Complaints filed against University of Alberta

Mother takes student with disability's case to human rights commission

EDMONTON (CUP) — The mother of a student with a disability has filed two more human rights complaints against the University of Alberta, bringing the total number of complaints to six. Susan Russell said the complaints, filed with the provincial human rights commission, criticize the university’s “inability to provide appropriate accommodations” to allow her son, Matthew Russell, to continue his studies.

Matthew, a science student, has ankylosing spondylitis, a severely debilitating disease of the spine, similar to arthritis. In extreme cases, the disease can cause the complete fusion of the spine. Matthew receives treatments that aim to prevent this. The disease, according to his mother, confronts him on a daily basis. It often stops him from attending classes and completing work, as well as prevents him from advancing his case. “He doesn’t do any of this stuff. I deal with the government. I deal with the university,” she said. “I deal with all of it, because it’s the only way we lessen the impact. The stress makes him severely ill.”

Russell said the disease has affected her son’s academics to the extent the university placed him on academic probation after the 2003-2004 academic year — permitting him to retain his student status so long as he adhered to set guidelines, including class attendance. The Russells appealed the decision, arguing discrimination based on disability, and fought it through all levels of the university. But, in the end, the general faculties council, the final deciding body, upheld Matthew’s probation. The council dismissed medical testimony supporting Matthew as insufficient, his mother said.

Staff said the University of Alberta was unable to comment on the case due to provincial privacy laws and refused to discuss the university’s approach to accommodating the needs of students with disabilities. Instead, staff recommended a perusal of university policy pertaining to Matthew’s case. For instance, one of the six human rights complaints suggests the university violated Matthew’s privacy when it forced him to disclose private medical records to those deciding on exam deferrals and the committees weighing his case. But university policy dictates those seeking accommodation must provide “whatever medical or other information is reasonably necessary to confirm the need for an accommodation and to identify sufficiently that individual’s specific needs.”

The policy infuriates Russell, who questioned the use of the word “reasonably” and argued an employee would never have to provide such documentation to their employer to receive proper accommodation. “The doctor’s say should be enough, and it would be enough for a supervisor in an employment situation,” she said, noting in her son’s case, a group of academics assessed the validity of a medical opinion. “There is a double standard for the faculty and students. The superior of a faculty member would have no right to know the private medical details, yet Matthew’s files are known to a whole committee.”

Another complaint discusses the lack of accommodation in a lab setting. Russell recounted her son’s fight to have a chair during lab sessions. Standing was too difficult and without a chair, Russell said. Her son was forced to stop attending — resulting in a failing grade she said was completely avoidable. University policy does state measures should be taken to physically adapt a space to the needs of a person with a disability within the means of the law, but it does caution this is not always possible.

Policy suggests grievances arising due to the inability to provide accommodation should be addressed through the university’s office of human rights. Instead, the Russells, wary of the university’s involvement, opted to take their complaints to the provincial commission. None of the complaints have been resolved to the Russells’ satisfaction at this time.