Having studied autism extensively in higher education – and navigating the university experience for the past eight years as someone on the autism spectrum – Jennifer Williamson, BSc’20, is encouraged by a growing trend towards universal design. It is an approach that expands accessibility for all, creating spaces that meet the needs of all who wish to use them.
“A ‘disability’ is often the result of the environment, not the person,” says Williamson, who is currently working on a master’s degree in psychology. “For example, if every building had ramps and automatic doors, a wheelchair is not necessarily an obstacle.”
The same concept applies to experiences like work-integrated learning (WIL). It is an important part of post-secondary education, integrating students into the workplace to develop their skills and connect them with employers.
Neurodiverse students, however, may face challenges in accessing or taking full advantage of these opportunities. In line with the principles of Universal Design – and with support from the Sinneave Family Foundation – the University of Calgary is embarking on an ambitious new initiative that will improve access to AIT and enable campus-wide system change .
A meaningful partnership to boost neuroinclusiveness
The WIL Initiative for Neurodiverse Students will identify and address inequities that have been studied by scholars like Williamson, whose research findings align with their own experience. “Students with autism typically excel academically, but face significantly more challenges in non-academic areas, such as the workplace or social situations,” Williamson says. “At the same time, most supports for neurodiverse students are targeted toward the academic realm.”
Courtesy of the Sinneave Family Foundation
Sinneave is very familiar with the impact of gaps in supports on neurodiverse students, having dedicated the past 14 years to improving access to education, employment and housing for people with autism, which is considered a aspect of neurodiversity.
“Autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia – these are just diagnostic labels used to explain various ways of thinking, learning, experiencing and interacting with the world. There is great potential in these differences,” says Sinneave President Tanya McLeod, who notes that there are many examples in history of how people with diverse perspectives, such as Thomas Edison and Agatha Christie, shaped the world.
It is important that neurodiverse students have ample opportunities to succeed in education and in the workplace. This will not only contribute to their growth, but also to societal progress.
To create those opportunities — and remove the barriers to them — UCalgary was a natural fit for Sinneave. Their $3.75 million gift to the university will help neurodiverse students fully participate and thrive in AIT, while improving the ecosystem that prepares them for employment and independence.
Environment conducive to success
“During the exploratory discussions, it became clear that UCalgary is interested in underlying systems change work that will address the direct and indirect barriers that prevent neurodiverse students from fully benefiting from integrated learning. at work,” says McLeod. “Seeing this shared commitment to global culture change is what confirmed for me that this would be a truly meaningful partnership.”
In addition to having a dedicated neurodiversity support advisor for students, the Office of Experiential Learning, Student Services and Enrollment and the Office of Equity, Diversity and inclusion of UCalgary provide a solid foundation for the initiative.
“We’re not building something from scratch,” says Dr. Teri Balser, provost and vice president (academic) at UCalgary. “Our emphasis on experiential learning and work-integrated learning – and recognition of the value this has for students – is what makes UCalgary an ideal place for this. .
Currently, more than 80 percent of UCalgary’s programs include WIL, and the university is working to engage all students in experiential learning by 2025. Over the next four years, this new initiative for neurodiverse students will address the changes needed to improve access to WIL, improve programming and supports and, equally important, find opportunities to learn from other leaders in this field, like Sinneave, while sharing UCalgary learning beyond campus.
“It’s going to bring attention to a space that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves,” Balser says.
Everyone should have the opportunity to confidently enter the job market. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn, to feel welcomed and engaged, and to bring all that they are to the table.
It’s a change that doesn’t just reduce stigma – it goes so far as to turn the script around on how we perceive our differences. After all, our survival as a species depends on diversity, says Williamson, who wants to see differences valued, not nullified.
“We have to give ourselves permission to present ourselves as we are,” says Williamson. “Autism is part of me – and you can’t have me without my autism.”