Equity, Diversity, InclusionOur Time To SwimStudent Learning Support

Our Time to Swim: Contextualizing Staff Burnout in Disability Services in Higher Education

Our Time To Swim is a week long series that takes you inside the high-stakes, rewarding work of making education accessible to all students. Learn how and why disability services support is so important—from legal, ethical, and moral standpoints—and look to the future of disability support at Ryerson and across Ontario and what will be needed to remain relevant, supportive, and prosperous to students in the coming years.


In just four years, the number of students registered with Academic Accommodation Support (AAS) will have increased from 1510 to 2496 students (from 2012/13 to 2016/17), however, in this same time-span, the number of staff directly supporting the process of getting academic accommodations in place for registered students only increased from 4.3 to 5.2 staff members.

Student registrations have grown substantially in the last four years, a 65% increase over the expected 48% growth. Students registering with multiple disabilities has increased by 83%, and the number of exams implemented for AAS registrants has risen by more than 100% within this same four-year time-span. Each exam accommodation is unique to a person’s disability. During exam time, staff in AAS and the Test Centre are working with students and their instructors to make sure individualized accommodations are in place for every single exam (19,266 exams in 2015/16). This is a massive task, and these numbers are overwhelming; but they’re not just a patterned or projected increase.

These numbers are individual students. Individual students with unique histories, sensitive needs, and individualized accommodation plans. Accommodation plans which are developed and navigated with the support of the student’s accommodation facilitator or accessibility specialist.

There is an increase in students seeking support from our services. But the rise in student registrants is not being matched with an increase in staffing. With only 1 new student accommodation facilitator position created within the last 4 years, we must still work within the old time constraints of our role to accommodate these new demands. This leads to constraints felt throughout all facets of the work we do when supporting the mental well-being of students.. Emails, phone calls, and complex negotiations with professors have increased for all staff within AAS, without the increase in time—the pressure is on.

Over the same four-year period in which students registering with accommodations increased by 65%, the number of undergraduate students enrolling at Ryerson increased by only 13.8%. Compared to the number of students enrolling at Ryerson University, there is a disproportionately high number of students registering with our services. But these numbers are rooted and occurring at a level higher than any single educational institution.

Undergraduate vs. AAS Student Registration Growth (Undergrad, AAS)—2012/13: 3.76%, -5.40%; 2013-14: 2.55%, 18.50%; 2014/15: 3.55%, 12.10%; 2015/16: 3.28%, 11.30%

On a nationwide level, Statistics Canada has reported an increase in people with disabilities. From the data available, the population of Canada identifying as having a disability has steadily increased to roughly 3.8 million  in 2012, the last time Canada measured such a statistic. That’s more than the total population of Toronto and Vancouver combined.

These increases can also be seen at a provincial level. Currently, over 15% of the population (1 in 7 people) in Ontario has a disability. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA) predicts that “over the next 20 years, that number will rise to 1 in 5 people.”

As a province, Ontario has the largest population of people living with a disability. Ontario residents aged 15 or older with a disability make up almost half of the total number of people in Canada with a disability. Ontario’s population of people with disabilities far surpass the numbers in other provinces by more than 1 million. These numbers also come with an added layer of complexity: 90% of Ontario residents who report a mental health disability, also report the presence of a second disability.

These complexities—the presence of multiple impacting disabilities—mean a more unique approach to accommodation planning, once a person enters university, which almost 20% of Ontarians with a disability will choose to do.

Chart | (Mental/psychological disability, Other disability, No disability) — No certificate: 132,310/25.9%, 329,180/28.8%, 1,490,620/16.4%; High school: 126,670/24.8%, 297,400/26.1%, 2,545,350/28%; College or diploma or trade certificate: 172,920/33.9%, 331,800/29.1%, 2,784,740/30.7%; University: 43,480/8.5%, 124,770/10.9%, 2,248,650/24.8%.

Nationwide, post-secondary education institutions are all reporting an increase in students registered with disabilities. Specifically in Ontario, disability service offices (DSO) experienced a 69% increase in students registering between 2004 and 2011. Although this was over 5 years ago, we still continue to feel those impacts.  

From the data, we can see increases at both the national and provincial levels. But what makes these numbers unique to Ryerson? It helps to take a look at what is happening, prior to a student enrolling at Ryerson. Within the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), over 44,000 students identify as having special education needs (the high school equivalent of registering with AAS). Data from Ryerson shows that these TDSB students are often choosing Ryerson as their choice of university, with over 75% of the student population at Ryerson commuting from within the GTA. The increase in identified students with disabilities at the high school level directly influences the increase in students with disabilities studying at Ryerson.

Ryerson University is committed to promoting inclusion, accessibility, and mental health on campus. Currently, accessible education is being provided to students at Ryerson through courses, awareness campaigns, and alternative programming opportunities such as Chang School of Continuing Education. But as a result of these incredible opportunities being created for Ryerson students, the pressure is now funnelling down in unprecedented levels on AAS staff.

