New Counselling & Disability Services unit offers unified services

York University’s previous counselling and disability units have been restructured and aligned into the new Counselling & Disability Services (CDS) unit. The consolidation of the units became official on July 2.

“It has taken us more than 18 months to get to this point," says Marc Wilchesky (right), executive director of CDS, "but the journey has been worth it." With the integration of the Counselling & Development Centre, the Glendon College Counselling & Career Centre, the Atkinson Counselling & Supervision Centre and the Office for Persons with Disabilities into one all-encompassing service provider, the new CDS unit will feature standardized intake procedures, standardized and simplified documentation, and a unified voice to increase student accessibility to its services. "All of this change," says Wilchesky, "will mean students are better served."

In June 2007, Sylvia Schippke, former assistant vice-president (student community development), and the directors of the four counselling and disability service units launched a review of the organization of York’s existing counselling and disability services. The review involved answering questions and examining the perceptions about the consistency of service; community service expectations; ease of access; how to best align services to support students; and how to optimize service processes. With the guidance of an independent consulting firm, students, faculty, staff and other University community members were surveyed. The resulting analysis revealed that the services provided by the units were highly valued by students and the community; however, the organizational structure of the units was confusing to students and other members of the community, resulting in some difficulty for them to access the services.

Through working groups, steering committees, interviews, research and focus groups, more than 150 recommendations were made to coordinate the services provided to better serve York students. The 18-month process involved staff and community members as much as possible throughout its progression.

Staff members in the service units contributed their time, energy and ideas, with most sitting on one or more working groups to help shape the alignment and to share their insights and expertise. The working groups brought together members of different units of the various counselling and disability services that previously had not had regular contact with each other. As a result, the groups not only provided direction to the realignment process, but increased collaboration and collegiality.

"We were able to really get to know each other," says Enid Weiner, manager of mental health disability services. "[The groups] gave us a sense of what we are part of and brought us together in a constructive way."

What is the result of this extensive consultation and work? An even more effective and efficient Counselling & Disability Services unit where the greatest change for students will not be a location or name change, but in the increased communication between all units, the elimination of duplicate services and a clearer direction on how and where to access services. "We want to keep a sense of comfort, collegiality and informality while maintaining and improving our already excellent service," says Wilchesky.

The initial client contact and reception is crucial given the nature of the CDS work. When students access CDS, they will be more accurately directed to the provider and location that can best meet their needs because there is now clearer communication between all service locations. This is also true for faculty and staff seeking a consultation regarding the accommodation of, or with concerns about, a student. As well, intake procedures will be better coordinated regardless of location. Processes and policies have been redesigned with additional attention paid to the most recent privacy legislation requirements. This ensures the proper access to, and collection, use and disclosure of, information.

Program names and office space will also be changing to reflect the alignment.

  • Personal Counselling Services (formerly Personal Counselling Program), N110 Bennett Centre for Student Services (BCSS)
  • Learning Skills Services (formerly Learning Skills Program), N110 BCSS
  • Disability Services:
    • Learning Disability Services (formerly Learning Disabilities Program), W128 BCSS, supports students requiring accommodation due to a learning disability, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorders.
    • Mental Health Disability Services (formerly Psychiatric Dis/Abilities Program), N204 BCSS, supports students requiring accommodation due to a mental illness.
    • Physical, Sensory and Medical Disability Services (formerly the Office for Persons with Disabilities), N108 Ross, meets the needs of students seeking accommodation for physical, sensory and medical disabilities.
    • Counselling and Disability Services, Glendon site (formerly Glendon Counselling & Career Centre), E102 Glendon Hall, serves the Glendon community for students seeking learning skills, personal and career counselling and support for students with disabilities who require accommodation. 

The next year means many adjustments for CDS and the staff of all of the units, and Polly MacFarlane, director, personal counselling services & learning skills services, is taking stock of the coming year. "It’s an odd time. On one hand you feel ‘oh my goodness, we’re losing something,’ but on the other hand look what we’re gaining." She describes the next year as a "pilot" for which the staff are well prepared based on "what we know. We’ll tweak as we go." For example, personal counselling hours will be expanded to now accommodate evening appointments, which means increased on-call hours for counsellors. Staff schedules are shifting to accommodate this expansion, but it is difficult to anticipate the impact on overall client usage and student demand. "We’re stepping into something very exciting – but with that there are growing pains. It really is a transition for everybody," says MacFarlane.

The next 12 to 18 months for CDS will be a time of consolidation, with the introduction of new policies and procedures that will improve service and increase accessibility for students while maintaining and enhancing the already excellent service provided by CDS staff. Counselling & Disability Services is future-focused and will be looking carefully at the outcomes of all of this change, says Wilchesky, by conducting research and polling students in a variety of ways to gauge the effectiveness of the change.

Watch for a new CDS communications initiative launched this fall, including a new Web presence and discussion via Moodle to inform staff, students and stakeholders of new developments. For more information, visit the CDS Web site.