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If you have a disability, does it affect your grades? Canadian data collected by the American College Health Association (2013) suggests that most students with ADHD, chronic illness, a learning disability, or one of several other diagnoses feel that their condition has negatively affected their academic performance.

In part, this is because many students who qualify for and have received appropriate accommodations through high school are not accessing them in their post-secondary institutions. This reflects a variety of barriers.

“A lot of students with learning disabilities also have mental health issues because of the anxiety and stress,” says Claudette Larocque, Executive Director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. “Many don’t want anyone to know about it, so they hide it. Many are away from home for the first time so the support is not there. It’s a huge adjustment.”

In a recent survey by Student Health 101, students’ most commonly expressed regret was that they waited too long to take advantage of campus resources. We asked students with disabilities what helped them access support. For resources, see Find out more today.

Which disabilities are most common?

Nearly fourteen percent of Canadians aged 15 and older have a learning disability, according to the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability. Data published by the American College Health Association–National College Health Assessment indicate the disabilities that are most prevalent on college and university campuses.

Proportion of college and university students who reported any of the following:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): 5%
  • Psychiatric condition: 5%
  • Chronic illness (e.g., cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disorder): 5%
  • Learning disability: 4%
  • Deafness/hearing loss: 2%
  • Partial sightedness/blindness: 2%
  • Speech or language disorder: 1%
  • Mobility/dexterity disability: 1%
  • Other disability: 2%

Proportion of college and university students who felt their academics had been negatively affected by these conditions:

  • Depression: 17%
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): 4%
  • Chronic health problem or serious illness: 4%
  • Learning disability: 4%

Source: American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Canadian Reference Group Executive Summary, Spring 2013.


Reconsider your perspective

“Come to terms with whatever disability you have. Get comfortable with it, do some research, talk to others. The more you know about your disability and the more comfortable you are with it, the easier it is to speak up about your needs.” —Third-year undergraduate, St. Lawrence College, Ontario

“I’m worried about being judged”

“I am afraid of being stigmatized by my teachers believing that my diagnosis is not representative, [because] of how little I appear to be affected by my disorder.” —First-year undergraduate, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

“The hardest thing for me is people’s assumptions. Sometimes I can’t overcome them because people are so set in their beliefs and it’s hard to convince someone otherwise. It’s extremely frustrating.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick

“What helps for me is just being open about my disabilities so that people can understand why I act differently at times.” —First-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

“I was afraid that if I told anyone about my feelings, they would laugh at me. I was also afraid of asking for help. I thought that people would think I was stupid. I also thought: I’m a grownup. I can figure this out on my own.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Georgian College, Ontario

“Don’t worry about what anyone thinks. Everyone has something they work on, whether it be mental health, physical fitness, or learning disabilities. Nobody is the same.” —Second-year undergraduate, Rowan University, New Jersey


Get your paperwork in order

“In order to receive accommodations at the university or college level, students need to have an assessment done. Once students [have the required paperwork], they then have to present themselves at the office for students with disabilities with their paperwork.” —Claudette Larocque, Executive Director, Learning Disabilities Association of Canada

Proper paperwork tips and victories

Students with learning disabilities are required to submit a psychoeducational assessment from a registered psychologist, dated within three to five years of starting university, in order to access accommodations, according to Claudette Larocque, Executive Director at the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. “Many students don’t have an up-to-date assessment, and the cost of obtaining one is significant. Because they don’t have the assessment completed when they start their first semester, many of these students do not see accommodations and flounder,” she says.

“I had to actually go out to my old high school to get the relevant accommodation files from them to bring to my university.” —First-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland

“Trying to obtain/complete the necessary paperwork for course withdrawals or academic accommodations can be confusing or just expensive. I was able to overcome these things. My school is quite good about making accommodations for their students.” —Second-year graduate student, Brock University, Ontario


Take advantage of available support

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. My biggest battle is accepting that help. I don’t want to seem weak, or like I am a poor student for needing accommodations. It’s important to realize that these accommodations are levelling the playing field and helping students to flourish in school.” —Second-year advanced diploma student, Humber College, Ontario

“Who and what helped me on campus”

“I got a great idea from the library at my school to wear ear plugs during tests and exams so that the sounds around me do not cause my attention to wave from what I am doing. You will never know where the best help can come from until you ask. Think outside the box.” —First-year undergraduate, Lambton College, Ontario

“I have a wonderful advisor who helps me anticipate where a problem may arise and plan for how to deal with it. She supports me when I need to ask for an extension or some other accommodation around coursework, and I have come to trust that the support will be there.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Guelph, Ontario

“Go to student advocacy, as they are amazing. Don’t stop advocating for yourself.” —Third-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta

“Book appointments with the disability office early. Make a friend in each class. If possible, be willing to share your notes with a peer who has missed a class; chances are they are willing to return the favour. Introduce yourself to your professors.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

“Go to the disability office. Ask for help, and utilize all the services they have. Also, pay attention to Student Health 101 articles. They give great tips and knowledge.” —Second-year undergraduate, Humber College, Ontario

“In my current year, I asked for a learning strategist. I enrolled in a Communications course outside of my program. My teacher and I agreed that I needed extra help for assignments, quizzes, etc.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Georgian College, Ontario


Talk with your professors upfront

“It helps to explain to professors at the beginning of the semester what your needs are, and what accommodations you’ve made use of in the past, so they’re prepared if you do need to use them.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Trent University, Ontario

“What I said (and should have said)”

Learning good communication skills, and using them when speaking with professors, is important, says Claudette Larocque, Executive Director at Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. “Talk to [your professors] about what it is you need and the type of learner you are.”

“I would suggest being upfront and honest in terms of your disabilities. For the most part, other people will understand if you tell them upfront. Revealing such a personal aspect of yourself can be difficult but I believe it is worth it.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland , Newfoundland and Labrador

“I find positive self-talk has gotten me through a lot. Tell yourself you are worth the effort, and push past the fear of speaking up. Asking for help should never be considered a weakness.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, MacEwan University, Alberta


Keep asking—if necessary, go to the dean

“Don’t do it alone. Talk to the school counsellors so they can help explain to teachers about your situation—that way, classes are a little less [frustrating].” —First-year undergraduate, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

“How persistence pays off”

“Be proactive and aware of what’s available to you and what you can argue for. Don’t give up.” —First-year graduate student, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

“Remain focused, and stay the course! School administration will respond if you feel your needs aren’t being sufficiently met, and within reason, feel free to utilize the media to express your case if you feel that it isn’t being taken seriously.” —Second-year undergraduate, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick

“Being honest would be the best option. Any pushback or stigma you receive can be dealt with by going to someone in a higher position or seeking out a professional to help you.” —Third-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick

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