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Disabled students lose services

Northern college cites budget cuts

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University College of the North has shut down its student accessibility services, leaving 74 students with vision, hearing and other impairments without support services in Thompson and The Pas.

"We are the biggest institution in the north -- we are going backwards," now-former accessibility co-ordinator Ekhlas Ahmed said from Thompson. "It's very sad this is happening."

Earlier this month, Ahmed said, she received a letter telling her "because of the budget cuts and the problems here, they will not proceed, the office will be eliminated."

An aide to Advanced Education Minister Erin Selby said the Council on Post-secondary Education -- the province's arm's-length authority -- is finding out what's going on at UCN.

"COPSE has an agreement with UCN requiring that an accessibility co-ordinator be in place. They are currently in discussions to determine how that position is maintained," said Selby's aide.

"Many of the students, they do not even know," Ahmed said.

Public universities in Manitoba faced cuts after the province reneged in its April budget on a commitment to increase operating grants by five per cent; instead, grants go up 2.5 per cent for the 2013-14 school year.

An aide to UCN president Konrad Jonasson has not responded to interview requests.

Jonasson made no specific mention of closing the student accessibility service office in two letters about budget cuts sent May 20 and 22 to campus members.

Jonasson said 10 positions will be left vacant across campus, and six full-time-equivalent jobs will be dropped, representing eight people.

No students will be accepted in September in the one-year certificate programs in health transition, preparation for technology, computerized office skills, computerized business applications, and civil/CAD technology.

Students in the second year of the two-year diploma programs can finish their courses, but no first-year students will be accepted in computer program/analyst, computer systems technology, electrical/electronic technology, office administration, and gaming development.

Selby's aide said UCN told the province all the chopped courses have low enrolment. "The province is committed to UCN and ensuring a high level of skills training is available to people in the north. COPSE is in discussions with stakeholders to help address issues identified by UCN," said the minister's aide.

The Selinger government is pumping $82 million into the first of three phases of a new Thompson campus and constantly emphasizes its commitment to accessibility in all forms to post-secondary education.

Ahmed, who has a master's degree in psychology, was hired in December 2011 to open the new accessibility office, which is closing after just 18 months.

She had been working for Mystery Lake School Division, and had previously worked in Ontario government offices.

Ahmed said 74 students had so far come to her office for assistance, and she had expected the number would grow.

Even so, there weren't enough interpreters or other aides available to ensure a deaf or blind student would have full-time assistance at every lecture, seminar and lab, she said.

The Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities is upset with UCN's closing the accessibility office, said co-chairman Carlos Sosa.

"This will have negative impacts upon students with disabilities and this move is certainly unwelcomed by our organization. It is our concern that many students with disabilities are going to fall through the cracks and instructors will not know what to do or where to seek the supports," Sosa said.

UCN was created from the former Keewatin Community College to serve northern Manitoba students in the two cities and a dozen smaller regional campuses.

It was primarily intended to increase post-secondary education opportunities for members of northern First Nations unable or unwilling to travel south to go to university or college.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A14

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