having to wait for approximately three weeks last semester to get an appointment with an advisor to modify their plan, a period during which they allegedly had to go without their regular accommodations until they could get their plan updated.  They also reported feeling like there was a discrepancy between the accommodations their access advisor recommended and the accommodations they felt they needed. 

Mazerolle did not respond to a question about whether students go without accommodations while waiting to update their plan before the time of publication.

“I really had to kind of convince [the advisor] to give me additional accommodations,” Jordan said. 

Although students report difficulties in accommodations, students registered with the SAA also shared that they depend on the SAA’s services for academic success.

“I mean, I definitely need it […] because if I don’t have it, if I’m not able to have extra time or get that alternative testing environment, I will not succeed,” Remy said. “I have to do it, and I just wish it was better [….]  It’s like a lose-lose situation.”

*Jordan, Beck and Remy’s names have been changed to preserve their confidentiality.

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