Teen with cerebral palsy faces one last hurdle on difficult road to university

A teen with a disability, who made his own way out of a homeless shelter and into university, is now up against a new challenge: he can't afford the student life.

Benjamin Williamson, 18, left 'toxic' home life behind to realize dream of attending university

Benjamin Williamson says a university education is his dream, but the reality is he can't afford it. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

A teen with a disability, who made his own way out of a homeless shelter and into university, is now up against a new challenge: he can't afford the student life.

Benjamin Williamson says he's short $5,000 to cover his remaining tuition and residence costs at Carleton University, plus thousands more for living expenses. 

It's frustrating, it's exhausting, it's complicated.- Benjamin Williamson

Williamson, who has cerebral palsy, says the system is failing him, and says he feels like he's drowning.

"[It's like] continuously having tidal waves that pound you," said Williamson. "The system is shattered.… It's frustrating, it's exhausting, it's complicated."

The university says it's tapped every award and bursary available to help Williamson, but it's not enough.

A concerned staff member is now raising money to try to help him out.
Williamson is in one of the most expensive dorm rooms at Carleton University because he needs an accessible room with 24/7 on-call assistance. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Left home in February

The 18-year-old's neurological disorder makes it difficult for him to walk, so he relies on an electric wheelchair to get around. He can't write because he lacks the fine motor skills, and he struggles with chronic pain.

Williamson has no cognitive impairment, and excelled in high school. But because he has special needs, he was placed into a program for students with developmental difficulties. Staying there meant he wouldn't graduate until 21, and wouldn't have the courses necessary to advance to university. Leaving the program would mean losing the special help he needed to write.
Williamson worries about other disabled teens stuck in toxic situations at home. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Meanwhile Williamson was also struggling with what he calls a "toxic environment" at home, where he says his parents didn't support his dream of one day attending university. In February, he decided to leave. (The rift led to a legal battle between the teen and his parents, and is currently before the courts.)

Williamson says it took months to find a homeless shelter in York Region that could accommodate his needs, albeit temporarily. After leaving the shelter to have surgery, Williamson ended up staying in hospital longer than necessary because he had nowhere else to go.

Luckily, he'd managed to connect with MPP Chris Ballard during an earlier co-op placement, and that helped open the door to Carleton University. 

Persistence, resilience

Carleton's co-ordinator for initiatives and education, Susan Burhoe, said she was touched by Williamson's story and saw promise in the teenager. Despite his lack of a high school diploma, the university administration admitted him into a special bridging program where the teen would get the support he needs, due to begin in September.

"I was really moved by Ben's story because he's had such a set of challenges, and despite that he's shown such persistence and resilience," said Burhoe.
Susan Burhoe, a co-ordinator of Carleton's enriched support program, started an online fundraising campaign to help Williamson. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Carleton University granted Williamson $3,000 in awards and bursaries, and is covering his living expenses for the month of August. 

Williamson qualifies for student loans from the province, but even the maximum amount he can apply for — $15,000 — would fail to cover all his costs, including his wheelchair-accessible room in residence.

Running out of options to help the teen, Burhoe set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for his education.

"Ben has so much potential," said Burhoe. 

'It's tragic'

Williamson said he worries about other young people with disabilities who are trapped in bad home situations. He sees the lack of long-term housing and adequate education funding for young people like him as a gap in the system that needs fixing.

"It's tragic. A person should not have to become homeless and have to rely on the university to house them for 10 months of the year," said Williamson, who wants to study law and become an advocate for youth.

"I think the government needs to take a stance and say, 'We need to do something.'"

To be so near, and yet so far from realizing his dream is frustrating, and not a little frightening, he says.

"It's a fresh start," said Williamson. "It's a new reality. It's a chance to put the tornado of the past behind me, but it presents a whole host of new challenges. The future scares me." 


Ashley Burke


Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at