How can students with learning disabilities make a successful transition to post-secondary education? It’s as easy as A-R-C.

Author: Dr. Allyson G. Harrison and Dr. Alana Holmes
Source: Assessment Resource Centres of Ontario (A.R.C.)

How can students with learning disabilities make a successful transition to post-secondary education? It’s as easy as A-R-C.

by Dr. Allyson G. Harrison and Dr. Alana Holmes
of: Assessment Resource Centres of Ontario (A.R.C.)

One of the biggest identified barriers to the success of students with learning disabilities at the post-secondary level is inadequate or incomplete documentation of their disability (Bell, 2002; LOTF, 2002). This creates a problem as more and more students identified as having such disabilities are now enrolling in college and university. Indeed, there are presently more than 13,000 students in Ontario’s colleges and universities who have diagnosed learning disabilities (LD). These students are capable of being successful…if they have the supports and services they require to level the playing field and demonstrate what they know. In order to access these existing supports, however, they require an updated and comprehensive* Psychoeducational assessment.

In 1997, the Ontario government struck the Learning Opportunities Task Force (LOTF). The mandate of this task force was to investigate the status of post-secondary students with learning disabilities and to make recommendations that would enhance access and services for students with specific learning disabilities. The final report of the task force was submitted to the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) in November 2002. This report contained seven key findings and 24 recommendations. One of the key findings was that:

“A significant majority of the students arrived at (post-secondary) institutions with no, or at best inadequate, diagnostic information. As a result, students had neither appropriate documentation nor an understanding of their own learning disabilities. A comprehensive, up-to-date diagnostic assessment is essential for the provision of requisite supports, services, programs and accommodations for students with learning disabilities.”

The LOTF therefore recommended that, “The Province should establish, implement and evaluate the concept of Regional Assessment and Resource Centres” or ARC’s.

In a proactive and visionary move, the MTCU decided to accept this recommendation and fund two such assessment centres. The first of these, the Regional Assessment and Resource Centre (RARC) was established at Queen’s University in Kingston in September 2003. The second, the Northern Ontario Assessment and Resource Centre/Centre d’évaluation et de ressources du Nord de l’Ontario (NOARC/CÉRNO), began in April 2004 at Cambrian College in Sudbury. These centres and the Psychological professionals, who work with them in every part of the province, can assist high-school students in making a successful transition to college or university.

The ARC’s allow students to get appropriate, comprehensive and reasonably priced assessments that identify their strengths and make specific and relevant recommendations for accommodations and supports. The diagnosis of a learning disability has, until now, not always been available to individuals without the financial means to pay for an expensive assessment. Happily, initiatives such as the ARC’s provide students with an opportunity to undergo such an assessment at a cost that is appropriate to their financial means. To date, these centres have provided over 1,000 assessments.

RARC is a stand-alone clinic located at Queen’s University in Kingston, and serves students in all of Southern Ontario. Its Mobile Assessment Team (MAT) provides assessments in all cities within Southern Ontario to assist in the transition process. NOARC/CÉRNO is physically located over the Glenn Crombie Centre for disability services at Cambrian College in Sudbury. Its in-house team of psychological professionals provides assessments primarily to the three post-secondary institutions in Sudbury. NOARC/CÉRNO’s roster of external psychological practitioners provides service to students on all of the main campuses (and some satellite campuses) of the eight other colleges and universities in Northern Ontario.

Ideally, such assessments should occur before the student begins college or university. This enables them to start their post-secondary studies having already forged a relationship with the Disability Office, understanding their learning profile and needs, and in possession of appropriate documentation capable of securing their accommodations. In fact, it is recommended that all students in need of accommodation, and accepted into a post-secondary institution, secure an appointment with the Disability Office staff for assistance in determining if their existing documentation is adequate to garner accommodations. Helpful documentation might include: medical reports, IEPs, IRPCs, educational assessments, and professional assessment reports. Disability Office staff can review the presented documents and advise on the need for additional documentation or updated assessment.

Students and their parents may not be aware of the various methods of funding such assessments. Currently, the ARC’s provide assessments at a modest fee, with a sliding fee scale based on financial need. In addition, students with disabilities who are eligible to receive even $1.00 of OSAP may access the Bursary for Students with Disabilities (BSWD), which can in fact fund a transition assessment. As well, students denied OSAP but with proven financial need may receive an assessment funded by their home ARC.

Research from the LOTF also identified that students with LD require specialized transition planning to help them succeed at the post-secondary level. One transition initiative developed by the team at RARC is a program called On-Line to Success, available to any Ontario student planning to attend college or university anywhere in the world. This past year, the program ran in seven different school boards, and feedback from students, teachers and parents about the value of this program has been universally positive. Furthermore, the follow-up information we have on past participants would indicate that they continue to feel that this program significantly improved their first-year transition experience. Presenting information about this unique program has given us national exposure, and RARC has received requests from all over Canada to allow other schools to use this program as part of their curriculum. Students with LD should also investigate other transition programs provided at their chosen institution.

While it is true that the ARCs provide high-quality assessments, their mandate is much broader than this. They also provide training opportunities for graduate students in psychology, education and rehabilitation medicine; engage in clinical research; offer transition support and disability-specific counselling to students; and act as a resource for people seeking LD-specific information.

In any area of student service, one needs to engage in research, the results of which will improve and advance the service that is being provided. Providing service without continually validating it as well as generally endeavouring to “push back the frontiers of knowledge” would be to abandon one’s role as a professional. To this end, these two centres have begun collaborating on joint research projects that will benefit students with LD all over North America. Their combined research efforts will help to inform both our practice and the practice of other professionals in this area of service provision across Canada. It will help clinicians make more accurate diagnoses, which in turn will lead to provision of more appropriate treatment and academic support.

The ARCs are able to provide updated or initial assessments for any Ontario student accepted into or enrolled in college or university. For further information about these assessment centres please contact using the information below. A referral may be initiated through the Disability Service office where students have been accepted.

Regional Assessment and Resource Centre (RARC)
Queen’s University
186 Barrie St.
Kingston, Ont.
K7L 3N6
Phone: 613-533-6311

The Northern Ontario Assessment & Resource Centre/Centre d’évaluation et de ressources du Nord de
l’Ontario (NOARC/CÉRNO)
1400 Barrydowne Rd.
Sudbury, Ont.
P3A 3V8
Phone: 705-524-7397
Fax: 705-524-6779

* There is a significant difference between a psychological diagnosis of an LD and the criteria for identification of an LD in elementary or high school. In addition, at the post-secondary level, students can only access disability-related accommodations and services if they have a formal diagnosis of a disability. Sadly, most parents and students are not aware of this fact, and are surprised when the accommodations they have always received in high school are no longer offered to them based solely on an “identification.” Criteria for an appropriate and thorough assessment report may be found at