The Student Financial Assistance (SFA, AFE in French) loans and bursaries program provides Quebec students with the financial resources they need to pursue full-time post-secondary education1. Until recently, all students with disabilities (SWD) who wanted to enroll in this program could benefit from more flexible application requirements and accommodation measures based on their needs. However, the AFE has decided to limit access to these accommodation measures by modifying form 1015, Medical Certificate—Major Functional Disabilities and Other Recognized Disabilities. Currently, SWD with so-called “emerging” disabilities such as attention deficit disorders, non-episodic mental health disorders, autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities or learning disabilities can no longer benefit from them. Accommodation measures granted by this form are currently only available for SWD with physical disabilities.
The situation is simply unacceptable, as all students should have equitable access to the AFE’s programs. Accommodation measures were often the only means SWD with emerging disabilities had to obtain the resources they needed to pursue post-secondary education.
The accommodation measures granted by form 1015 allow SWD whose disabilities prevent them from studying full-time to be eligible for the loan and bursaries program as long as they are enrolled in at least 20 hours of instruction per month. Furthermore, if they meet certain criteria, SWD can receive financial assistance between two periods of study covered by the AFE, obtain an allowance for expenses related to their special needs, obtain an independent student status, or even receive the financial assistance to which they are entitled in the form of bursaries2.
Before it was modified a few months ago, form 1015 included a residual category called “other,” which allowed SWDs with an emerging disability to have it filled out by a physician. However, the current version of the form does not contain a residual category and physicians can only check off the physical disabilities listed.
The decision to deprive some SWD of accommodation measures because of their type of disability is not in accordance with the rights set forth in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Furthermore, this new policy goes against the efforts made in elementary schools and high schools, that allowed, in the last twenty years, the inclusion of the emerging clientele of SWD at the post-secondary level. For example, recent statistics by the Fédération des cégeps revealed that the number of SWD is thirteen times higher in Quebec’s CEGEPs in 2018 compared to 20073. In this respect, the refusal to accommodate several of these students would go against the efforts for investments that were made in the past.
The AFE’s discriminatory decision directly affects this emerging clientele of students with invisible disabilities. The message this sends out is that these SWD do not need accommodation measures as much as SWD who have a physical disability. This belief is false and obliterates more than twenty years of progress in the field of rights for people with disabilities. According to the Charter, SWD with an invisible disability are entitled to accommodation measures during their studies. For example, they often ask for a lighter course load to be able to succeed in their studies. However, since the AFE’s unfortunate decision, a dilemma presents itself to these SWD: studying full-time to be admissible for loans and bursaries, or studying part-time, but give up their right to financial assistance.
SWD with an invisible disability should not be confronted with such a tragic choice. Some of them will be forced to pursue full-time studies with the risk of compromising their academic success and their health. The rights of SWD with invisible disabilities are still precarious and a decision such as the AFE’s only increases the systemic discrimination they face. The AFE endangers the post-secondary studies of thousands of SWD to limit the number of loans and bursaries that are given out. Of course, this will reduce the AFE’s expenses in the short term, but in the long term, education and inclusion for as many SWD as possible is undoubtedly an investment, both on the individual and collective levels.
Quebec Association for Equity and Inclusion in Post-Secondary Education (AQEIPS)
1 Government of Quebec, “Loans and Bursaries Program” (2018), online: <http://www.afe.gouv.qc.ca/en/>.
2 Ibid, “Major Functional Disabilities.”
3 Fédération des cégeps, « Baisse du nombre d’étudiants au cégep » (2018), online: <www.fedecegeps.qc.ca>.