Updated: Dec 28, 2020
A disabled SFU student explains their struggle for equity
My first two semesters at SFU were pretty rocky. Going into my third, I was looking for a fresh start — but the SFU administration seems to have put a series of roadblocks in front of anyone getting through rough times.
I had a series of medical emergencies in my first two semesters, and SFU, with its rampant ableism, did not know how to work with me to create an open and accepting school environment. I took Ns (an incomplete course grade) for three out of four courses last fall, and Ns for all three courses this spring.
"SFU did not know how to work with me to create an accepting school environment"
I found myself starting my second SFU term on academic probation and financial aid warning, and was notified at the end of the semester that I was required to completely withdraw from the university. I was not informed of my options at this time, and I feared that when I left residence for the summer, I would never be coming back.
However, because I had already chatted with advisors after my academic issues a semester earlier, I was aware of some things I hadn’t been told at that time. As a result, I applied for and was granted a complete withdrawal under extenuating circumstances (WE) for the Spring 2020 semester, filed under medical grounds. While I was lucky enough to have had advisors supporting me along the way, this process was not without its obstacles.
The first time I planned to see an academic advisor, I was on academic probation and wanted urgent help; I was informed by phone about 15 minutes before the appointment, already waiting outside the office, that my advisor was not there and that I would need to book a whole new appointment. Begrudgingly, I did.
When I first saw an academic advisor, they could not answer all of my questions, but suggested I file a WE for the Fall 2019 semester. The next advisor I saw said that it would likely be rejected because I had passed one of my four courses, which I found discouraging, so I opted to wait.
Fortunately, the limited information I had been given came in handy. I knew that after I failed the Spring 2020 semester due to my poor health, I had one more opportunity to save myself from being kicked out of university and sent back to an abusive household: I could file for a WE.
After writing a detailed letter, carefully sticking to the guidelines, I had to contact health professionals that could verify my situation. Rather than just accepting my disabilities, SFU needed detailed forms from a doctor and a counsellor, and I hoped they wouldn’t need more information from my hospital or psychiatrist.
In order to write an effective personal letter for my WEs, I needed to go into specific detail about what my medical grounds were, which were later expanded into compassionate grounds as well in the process, rather than just letting a medical professional share enough to explain my academic changes.
I divulged very personal information that I’d never normally share with strangers and that should not be necessary to explain my needs. I wished I could have just said that I am disabled and had experienced a series of emergencies that interfered with work, but I was advised to list off specific symptoms and dates that violated my normal standards of sharing.
It felt incredibly violating to relive my experiences on paper for the sake of some academic compassion.
But, finally, it was done. Weeks later, I had received my WEs and the scare of being booted out of university was over — for the time being. As I came back for the Fall 2020 semester, I found that the obstacles I had previously faced were just the beginning.
"The obstacles I had previously faced were jut the beginning"
Additionally, SFU did not inform me as I filed my WE for Spring 2020 that it could — and would — impact my financial aid opportunities. In fact, they did not notify me until weeks before the Fall 2020 semester that they may or may not give me student loans for this year due to my WEs.
After weeks of waiting for the answer I was promised, I followed up and learned that I would be denied my student loans this semester. But thanks to the extra information provided, I knew that I could appeal for Financial Aid Probation, which when granted, would give me one more semester of financial aid as I pulled my grades together after last year’s health problems.
I also learned that I could still file for a retroactive WE at any point before convocation, which if accepted, would take me off of academic probation and potentially reinstate my financial aid opportunities.
I immediately appealed for both of these, in hopes that one way or another I’d be able to stay at SFU for this semester. My second WE required the same amount of intrusive paperwork, backing up my pre-existing conditions already on file and going into detail about conditions I’d previously left out of my first WE, for the sake of appeasing a judgment that didn’t want to see the same reasons used twice for WEs. Again, I felt violated.
"I felt violated"
The paperwork for my appeal for financial aid probation asked for similar invasive information: less about my financial situation and more about my health reasons for the grades I’d gotten and how I was getting back on track. I submitted 16 pages of scanned personal documents to prove that I actually do live with debilitating conditions that affect all parts of my life, and to prove my meetings with a handful of professionals.
While all of my WEs and probation were accepted, the drawn out process of each part was invasive and violating, making it an arduous process to complete.
With its ableist hurdles, SFU knows that my life depends on their decisions. If I do not receive support because I am disabled, I will no longer be able to stay for this semester, and potentially drop out of university altogether.
With its bureaucratic red tape, SFU knows its negligence could leave me scrambling to pack up from residence, possibly dropping my courses for the semester I am already enrolled in, forced to leave Canada (losing adequate healthcare), and returning to my only other living option: an abusive and transphobic home.
As I reflect on the hurdles that SFU administration continues to ask me to jump over simply because of my personal situation, I consider how many other students have been in similar situations.
"I hope that SFU learns to accept that students are human"
Whether grade changes are a matter of medical circumstances, home life changes, employment changes, or any other grounds, I sincerely hope that the SFU administration learns to accept that students are human, and that we cannot always have perfect grades.
While I hope that in time, SFU policies change to be more mindful of students’ often deeply personal circumstances, I wonder how many other people like me will be denied answers or find themselves lost in piles of paperwork just for the opportunity for higher education.
Unfortunately, I know I am not the first, and I know I will not be the last.