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Access to success: UPEI helps students achieve their goals

"Because I am this way, there are certain things that I’m really, really good at."

by Ty Stapleton

Starting school can cause feelings of excitement, anticipation, and anxiety for any student. For a PEI high school student diagnosed with a disability in the summer before her first university semester, the emotions associated with a new school and new social experiences were amplified.

“I didn’t know I had any intellectual difficulties until I was in Grade 12,” she says. “I was away on a trip in March, and my mom had been talking to some of my teachers. She was following some hunches and doing research, and we had a conversation in my room when I got back from the trip.”

Her mother explained her research and conversations pointed to autism spectrum disorder, and described some behaviours common with ASD.

“I thought, 'Wait, I don’t think I’m like that',” she remembers. “I felt like my world was being tipped upside down, but I was basically processing our conversation for the months leading up to graduation. It was a bit of an identity crisis.”

She read a lot about her possible ASD diagnosis and talked with her teachers, learning more while trying to confirm her mother’s findings. She was formally diagnosed just before her 18th birthday.

“After talking with teachers and guidance counsellors, I was offered exam accommodations for finals, where I had some extra time to complete them,” she says. “After I graduated from high school, they mentioned accommodations would be available in university, and how to go through the process of accessing those.”

UPEI’s Accessibility Services department provides personal and academic assistance to students with diagnosed disabilities such as mental illness, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, and ASD.

“Students find out about Accessibility Services in many different ways,” says Nicole Wadden Garland, the program’s co-ordinator. “For incoming first-year students, they may find out through transitions meetings or seek out the accommodations they were provided within their previous years of education.”

Accessibility Services work with high school counsellors, resource staff, and teachers to keep them informed of UPEI’s services, to help high school staff direct students to their department, and discuss what those students will need to access the supports.

“If a student has a formal diagnosis from a medical doctor or a psychologist, they bring us their medical documentation or a psycho-educational assessment to support the need for accommodations,” Wadden Garland says. “Then a plan can be put in place to provide the student with accommodations both for testing and in the classroom. The plan is reviewed with the student each semester in order to keep the accommodations as closely matched to their learning needs as possible.” 

She also says students without formal diagnoses may also use their services, including access to tutors, learning strategists, academic coaches, mentoring, and their Gateway program.

Now in her fourth year of study and reflecting on her experiences with accommodations and other Accessibility Services supports, the student is grateful for the personal assistance UPEI provides.

“I feel it’s hard to really think about how much Accessibility Services helps. It's something that can be taken for granted because I don’t think about what it'd be like without accommodations,” she says. “It would be more stressful, more difficult, and I feel like my life would have fallen off the track in first year or second year without their help.”

She also feels there’s a stigma attached to learning disabilities and different ways of thinking, and hopes her academic and personal success at UPEI helps other students with diagnosed and undiagnosed disabilities. 

“Some people see autism as a disorder to cure, and it’s discouraging because if you’re on the spectrum you might think, ‘I’m an anomaly, and I shouldn't exist this way’—but because I am, there are certain things that I’m really, really good at.”

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