The Hub Education breaks down barriers for AU grad

Fiona Smith struggled in high school, and was nearly kicked out of her undergraduate degree program because of her low marks.

“I just thought I wasn’t working hard enough,” she said.

Picture of Fiona Smith
Fiona Smith (MEd 2019), Athabasca University's 2018 Future Alumni Award winner, says education has helped her to break down barriers.

Fortunately, one of Smith’s profs recognized that her outcomes didn’t match the incredible effort she was putting in, and eventually she was diagnosed with learning disabilities—dyslexia and dyscalculia.

It wasn’t until those barriers were removed, thanks to accommodations to support her as a learner with disabilities, that she was able to thrive. And there’s no doubt in her mind she would have achieved more in her undergraduate degree if she had been properly supported earlier in her journey.

“I think there’s proof in the pudding, because that is what happened for my master’s degree, and I have a 3.93 GPA doing it this way,” she said. “I worked hard before, but the best I got was 2.25.”

National AccessAbility Week in Canada is about recognizing the accomplishments of people with disabilities, and also to recognize the efforts of those who are actively working to remove barriers to accessibility and inclusion. Smith exemplifies both of these aspects.

With proper support and accommodations she was able to thrive in the Athabasca University (AU) Master of Education in Distance Education program—earning the 2018 Future Alumni Award and completing the program with flying colours in 2019—and has used her education to help remove barriers for others.

Support with disabilities

For Smith, getting accommodations from AU’s Accessibility Services team was “not optional, but essential.” This included supports like getting digital materials to use text-to-speech options, content-tagging and highlighting options, and displaying the materials in dyslexia-friendly fonts.

“Suddenly, I could ‘read’ the course content at the same pace as my colleagues. This has, and had, never happened in my academic life before,” she said. “I found new confidence to lead forum discussions, groups, projects, and peer review.”

The Accessibility Services team also supported her by pointing her in the direction of many resources, including webinars, workshops, tutorials, and even government grants to help her purchase the technology she needed.

What’s most significant for Smith, though, is that with the support of AU she learned to overcome her own tacit negative beliefs about her disabilities.

“Where I had assumed and believed I was a burden, I learned that I wasn’t and could still be of service to others,” she said. “Where I had assumed and believed I was stupid and unworthy, I learned to not use that ‘S-word’ anymore and that my experiences and voice may be of value.”

“Suddenly, I could ‘read’ the course content at the same pace as my colleagues. This has, and had, never happened in my academic life before. I found new confidence to lead forum discussions, groups, projects, and peer review.”

– Fiona Smith, MEd 2019

Overcoming barriers

While Smith’s time at AU helped her to overcome the barriers related to her learning disabilities, the program’s flexibility and distance-learning format helped her to overcome another significant barrier she faces as well—she had been unable to leave her house for 12 years, making it impossible to attend a traditional university.

After being stung by a wasp in 2007, she developed Systemic Mastocytosis, a rare, incurable cellular disease that causes repeated life-threatening anaphylactic reactions due to diverse elements including scents, dust, latex, and certain foods.

Without the ability to attend a bricks-and-mortar school with in-person classes, AU provided her with a way to take a graduate degree that would help her make a difference.

It was through some of those classes, especially ones focused on experiential learning, that Smith began to understand the significant impact some of the events in her past were having on her present. She suffers PTSD after her father abused her for the first 12 years of her life. While completing her degree at AU she found the strength to report the abuse, and her father has since been arrested.

“I am, for the first time in my entire life, I’m sleeping at night and I’m no longer afraid,” she said.” And that’s what this degree did for me, really.”

Smith has also found that education has been incredibly empowering for her, as a self-identified Roma. She said Roma culture is typically mistrustful of outsiders, and a culture in which education is not encouraged for women.

She recalls being a child struggling with her academics, and her grandmother comforting her mother by saying that she was good looking and could probably marry well. Fortunately, her mother rejected that advice and encouraged her to pursue an education.

“There’s a mistrust of education within the Roma community, especially with outsiders teaching. I have come through education with outsiders teaching me, and I am better for it.”

““I am, for the first time in my entire life, I’m sleeping at night and I’m no longer afraid. And that’s what this degree did for me, really.””

– Fiona Smith, MEd 2019

Passing it on

Smith said she’s committed to using her education to help remove barriers for others, which she was able to do when she was hired to a one-year contract as Inclusion & Accessibility Consultant for the Gimli Film Festival.

This involved an organizational, programming, and policy audit of the festival to see how equitable, inclusive, and accessible it is—including in their digital assets.

“What I learned, and what they learned was, if you build accessibility in, people will come,” she said.

Smith continues to do professional development as she looks for work that will allow her to continue promoting inclusion and accessibility in a formal role—but she continues to inspire her own children and her children’s friends to pursue education as a lifelong goal.

“My house is usually abuzz with an open door,” she said. “I have kids in my house who are blown away that I went back to school, and they’re seeing the value of education and saying, ‘If you can do it, I can do it.”

You can learn more about how AU supports students with disabilities on The Hub, and on the Accessibility Services website.