All work and no play, right? It's a cliche, but inherently true that post-secondary can be a time of great stress and transition. For a student with disabilities, it’s perhaps even more important to take time out of a busy academic schedule for some downtime. On-campus activities like interest clubs, volunteer groups or associations have plenty of social and practical benefits. And, hey, it might even further your career!
Juggling school with life is a task for anyone, but when the academics are creeping in on life, there could be a problem. “Students with disabilities might need extra time to complete assignments or write exams, which can impact other things,” says Frank Smith, national coordinator of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS). “If all a student does on campus is study, that can be unhealthy. What’s the phrase? ‘Work-Life Balance’? Or in this case ‘School-Life Balance’.”
There are other factors that can add to a student’s stress. “Particularly if a disability is visible, it can be tougher for a student with disabilities to meet people,” says Tanya Lewis, director of accessibility services at the University of Toronto. “There’s a greater need to get involved in ways that help students meet people, and finding a place where your skills and abilities can be used and the opportunity for social connection is a really good thing.”
Extracurriculars also might be an important way to keep context. Such was the case for Jason Dunkerly during his university career. “I competed in track on the varsity program. I went to a high school with other students who were totally blind in an environment set up to support us. In university I was the only blind student on campus. Running became a big outlet for me, and probably helped me to stay motivated to pursue an academic career because I wasn’t someone that was going to do well being strictly focused on academics.”
So, what other benefits of extracurriculars might there be for a student with a disability? “The same sort of benefit that any student would get,” says Smith. “It’s all about broadening experience. These kinds of things go beyond post-secondary; involvement in on-campus activities are the kinds of things that can go on a person’s C.V., as well.” And sometimes, the rewards might be something a little more basic, adds Lewis. “Informal conversations about club activities are such a rich source of student experience; people need to be connected and can learn from each other.” Dunkerley agrees: “You get out there and you break the ice — that was my own experience in university, and I think it holds true for anyone, but especially those with disabilities. Having things in common with other people and learning through that, the way you come to feel about yourself and the directions it can open up for you, that’s huge.”
As for impact, though his case is rather specific, Dunkerly feels his experiences running track helped him in his current capacity as a coordinator for All Abilities Welcome, a campaign started by the Active Living Alliance for Canadians with a Disability. “I think if you were to ask anyone that’s been involved in recreation in some way during their studies, it’s helped shape their direction. Being involved in recreation gives you a lot of confidence to advocate for yourself — to see yourself in the job market, the way you relate to your employers and how you present your strengths.” jp