Deaf-blind Ontario woman suing governments over student loan debt inequality

TORONTO — A disabled woman is in an Ontario court this week seeking changes to Canada’s student loan program that she argues would level the playing field for people with disabilities.

Jasmin Simpson, who is deaf and legally blind, says the program’s current rules force students who take longer to complete their studies because of their disabilities to graduate with considerably more student debt than their able-bodied peers.

The program currently grants loans for every year a student is enrolled in their academic program, rather than the number of courses required to complete it.

While the program refuses to fund undergraduate studies for non-disabled students beyond five years, no such cap exists for disabled students.

Lawyers representing the federal and Ontario governments argue the current system is appropriate for disabled students and contains many other accommodations meant to smooth their academic paths.

But Simpson says the rules should be relaxed further for students whose studies take longer as a direct result of their disabilities, adding she and others in her position should graduate with the same debt levels as able-bodied classmates and not be financially penalized for factors beyond their control.

“I’m not just thinking about myself, I’m thinking about all the people with a disability,” Simpson said in an interview conducted through an American Sign Language interpreter. “This sets the precedent for all of them. They all deserve equal access to education and accommodation, and the level of debt owing after graduating with those degrees should be equal for all.”

Simpson, 43, began her post-secondary education in 1999 when she enrolled at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

While Canada’s complex student loan system does not generally fund the cost of foreign education, it makes an exception for Gallaudet, the only liberal arts college in North America to offer instruction primarily in sign language.

Simpson said her disabilities slowed her academic progress, noting classes conducted in sign language are tiring, and her visual impairment leaves her with significant eye strain after reading course material.

She also had to withdraw from her studies part-way through her undergraduate degree and return home to Toronto for medical care after a severe flare-up of lupus. While she eventually returned to Gallaudet, she was charged a full year’s tuition despite only attending classes for part of a term.

Simpson went on to complete both an undergraduate degree and a master’s in social work from Gallaudet, taking nine years to complete programs that able-bodied students would generally finish in about five.

Though more than 90 per cent of her funding came from bursaries, grants and other forms of financial aid that do not need to be paid back, Simpson said she graduated owing the government nearly twice as much as a non-disabled student completing the same degrees.

Simpson said unlike many disabled students, she was able to secure a job in her field and has been relying on that income to pay down the debt. According to Statistics Canada data from 2017, about three in five adults with disabilities were employed, compared to four in five adults without disabilities.

Despite her own steady paycheque, Simpson said her high debt load has had lasting effects on her life, limiting her financial security and taking a toll on her mental health.

She argues that funding for disabled students should be treated in much the same way as travel accommodations. Under a Canadian Transportation Agency policy known as “one person, one fare,” a disabled traveller pays only for a single seat even if they physically occupy more than one.

Simpson’s lawyers say disabled students who encounter academic delays due to their disabilities should similarly be exempted from additional costs and only incur the same amount of debt as an able-bodied student taking the same program.

Neither the federal nor the Ontario governments, both of whom are defendants in Simpson’s case, responded to a request for comment. But both argue in legal submissions that her claim is without merit, and contend the program makes ample allowances for disabled students.

“The (Canada Student Loans Program) does not adversely impact either the applicant or students with disabilities more generally,” the federal government argues in its factum. ”At every stage of the loan cycle, the CSLP provides expanded eligibility criteria and more generous grants and loans to students with disabilities.”

The Ontario government disputes Simpson’s right to raise a challenge under Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because she attended school out of province. It also described the existing loan programs as “the antithesis of discrimination.”

“Funding for out-of-country deaf students provided the Applicant with an opportunity to attend a specialized school that she could not have afforded to attend without the funding,” the province’s legal submission reads. “Rather than adding to any historical disadvantage, specialized funding for out-of-country deaf students served to ameliorate any disadvantage.”

Julia Munk, a disabled lawyer educated in Ontario who gave a deposition in Simpson’s case, said she disagrees with the governments’ stance.

Munk, too, took longer to complete much of her education and incurred substantial student debt that she is still paying off. She said her cerebral palsy limited her ability to type assignments, leaving her reliant on adaptive technology that forced her to work at a different pace from able-bodied classmates.

She said Simpson’s case illustrates a systemic barrier faced by disabled students, who may find their academic qualifications don’t carry as much weight as they may in the hands of an able-bodied graduate.

“Even though on paper there’s the duty to accommodate, in practice getting into the workforce as a person with a disability is a different experience,” she said. ”You’re not going to have the capacity to pay off extended student loans in the same way that able-bodied people do.”

Simpson’s case, which has been working its way through the legal system for years, will be heard in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice for three days starting on Tuesday.

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