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Equality of Educational Opportunity: a Student User's Guide

Editor's Note: Julie Sanfacon is a partially sighted woman from Quebec City who has a passion for languages, travel, and volunteer work in the community sector with women and students with disabilities.

In January 2006, I enrolled in a private college in Quebec City that offers intensive training in Office Systems Technology. At this institution, I faced two unprecedented barriers in my experience as a student with a vision impairment: a highly computerized school environment and, most important, a case of discrimination in education against which I had to fight promptly.

Having participated in a QAPSD (Quebec Association for Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities) project called Les Etudes postsecondaires, c'est aussi pour toi! (Post-secondary Students Are Also for You!), I knew about the importance of expressing my special needs as clearly and accurately as possible. Thus, I communicated them when I contacted my private college's induction officer by phone and when I registered for my courses.

I clearly identified myself as a post-secondary student with a disability and I took the time to describe my vision loss, its impact in a school environment, and simple and practical solutions that can help me succeed. On two occasions, I asked the induction agent if his private college had the necessary infrastructure and services to welcome and support a student with a vision disability. He reassured me twice about my integration and suggested that I make an appointment with the principal after the start of the winter term, since there is no disability office in this private college. Then, I talked to the institution's network administrator about using all the equipment in the computer laboratories, and talked to a teacher.

My courses started a week later, and after only one day of class I was able to clarify my special needs. I now wished to follow up on the solutions I had put forth during my discussions with the college's induction officer.

My next step was to meet the principal. I said that I could not read conventional print and that I would need the following documents in large print: course packs and materials to be used in class during teamwork assignments, photocopies distributed to students and, most important, exams. I also told her that my low vision centre would help me to access computer equipment in laboratories but that this would certainly require some degree of collaboration from the college and from its network administrator.

The principal told me that her private college did not have the infrastructure to welcome and integrate a student with a vision impairment and that the staff would not be able to supply me with large-print documents. She also refused to allow a public college, even if appointed and funded by the Ministry of Education, to convert the educational material into large print. Moreover, she said that I had misled her private college about the true nature of my vision loss and, later on, that I had omitted to inform them about my disability.

I did my best to keep calm and casually asked her if she had ideas or suggestions to improve my integration. She said that I should withdraw from all my courses, leave the college, and enroll in another establishment that would be better equipped to meet my special needs. She mentioned that, if I quit now, I would only have to pay a fraction of my tuition fees.

I refused to leave the college but instead contacted Serge Brassard, QAPSD's chief executive officer, and staff at the Ministry of Education, my low vision centre, and the CEGEP (College d'Enseignement General et Professionnel) de Sainte-Foy. I had already introduced myself to all my teachers and disclosed information about my disability.

From that point on, I decided to stop dealing with the principal and deal directly with teachers. Most of them were very helpful. A computer expert at my low vision centre hurried to configure and adapt a new laptop computer compatible with the college's network. However, in mid-February, few documents were available in large print and physical strain built up because I struggled hard to read course packs that were not adapted to my special needs. I had to act now.

In an email addressed to the principal, I clearly stated that access to educational supplies, such as course packs, is an integral part of equality of educational opportunity, and that a post-secondary institution that fails to fulfill its duty to accommodate a student is creating and maintaining discrimination. This email had a strong impact. Clearer strategies to assist me suddenly took form. From that point on, everything went smoothly.

In August 2006, I enrolled in a Graduate Diploma in Community Economic Development at Concordia University. I was welcomed with open arms by the program director, the professors, and the Disability Office. What a relief!

It is essential to choose an adequate post-secondary institution and, most important, to stand up and fight when equality of educational opportunity is compromised or ignored. This is, and will always be, a fundamental right.

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