Content warning: This article includes mentions of suicide.
A former U of T student, Christian Roman, has filed an official complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) against the university for its lack of accommodations, which he claims harmed his academic career, finances, and well-being. Roman is seeking $300,000 in damages for expenses related to stress caused by the university’s insufficient accommodations for physical and mental illnesses, which he says prevented him from completing coursework and amounted to discrimination on the basis of disability.
The university denied Roman’s claims and stated that it provided him with every accommodation he requested.
A fundraiser has been started on GoFundMe to help pay for the case. Another of the fundraiser’s stated goals is to highlight the university’s “systemic ableism.” Lucinda Qu, the organizer of the fundraiser, claims that his experience is not unique. The fundraiser, which has a goal of $5,000, has raised just over $380 to date.
Roman’s experiences at U of T
Roman came to U of T in 2012 from the United States to study mechanical engineering, but suffered a spinal injury in a weightlifting accident during his first month. The accident left him bedridden and unable to attend his classes, and took a toll on him both physically and mentally.
He met with a doctor at U of T’s Health and Wellness centre, where he says he was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. While he was accommodated in the following semester, Roman felt like the university hadn’t addressed his main concerns.
“[The doctors] tried to make it seem like a mental disorder rather than a physical one,” he explained in an interview with The Varsity.
Cycling through different drugs and unable to attend his classes, Roman filed a petition to defer his exams, despite being told that they were rarely granted. Nevertheless, in April of 2013, his petition was granted. Some of his grades were changed to “assessed,” and he was withdrawn from other classes altogether.
Since Roman was on a student visa, he could not transfer out of university to seek medical attention. Ultimately, his poor performance in first year was chalked up to academic failure and he was put on probation. “I was forced to take a leave that following year… I really didn’t understand what was going on with my mental health at the time,” said Roman.
He was also slowly becoming dependent on the pills he had been prescribed. “I just thought taking different pills would fix [my mental health], without realizing [that] this is a lot of stuff for a young kid to go through. You’re suddenly losing every aspect of your safety net,” he said.
By January of 2014, the university allowed Roman to take classes again — but he was still on probation, which meant that he was at risk of being expelled and losing his visa. Meanwhile, he says he was still being prescribed a combination of expensive and addictive medications.
In November 2014, he reported a suicide attempt to his U of T psychiatrist. The psychiatrist alerted campus police. He was then handcuffed and taken to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
At CAMH, two university administrators visited Roman. They told him that the university could not accommodate him and that he should drop out if he couldn’t handle the academic stress. “They were just blaming the school environment and the stress from attending school, when in reality I was hardly ever there because I was trying to just fix my head,” Roman said.
Unable to drop out of school due to his immigration status and his dependence on drugs prescribed and paid for by U of T, Roman believed he had no choice but to sign a form to be released from CAMH against medical advice. The pressure of new courses and looming deadlines from previously incomplete courses had an adverse impact on Roman, who had been discharged from CAMH untreated. In 2015, his university status was changed to “refused further admission.”
He was readmitted to the university in 2016, but was left homeless when he couldn’t secure housing, and had to sleep on friends’ couches or outside U of T engineering buildings. He was finally expelled in 2018 after missing exams due to health problems.
For the majority of his interactions with university administrators, Roman was told that the university was doing everything it could to accommodate him and, consequently, he didn’t want to complain, even as his situation got worse. “I always tried to achieve some sort of compromise with them… they were already telling me that this is exceptional and that normally [they] aren’t this forgiving,” Roman said.
However, in February 2020, Roman filed a complaint with the HRTO, citing a breach of the human rights code, and seeking damages, re-enrolment, and an order that the university create a better route for students in crisis to get accommodations .
“There’s no other grievance policy for me to… just get something more equitable, just get a right to exist in some ways, and just be heard in a way,” he said about the HRTO complaint.
The university stated that it provided all of the accommodations that Roman requested and that he hadn’t met the academic standards to continue in his program. In its response to Roman’s application to the HRTO, the university wrote that it “acknowledged [Roman’s difficult] circumstances, granted every accommodation request made by Mr. Roman, and provided him with every accommodation recommended by Accessibility Services.”
In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote that the university doesn’t comment on specific cases and allegations. “We know that we – like any major institution – need to keep improving in this area,” the spokesperson added. “We are actively listening to the experiences of our community and responding to their changing needs.”
The fundraiser, started by former U of T student Lucinda Qu, aims to help Roman with legal fees, as well as raising awareness to both his situation and what Qu describes as “the University of Toronto’s systemic ableism.”
“[Roman] and I met when he began coming to U of T Mental Health Policy Council (MHPC) meetings in the fall of 2019,” Qu wrote in an email to The Varsity. Roman’s case was the first of many that MHPC members have worked on since. Qu wrote that they spent hours “going through documentation and finding a lawyer and trying to outrun the deadlines of human rights and immigration processes.” She also noted that Roman’s story isn’t the only one, but rather it’s one of many cases that should have never happened, and that ableism was a key force at play in Roman’s experience.
On a larger scale, Qu is concerned that students aren’t able to easily engage in the university’s policy drafting and review process. As an example, she referenced the review of the university-mandated leave of absence policy, which was scheduled to happen during the winter 2021 exam period until letters written by student unions led to an extension.
Roman echoed Qu’s comments about students not being able to participate in governance, and pointed out that many simply don’t have the time to do so. “Most people don’t even know about student governance, because they’re too busy just trying to pass, right?” However, he still believes that getting students involved in consultation processes at the university is key, along with consulting third-party medical professionals.
In the future, he hopes to see the university involve more knowledgeable third-party medical professionals in students’ cases, instead of having university administrators handle them.
“I think they should give definitely more autonomy and there should either be some… accountability mechanisms built in, either third party or some way of actually getting advocacy for [students].”