When people discuss groups who are impacted by the pandemic, those with disabilities are often the last ones they consider.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Canadian government suggested wearing masks so that citizens could protect themselves from the virus. However, the suggestion to wear masks did not take into account those with disabilities. A U of T study conducted by David Pettinicchio and Michelle Maroto explored how the pandemic impacts the mental health of individuals with disabilities. It explained that policymakers have been unaware of how their policies impact those who have respiratory problems, experience panic attacks, or rely heavily on lipreading to communicate.
This is not to say that people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are against mask-wearing or other public safety measures. For those with compromised immune systems, it is safer to physically distance than to risk their health.
People with disabilities also experience financial difficulties due to the pandemic. Thanks to the threat of the virus spreading, Ontario has implemented many lockdowns since March 2020. However, these lockdowns left many people, including university students, out of a job.
As a student with epilepsy and a hearing impairment, I found it incredibly difficult to find a summer job last year that would not put me at a risk of getting COVID-19. Even as this winter term has come to a close, finding a job is like finding a needle in the subway. I stress the difficulty in finding work as a student with disabilities because, without a job to support themselves, students with disabilities — including myself — are going to struggle financially and may even experience poverty.
You would expect that U of T, as the top university in Canada, would better support its students. While the university has been doing its best to offer services and programs that focus on careers and jobs, when it comes to its students with disabilities, U of T could do so much better.
Some students who don’t have a disability or illness may wonder why there should be a focus on students with disabilities. Since domestic students pay at least $6,000 in tuition and international students pay tens of thousands of dollars, many students struggle financially regardless of whether or not they have a disability.
However, those with disabilities struggle more. People with chronic health conditions and disabilities are often unemployed, under-employed, or are not able to work because many workspaces do not offer the accommodations necessary to work effectively. As a hearing-impaired person, I cannot work in most loud environments, especially in catering or customer service-related jobs, as I’m unable to read people’s lips when they wear a mask. Also, the opportunities to find work have gone down significantly during the pandemic since most jobs are in person and would be considered risky.
I must acknowledge that there are services and programs that Canada and U of T offer which support students with disabilities. At the federal level, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit provides income support to those unable to work due to underlying health conditions. For those in Ontario, the Ontario Student Assistance Program helps with tuition costs; the Ontario Disability Support Program gives income and employment support to Ontarians with disabilities; and the Bursary for Students with Disabilities aids students who pay for disability-related educational equipment and services. U of T has career centres and has provided COVID-19 emergency grants for undergraduate and graduate students to help cover unexpected costs related to the pandemic.
While these services and programs help, they are not enough. If U of T seeks to serve its students with disabilities, it needs to do the following:
- Make the website accessible: There is a lot of information that can help students on the university’s official website as well as on the Career Learning Network. However, due to the bad web design, students — especially first-years — are unable to find all of the services and programs that are available to them. Instead, websites should make certain pages available from the home page, and they should be made easier to see through enlarged fonts.
- Create programs that develop skills: Receiving a check every month, while great, will not solve the problem of financial instability among those with disabilities. We need programs that focus on sharpening our skills and overcoming our disability barriers. The more skills we learn, the better it is for us to actually find jobs and support ourselves.
As Pettinicchio and Maroto wrote in an article published by The Conversation, “We need policies and programs that target the root causes of inequality,” not ones that simply bandage them.
Catherine Dumé is a second-year student who studies humanities, is double minoring in writing & rhetoric and history, and plans to switch majors into political science. Dumé is also the online editor of the Innis Herald.