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Confidentiality and disclosure of information

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When requesting accommodation from an education provider, students (and/or their parent(s)/guardian(s)) have a responsibility to provide sufficient information about their disability-related needs to facilitate the accommodation. Educational services at the lower levels of education are broad and may include cultivating aspects of the student’s development beyond those that are strictly academic. Since the accommodations that younger students may require will often relate to their overall well-being, it may be appropriate for education providers at the primary and sometimes at the secondary levels to require more extensive and detailed information about a student’s disability-related needs. At the higher levels of schooling, where educational services are defined more narrowly and the focus is more on academic standards and accreditation, accommodations will generally be related to the student’s academic needs and the degree and type of information required by education providers will not likely be as broad.

In an ideal world, all students, including students with disabilities, would be comfortable discussing all aspects of their personal identities in an open manner without fear of discrimination and/or harassment. However, in reality, some students may be reluctant to disclose their disabilities at school, particularly at the secondary and post-secondary levels, for fear of being stigmatized, denied opportunities or arousing unwanted curiosity and unnecessary concern from others. Some will have had bad experiences in the past that may have included being on the receiving end of intolerant attitudes and other forms of discriminatory treatment.

Protecting disability-related information

It is important that an education provider take steps to ensure that students feel safe disclosing a disability. To avoid labelling or stereotyping, it is essential that education-providers take precautions to safeguard the disability-related information of students. This is especially important for individuals with disabilities that continue to carry a strong social stigma, such as mental illness and HIV/AIDS. Maintaining confidentiality for students with disabilities is an important procedural component of the duty to accommodate. The degree of confidentiality afforded to students will likely vary according to the level of education being offered. For example, confidentiality may be less of an issue for students at the primary school level where the educational service being offered is broad and student autonomy is less of an issue. For students at the secondary and post-secondary levels, privacy and confidentiality will likely be of greater importance, particularly as students, in many cases, are developing greater independence and will often be more in control of managing their own accommodation needs.

Personal information that either directly or indirectly identifies that a student has a disability should remain exclusively with designated personnel in a secure filing system away from the student’s academic record, to protect the student’s privacy. This is meant to protect the institution from allegations of discrimination, as well as the student from potential discriminatory practices.

In practice: In the day-to-day activities of the educational institution, education providers must take care to avoid disclosing a student’s disability. For example, faculty should not speak about a student’s disability in front of their class or other students, disclose a student’s personal disability information to other faculty/staff without permission, leave written information regarding a student’s disability in a public place or in plain view, or use names when discussing general disability issues.

Any data collected on students with disabilities (such as numbers of students served, types of disabilities or accommodations received) should be collected in aggregate, and must not include any information that would reveal a student’s identity. Particularly at the secondary and post-secondary levels, educational institutions must ensure that data on disability do not appear on academic documents including test results, transcripts, student records or graduation documentation. Distinguishing the score results of a student who received accommodation has the potential of revealing the existence of a disability and exposing that student to discrimination.

In practice: Transcripts, entrance test result forms, or licensing exam result forms should not indicate that a student received accommodation, or that academic requirements were met under “special” or “non-standard conditions.”

For some students, disclosing a disability may not be necessary because the disability may not impact upon their study. This will especially be the case where educational institutions have designed their technology structures, curricula, programs and services inclusively, and adaptation or modification to meet the needs of students with disabilities is therefore unnecessary.

Information to be provided

While a student seeking accommodation must provide information about his or her disability-related needs, and in some cases may have to provide medical confirmation that a disability exists, it is not generally necessary, particularly at the secondary and post-secondary levels, for the student to explicitly inform the education provider of the specific type of disability, or to provide specific medical information (e.g., a diagnosis) about a disability. A diagnosis of a student’s medical condition will not usually be relevant to or necessary for planning accommodation, and wherever possible, an education provider should attempt to ascertain the disability-related needs of a student without requiring a formal diagnosis.

There will be some cases, however, where there may be overlap between a description of the student’s needs and an actual diagnosis. In these circumstances, it may be necessary for an education provider to require a diagnosis to appropriately accommodate a student.

Example: In the course of providing information to her school principal to facilitate the provision of accommodation, a Grade 11 student provides an assessment of her learning needs from an outside expert. The assessment outlines the learning supports required by the student, and in doing so, identifies the student as having a learning disability.

The staff in offices for students with disabilities at colleges and universities have expertise in dealing with accommodation issues in the academic environment and, as such, can play a vital role in assisting with the accommodation process. Students may choose to provide these offices with more detailed information about their disabilities, including, for example, a diagnostic assessment, where to do so would facilitate the provision of accommodation. Offices for students with disabilities must ensure that the disability-related information of students is kept strictly confidential.

There may also be some instances where a student will be asked to produce a medical diagnosis of his or her disability for the purposes of establishing eligibility for student funding programs.

Example: A government-sponsored fund developed specifically to assist college and university students who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing requires that students provide a medical diagnosis to be considered eligible.

In situations where a diagnosis is necessary, the educational institution is responsible for implementing procedures to ensure that student confidentiality is maximized, the information requested is limited to that which is specifically needed for the program, and the information is disseminated only to those responsible for administering the program.

In some instances, there may be a reasonable and bona fide basis for an education provider to question the legitimacy of a student’s request for accommodation or the adequacy of the information provided. In such cases, the education provider may request confirmation or additional information from a qualified health care professional. No one can be forced to submit to an independent medical examination, but failure to respond to reasonable requests may delay the provision of accommodation until such information is provided.

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