Teaching Students with Disabilities at McGill

This article provides information, resources and tools to demonstrate how teaching staff can participate in creating accessible learning environments at McGill.

Portrait of a Student with a Disability

Students with disabilities in Canada

The 2017 Statistics Canada Report, Canadian Survey on Disability, states that 22% of the Canadian population aged 15 and older had one or more disabilities. This statistic often surprises those unfamiliar with it, as it accounts for more than 1 in 5 Canadians living with a disability, a number far higher than what is visibly recognizable as we go about our daily activities. While some disabilities have visible markers (e.g. the use of a wheelchair or other mobility aid), the vast majority of disabilities are invisible, yet nonetheless impact the way that an individual experiences their world.

Over the past decades, disability resource offices (such as McGill’s Office for Students with Disabilities) have seen a dramatic increase in the number of students using their services at universities across the country. Several factors can be attributed to the rise in numbers of students with disabilities accessing post-secondary education: the advent of assistive technologies, increased supports in early education, ameliorations in physical accessibility (e.g. public transit, accessible building standards), among others. With this increase in numbers, there has also been a change in the portrait of the student with a disability accessing post-secondary education. While students with sensory (e.g. hearing, vision) and physical (e.g. wheelchair users) were amongst the pioneering advocates for access to higher education, their advocacy has paved the way for neurodivergent students, students with chronic health conditions, and students living with mental health disorders to come to school.

As stated in McGill’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Plan:

The McGill Commitment is premised on a recognition of the diversity within the University’s student body, resulting from its vibrant international character as well as McGill’s location within a cosmopolitan centre. Core to the Commitment is bolstering and celebrating student diversity, striving to provide equitable support and access to opportunities, and promoting a respectful and inclusive learning experience for all students.

In order to enact this commitment, we (as members of the McGill community – whether you’re a staff, student, faculty or community member) have a collective responsibility to ensure that the contributions of students with disabilities are valued, and their needs accommodated in order to truly cultivate an inclusive campus.

Students registered with disability services in Quebec

According to data gathered by the Association Quebecoise interuniversitaire des conseilliers aux etudiants en situation de handicap (AQICESH), students with disabilities who registered with their disability services office were registered for the following reasons during the 2018-19 academic year:

  • 38% Attention deficit disorders
  • 17% Mental health
  • 17% Multiple disabilities
  • 12% Learning Disabilities
  • 6% Health condition impacting the internal organs (gastrointestinal, cardio-respiratory or endocrine impairment) deficience organique
  • 5% Motor impairment
  • 2% Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • 1% Visual impairment
  • 1% Hearing impairment
  • 1% Language or communication impairments

It’s important to remember that while there may be commonalities amongst students within the same diagnostic category, the environment and social context has a significant impact on the individual’s learning experience. This idea comes from the social model of disability, which posits that the experience of disability is created by the interaction of an individual’s impairments with the environment, and not inherently as a result of the health condition itself. While there have been multiple critiques of the social model of disability, it remains as one of the fundamental influences of disability studies. Its implications in education are clear: the environment (physical spaces, learning activities, assessments) is core to accessibility. As teaching staff, you have a significant impact on the creation of equitable and inclusive learning for students with disabilities.

Accommodation for Students with Disabilities at McGill

Accommodation provision in Quebec may look very different if you are joining McGill with experience teaching at other international institutions. Academic accommodations on the basis of disability are administered differently at different schools and are governed by the applicable local legislation.

At McGill, the accommodation process must be initiated by the student. Students seeking academic accommodations on the basis of disability register with the Office for Students with Disabilities, and are required (by law) to provide valid supporting medical documentation in order to receive services. This documentation, as well as the information about whether or not a student has registered with the OSD, is protected by privacy legislation. This means that you, as an instructor, will not know the identities of the students receiving disability-related accommodations in your courses unless the student chooses to disclose to you directly, or you are considered within the scope of ‘needs to know’ and have a direct role to play in the implementation of the accommodation itself.

During on campus instructions, the OSD is the unit responsible for the centralized administration of reasonable accommodations on campus and performs this function on behalf of the Faculties, in fulfillment of the university’s legal obligations. As a teaching staff, your collaboration will be required in order to facilitate the administration of accommodations for students in your courses. During the current period of remote instruction, there are a variety of accommodations that require the direct involvement of teaching staff, such as adjusted examination times. OSD remains the central point of coordination, receiving and validating all student requests before communicating with you.

The Office for Students with Disability (OSD) are the stewards of students with disabilities’ accommodation information, and accommodation decisions are determined in an interactive process between the student and the OSD Advisor, taking into account the student’s medical documentation, individual circumstances, and the particular objectives of the course.

As an instructor, your responsibility is to:

  • Apply principles of universal design for learning, to minimize the barriers to learning, and maximize accessibility.
  • Support the administration of accommodations by liaising with the Office for Students with Disabilities (e.g. submitting exam information and materials by the deadlines requested)
  • Respond to requests for accommodations in a timely manner

Some students may approach you directly to request accommodations without going through the OSD. Some recommendations and information:

  • The student is not required to disclose their diagnosis to their instructor in order to be considered for accommodations.
  • As an instructor, you have a certain amount of discretion to make academic considerations for students on an individual basis. The same way you would respond to a student who experienced incidental illness (e.g. a flu or a broken limb), a death of a family member, or other circumstances, you could make arrangements for accommodation directly with the student.
  • You can ask the student to provide support from the OSD in order to justify the accommodation requested.

Accessible Course Design

Supports and resources to help you plan your classes as inclusively as possible are available through many means.

Policies and Laws

The following laws and policies apply to students with disabilities, and their protection from discrimination or right to reasonable accommodations:

McGill policies

Provincial legislation

The Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms of Quebec echoes the Canadian Charter in granting constitutional protection from discrimination on the grounds of “a handicap or the use of any means to palliate a handicap”. Some examples of “means to palliate a handicap” could be a mobility device, service animal, interpreter, attendant or assistive technology device.

Quebec’s Ministere d’education et enseignment superieur outlines guidelines for students on how to access services and accommodations on the basis of disability, highlighting the protections offered by the Charter, as well as the Act to secure handicapped persons in the exercise of their rights with a view to achieving social, school and workplace integration.

Canadian legislation

The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms grants constitutional protection from discrimination on several grounds, including “mental or physical disability”.


McGill University is on land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. We acknowledge and thank the diverse Indigenous peoples whose presence marks this territory on which peoples of the world now gather.

For more information about traditional territory and tips on how to make a land acknowledgement, visit our Land Acknowledgement webpage.

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