Twenty-four percent of first-year university students self-declare as having a disability. Among those, mental-health-related disabilities (MHRD) are the most common. Each year, more students with disabilities and with mental-health issues enroll in post-secondary institutions. Concurrently, more students in Canada are taking online courses. These increases pose issues for students and educators because common symptoms of MHRD can affect academic performance. Furthermore, instructional design and institutional accommodation and accessibility policies influence learning. Instructors play a critical role because their attitudes toward students directly affect student success. Student support professionals provide essential assistance to students in post-secondary and therefore, play a key part in health and resilience promoting strategies. Despite the increasing prevalence of students with MHRD in online courses and programs, limited Canadian research has examined factors affecting learning for this population. The purpose of this descriptive qualitative study was to examine experiences of post-secondary students with MHRD in online classes to understand the ways in which their learning is supported by the institution. Including student, instructor and support staff participants allowed for an exploration of the influences on learning and academic performance within an institutional context. The social model of disability and population health framework guided this study and findings were organized with the socio-ecological model for health promotion. Data from interviews with 14 university students, 15 instructors and seven student support staff members from one mid-sized university in Western Canada indicate several influences on learning at each of the first three levels of the model—individual, interpersonal, and institutional. Findings suggest that the accommodation model currently in place is problematic, potentially causing harmful and disabling effects. Everyone in Canada has an equal right to an education that meets their needs and postsecondary institutions have a legal responsibility to ensure that all students can access their programs and services. Adopting a universal accessibility model of inclusive education, with a mental-health-promotion orientation that also includes widespread adoption of Universal Design for Learning, has the potential to improve learning, prevent harm, and promote health for all students, particularly those who have mental-health-related challenges and who are studying online.
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Thesis advisor: O'Neill, Kevin
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