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U of T Law is denying access to virtual classes, disabled students say — despite COVID-era shift to online learning

For more than a decade, Anushay Sheikh dreamed of being a lawyer.

She tailored her extracurriculars to impress the admissions offices at Canada’s top law schools. She studied economics and political science at McGill University, graduating with highest distinction. Her efforts paid off in 2021, when she was accepted to the University of Toronto’s prestigious Faculty of Law.

But the 23-year-old’s law school experience was cut short. Sheikh requested accommodation from the U of T school to access Zoom links for lectures when needed if she couldn’t attend in person due to her disabilities. She says the request was repeatedly denied, leading her to file a human rights complaint against the university and to drop out of the program altogether.

“For a school that speaks about diversity and inclusivity, I think they’re doing very little to make sure that different communities can actually do well at their institution,” Sheikh said.

Sheikh is not alone in her frustration. Accessing accommodations for remote learning or missed classes “has been a significant issue for many students over the last year,” said Elsie Tellier, president of the Disabled Law Students’ Association at U of T. Students who could miss class due to a mental or physical disability say their requests have been denied, often without adequate explanation.

The students’ complaints raise questions about the responsibilities of universities have to accommodate disabled students in the era of COVID-19, experts on employment and disability law said, as the pandemic has proven that post-secondary school and work could successfully be completed remotely.

The Star sent U of T a list of questions to clarify the Faculty of Law’s disability accommodation policy, how decisions are made to grant or deny an accommodation and to address the multiple student claims that Zoom and lecture recording access had been denied.

In an emailed response, a U of T spokesperson said the faculty “delivers academic programs through an in-person learning environment,” and the move online that was necessary in response to the pandemic was meant to be an “exceptional and temporary measure.”

Like many universities, U of T law delivered classes online or in a hybrid format in 2020 due to COVID’s spread, stating on its website at the time that attending school remotely would not impair students’ professional development.

However, as COVID cases dropped, the faculty has mandated a return to in-person learning, citing its long-standing policy against recording lectures “for pedagogical and professional reasons,” though it still offered Zoom links to those who miss class due to COVID illness or exposure. After requests for more accessibility from students, the faculty said it will provide lecture recordings and Zoom access to those who miss class for non-COVID-related reasons as well. But disabled students say requests to access remote learning are still being denied.

Disabled law students who spoke to the Star say it’s vital to have equal access to online lectures on an as-needed basis. And the number of students who may seek disability accommodations is growing.

Self-reported data shows about 17 per cent of students entering one year of law school in 2021 have some sort of disability. In previous years there were about eight to 12 per cent. Students who report having a mental health condition nearly doubled to nine per cent from 2020.

While the Faculty of Law’s website states “providing accommodations and support to students with disabilities and chronic illnesses” is a priority, Tellier of the Disabled Law Students’ Association said “a number of students have described trying to get reasonably accommodated at U of T Law as akin to a part-time job.”

Sheikh said she first requested accommodations as a disabled student in August 2021, ahead of her first semester.

When corresponding with the Faculty of Law, Sheikh explained that her request is due to periodic chronic pain flare-ups from a herniated disc, as well as flare-ups related to her diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, which sometimes leave her unable to attend class in person.

According to Sheikh’s application to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, the university said in an email to her that it is only providing remote learning accommodations to students “whose disability-related barriers are uniquely and specifically tied to the COVID-19 pandemic,” and her request was denied multiple times that semester. Instead, Sheikh said she was told to rely on volunteer note-takers — roles that she said were not filled for the full semester in three of her courses.

By the end of the fall semester, Sheikh said she withdrew from the program due to a lack of accommodation from the university. Instead of pursuing law school, Sheikh will instead attend graduate school later this year at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Former U of T law student Anushay Sheikh says:

Sheikh said she filed the human rights complaint on Jan. 25. The university has until July 5 to respond, followed by mediation. A hearing would be scheduled if the two parties are not able to reach an agreement.

“I felt like I didn’t really have a choice,” Sheikh said, adding that other students who face barriers are discouraged from filing their own complaints, as it is a long and costly process.

In terms of approving accommodation requests, a U of T spokesperson said they are handled by the university’s “Accessibility Services, which is staffed by accessibility advisers with specialized training and skills.”

“Advisors conduct confidential intake processes, review medical documentation from health care providers, and make individualized accommodation recommendations,” the email read.

From there, the law school’s Student Accommodations Committee helps implement the recommendations. In response to questions from the Star, U of T did not disclose who sits on that committee.

Sheikh said it is made up of two assistant deans, adding it is unclear who else from the faculty has the power to grant disabled students academic accommodations.

Back in February, as U of T announced a return to in-person classes, both the University of Toronto Law Union and the Disabled Law Students’ Association sent letters to Faculty of Law dean Jutta Brunnée, asking the school to consider the risks that are vulnerable and disabled students would be taking in returning to class amid the pandemic.

After meeting with students, the faculty informed students in an email, obtained by the Star, that recordings of lectures would now be permitted and available for students who are granted an accommodation for their disability. However, it added, “an accommodation to receive lecture recordings does not mean students are excused from attending class.”

Despite this, students said requests to access recordings are still being denied. One student, who declined to speak on the record for fear of retribution from the faculty, said they were told by their accessibility services adviser that their disability does not meet the criteria for the updated policy, despite providing medical documentation and a doctor’s note recommending the student receive access to recorded lectures on an as-needed basis.

Tellier of the Disabled Law Students’ Association said the faculty has not outlined the updated policy in a publicly accessible document, and therefore it’s unclear who meets the disability criteria to access recording lectures and who does not. She added students were told access to a recording hinges on them being present in class.

“We are deeply disappointed with the administration’s lack of transparency on their policy decision to not accommodate a subset of disabled students,” Tellier said.

The Ontario Human Rights Code outlines that organizations have a duty to accommodate someone with a disability to the extent it won’t cause undue hardship, such as issues with cost, safety or legal restrictions.

The rule is broad, but employment lawyer Jonquille Pak (who is not involved with the case) said it is meant to be because everyone’s situation is different. “It’s never a one-size-fits-all formula,” she told the Star. “It’s an individualized assessment on that student’s unique needs.”

She noted there is not a guarantee someone will get their ideal form of accommodation, but something should generally be provided.

In situations like Sheikh’s, Pak said she can’t see how there would be undue hardship for the university to meet a request to attend class virtually, if it meets the necessary requirement, like having a medical referral.

The fact the pandemic had forced school online reinforces the point, Pak said.

“While the university might prefer that individuals participate in the classroom, because they might get a more meaningful education that way, at the end of the day … it causes a hurdle for many people who may not be able to attend in person because of a disability,” Pak said.

Tellier and the Disabled Law Students’ Association said the lack of representation in the law school of disabled students is emblematic of the lack of meaningful accommodations afforded to those students.

She points out that students with a physical or learning disabilities specifically are starkly under-represented, each making up only about one per cent of incoming students in the last five years.

Tellier and other members of her association said the university should listen to students’ concerns, hire more staff and faculty with disabilities, and be transparent about their policies.

“Change in this respect will require the law school to challenge their outdated and ableist ideas of what it means to be a lawyer.”


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