File photo: Simcoe Hall. TOSIN MAIYEGUN/THE VARSITY

The Office of the Ombudsperson’s annual report has been released, with a particular focus on the complaints it received surrounding mental health accommodations.

Of the 316 complaints received by the Ombudsperson in the 2015–2016 academic year, 26 of the complainants were registered with accessibility services for mental health reasons; some complaints related to accommodations.

Several of these complaints consumed “the most time for the Office and the many administrative staff involved,” a portion of the report describes.

The report highlights two of these cases. In one case described as “disturbing,” the report found that an academic program had “a history of refusing to make all but the most minimal accommodations, even after many meetings with disability and legal experts within the University, and instead encouraged the students to withdraw from the program.”

It describes one student affected by this, who knew that he could have gone to the Ontario Ombudsman or the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal but ultimately withdrew from the program.

According to the report, this was in violation of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate, which both prohibit discrimination based on disability.

“We do not know how many other students within this academic unit or across the University withdrew for similar reasons, but had not contacted the Office,” a portion of the report reads.

The academic program implicated is not named in the report and it is unclear if the case has been closed.

In another “equally disturbing” case, the report describes situations in professional programs where there were “excessive accommodations to students whose clinical work or behaviour during the program had already posed risks to her/his peers and after graduation could pose serious risk to vulnerable clients,” while ignoring university policies and regulations. No further details were provided in the report.

The report’s recommendations focus solely on the university’s handling of mental health accommodations and communication. On the communications side, the report recommends that the university provide an annual update to Governing Council on how it is implementing the recommendations.

For mental health, the first recommendation calls on the university to develop a plan “to assist academic units in accommodating student mental health needs.”

The report’s second recommendation calls for a consistent application of the university’s guidelines and regulations where exceptions to such policies should not be the norm, drawing attention to the case where policies on leaves of absence and extensions were not strictly adhered to.

For all new program proposals received by the Governing Council’s Committee on Academic Policies and Programs and reviews of existing programs, the report recommends that the university require “a section on accessibility and accommodation.” It also calls for programs that refuse the recommended accommodations to be given clear guidelines on how to appeal or make the necessary changes.

The final mental health-related recommendation concerns professional programs that prepare students for clinical work. It calls for guidelines for these programs on how to deal with “students with mental health issues which create the potential for harm to the wider community.” The report says that the guidelines should balance the rights of students and “the need to protect the wider community(ies),” citing a “special ethical obligation to protect the public.”

The university has issued an official administrative response to the Ombudsperson’s report, where it accepts all of the recommendations regarding mental health.

In its response, the university noted that the Vice-President and Provost struck a working group “to identify procedures and best practices for student accommodations in cohort-based and lock-step programs.”

“The university’s working group has been actually working on this prior to the Ombudsperson’s recommendation,” U of T Media Relations Director Althea Blackburn-Evans told The Varsity. “They were working on this stuff already and as you can see in the university’s response, they’ve outlined each recommendation and what their response is to their recommendation and many of those are the one that the working group is already looking at.”

The university also wrote that the University of Toronto Student Mental Health Strategy and Framework, which was adopted in 2014, will be subject to review this year.

With regards to the specific observations that the Ombudperson described as “disturbing,” Blackburn-Evans would not comment on what academic programs or faculties were implicated in these cases or whether these specific issues have been resolved.

“I can’t speak about individual cases but I can say that the university always tries to find a balance between supporting our students and any health and safety concerns for the community,” she said.

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