As AAS staff, we are in a unique situation when providing support—typically, if a student encounters a wait-list with a Ryerson service, staff can provide an alternative or additional resources within the larger Toronto community. (For example, the Centre for Student Development and Counselling on campus can direct students to the Distress Centre of Toronto or Good2Talk—among many others—as additional resources when in crisis.) When it comes to AAS-facilitated accommodations, there are no alternatives. Students must meet with a student accommodation facilitator or student accessibility specialist to develop an accommodation plan, and this can only be done through Academic Accommodation Support. Data from 2016 shows that a full 48% of students wait 15 days or more from point of contact with AAS to having their academic accommodations in place for their courses. We know we can do better.

Time constraints between ourselves and students also mean time constraints between students and other departments; we work with professors, academics departments, and Student Financial Aid to negotiate students’ accommodations, resources, and supports. A delay of 14 days to see a facilitator can then turn into a further delay down the chain, before a student has received their accommodations and is able to focus on studying.

Within a typical semester, each facilitator has just over 180 one-hour slots available for student appointments. For some facilitators, this is just 50% of our caseload. This means that returning upper-year students, or new students requesting to check-in with their facilitator, may not be able to meet with their facilitator for fulsome support-focused appointments. Meeting for 15-minute drop-in appointments, or emailing facilitators are offered as alternatives when students request an appointment. Interactions become rushed and transactional and further opportunities for rapport-building are often sacrificed for the sake of time.

Time constraints and AAS’ irreplaceable services are just two of the many pressures faced by AAS staff. Obligations outlined by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), including new procedural changes for mental health-related diagnoses, have added to the already complex nature of the work we do. AODA has also released an action-plan to make Ontario more accessible by 2025, and these changes will also impact how our work is done. We are facing an ever increasing layering of, at times, competing procedural challenges, each of which brings a necessary time increase per student to our work and, for ethical and legal reasons, must be upheld. These are all impending pressures which AAS is able to anticipate and plan for, but when starting from a time, scheduling and staff deficit as we are, our ability to continue to do what we need to do to support students in the future will not be possible.

The compassionate nature of the work done at AAS means that we work hard. We are a group of staff who are inherently hopeful in nature, but with continuous demands, some areas of the work we do begin to be compromised. Not only do we facilitate accommodations for students across campus, but we also support their mental well-being. As staff, we are showing rising rates of compassion fatigue, burnout, and reduced performance levels. We can barely stay afloat. During a recent team diagnostic survey, AAS staff unanimously agreed that symptoms of burnout and exhaustion were issues on our team. Burnout, which is often described as a feeling of being overwhelmed, drained, and emotionally exhausted, has a negative impact on the work we do with students.

Limited opportunities to build deeper connections with students through mentorship and relationship-building also means that as staff, we do not have enough time to support students through larger conversations surrounding self-advocacy or to further explore the student’s interests—all of which support a student’s ability to achieve academic success. Missed opportunities to collaborate with departments across campus also means we are prevented from advancing disability supports on a larger level across campus. The feeling is one of isolation and being overwhelmed.

Until now, AAS has been able to keep up with the increasing demand of service, and in the process, evolve as a key example of effective disability support in higher education in Ontario. One local occupational therapist working with AAS notes that she continues to refer grade twelve students to Ryerson University, specifically because of the exceptional services provided by AAS. We have a reputation to uphold on behalf of Ryerson, but as the tide rises, if we do not move, that trend cannot hold.

Our staff—as the number of students requiring our services increases exponentially—face more potent and more frequent cases of burnout. As our reach across campus becomes transactional rather than transformative, our effective disability support degrades. Ryerson University ceases to be a leading example of DSO success in higher education, and instead becomes a cautionary tale.

The good news is that we haven’t crossed that line yet. With the appropriate support to revise our current accommodation model, not only can we end the rising cases of burnout in staff but become the example of an effective, forward thinking DSO in higher education, able to positively affect the engagement and academic success of Ryerson students.

Our Time To Swim: the Future of Disability Support Services at Ryerson RyersonStudentAffairs.com, Feb 27–Mar 3, @RyersonSA


Continue reading Our Time To Swim today, with a heartfelt and powerful story from Michelle Woolfrey, 3rd year Arts & Contemporary Studies student, in which she shares the positive impact a high-touch relationship with her disability support office had on her academic success. And if you missed it yesterday, read Deena Shaffer’s pedagogical look at the undertides  & undertones of accommodation facilitation.

  • Cathy

    Committed, resilient, candid. These are some characteristics of the staff at AAS that I have gotten to know (Thanks LDC!) I have only recently learned about the challenges faced by staff in AAS and am in awe of the work you do.

    • Sarah Kloke

      Thank you for your feedback, Cathy! Being able to share our current experiences with our SA colleagues has also helped to strengthen our bonds. I am glad you enjoyed reading this piece!