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SDG project reflections on debt, access, and intersectionality: Olivia Boonstra

I started working on the Innovating for Inclusive and Equitable Post-Secondary Education project in the summer of 2021. The Office of Social Innovation (OSI) at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) was working on a project exploring the impact of student debt and, in collaboration with Eviance and the other partners, was now exploring the impact of student debt for students with disabilities. Being introduced to this project through this specific focus was interesting and gave me a unique perspective on the complexity of this issue.

The project’s goal is to improve access to post-secondary education and decent work for people with disabilities. While debt and finances are just one part of the problem, this issue alone is deeply complicated. Not only is it a complex issue, but it is also connected to many other pressing issues facing students with disabilities. For example, funding and support for students with disabilities relies on official diagnosis and medical documentation.

The medical model of disability is the basis for many policies and practices in post-secondary education (PSE). This model positions medical system as experts on disability and often focuses on “fixing” or “curing” disability. In contrast, the social model of disability positions people with disabilities as experts when it comes to their own needs and focuses on fixing systems and institutions to better accommodate people with disabilities. By forcing students with disabilities to “prove” their disabilities with medical documentation, PSE institutions are creating more barriers for students with disabilities, rather than working to better accommodate them.

One example of this is especially important for student with psychosocial disabilities or those who are neurodivergent. In order to be accommodated, students with disabilities must have a medical diagnosis (or other medical documentation). In Canada mental health care can be expensive and assessments can cost up to $3,000. This can be a significant barrier for students as they will have to pay these fees out of pocket before even being able to apply for funding or support. For more information on student debt and funding for students with disabilities, see our fact sheet or executive summary on this research.

When we think about accessibility and inclusivity, we often think of barriers that students with disabilities specifically face (i.e., inaccessible environments, issues with accommodations etc.). But, there are barriers that effect all students, regardless of disability, and one of the biggest barriers faced by students, in my opinion, is debt and finances. These barriers are often felt even more by marginalized students, making it an urgent problem for PSE institutions who want a diverse and inclusive campus.

For me, access to post-secondary education not only positioned me for the job I have now, but it also changed my world view, helped me engage with my community, and helped me build a community of my own. I am so grateful for my own education and all the organizers and researchers I met through my degrees, and it is incredibly important to me that other people have the same opportunity. It is especially important to me that other students with disabilities have access to these opportunities. It is my hope that this work and this project will help open up PSE to those that have been previously shut out, and that this helps to strengthen disabled communities and movements.


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