This post was written by Melanie Panitch. She is a former director of the School of Disability Studies and is currently holds the John C. Eaton Chair in Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Ten years ago, in 2007, while Director of DST, I signed an affidavit in a Charter Challenge (under Section 15 and the Equality clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). See Carol Goar article from the Toronto Star.
The case itself addressed the differential and discriminatory impact of the Canada Student Loan Program, which we know as OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program ) on students with disabilities. The argument went as follows: Disabled students take longer to complete degrees, hence incur more debt than non-disabled students to get the same degree. This serves as a deterrent to disabled students from attending post-secondary education worried by a high debt load and how to pay it off afterwards given the uncertainty of finding work, yet, without degrees are in a further disadvantageous position in the job markets.
The wheels of justice are slow, and two weeks ago I was advised by the applicant’s lawyer, I would be cross-examined on my affidavit. In preparing for this cross examination which involved updating my knowledge about loans and grants – I found our many revealing things in support of the discriminatory impact of OSAP on disabled students. Alas I was not given the opportunity to “make the speech” I wanted at the hearing itself, but I can share in this blog some of what I learned.
- The first big decision is whether to disclose disability. Registering with the student accommodation and support office and if eligible for OSAP (even for only $1.00) taps into some non repayable grants: Bursary program for up to $10,000 for learning supports (eg computer, accessible technology). Is it high enough for account for the wide range of supports required to succeed? There is also an annual $2000 grant for students identified with a permanent disability.
- 40% course load counts as Full Time status. But FT status at the University doesn’t translate to FT status for example Awards or bursaries that assist financially nor does it have the same meaning with ODSP which can be confusing. A 40% load also means less funding. There can be long wait times before the loans are approved, often held up until the required assessments arrive, and given wait time for appointments students may end up having to pay out of pocket for eg, first or last months’ rent, course materials etc.
- Managing OSAP can be like having a full time career because there is a need for constant reporting. If you change a course load, add a course, withdraw from a course, do badly in a course, need some time away for eg episodic disability, OSAP monitors closely and adds or subtracts payment. A low grade in a course that indicates a lack of progress or success according to OSAP triggers a requirement for a letter and explanation. If that happens twice, you can’t take any more courses until you repay. Condensed courses, intensive courses are also confusing for OSAP. Lack of flexibility – a disability keystone – is an issue. Having to think about reporting at a time when health or disability related concerns are predominant is tricky to say the least yet missing the deadlines has an impact on loans and interest on loans.
- There is an assumption of disability as monolithic – that disability is stable and physical and visible.
- Students with disabilities who are not on OSAP are not eligible for work-study programs thus denying opportunities for acquiring work-related skills and experience to boost resumes.
- A positive step has been instituted by charging tuition by course rather than by semester. However for student with disabilities taking more years to finish their studies means extra costs in a number of ways: budgeting for accommodation, travel and food over a longer period, a delayed period before entering the work force; some student ancillary fees are pro-rated though others continue to be charged.
Perhaps this can be the start of a conversation on how the impact of the student loan program has affected students and their studies. It is worth noting that the Ontario government intends to roll out a new financial aid program. A recent Globe and Mail article (Nov 29, 2016) reported it was redesigning the current system to “scrap a complicated package of grants and loans and tax credits and replace it with a singled program, the Ontario Student Grant…” Stay alert!