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Deaf-blind Ontario woman suing governments claiming 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.

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