The changing nature of “accessibility”

The sidelining of accessibility issues affecting students with disabilities did not take place overnight

written by Mary MacDonald
December 10, 2016 9:05 pm

The scope and meaning of “accommodations” for students has undergone a sweeping overhaul on university campuses. Nowhere is this more visible than at Dal. This trend is evident in the article ‘El Jones Advocates for Systemic Change at Universities.’

When I began taking classes in the 90s, Dalhousie had a full-time Advisor for Students With Disabilities. Because many areas of Dal’s campus are inaccessible, students with disabilities could request accommodations for classrooms and exams.  Since then, the position of Advisor to Students With Disabilities has been eliminated. Requests for accommodations are now processed through the Access Centre, which not only facilitates requests from students with disabilities but also a wide range of other grounds.

Over the past few years, “accessibility” has taken on a whole new meaning on campus.  Although many issues remain unresolved in improving physical accessibility, we are now hearing “accessibility” discussed in terms of trigger warnings, as is the case with the El Jones article.

Identity politics have gained attention, through a process that has literally co-opted the meaning of “accessibility.” Persons with disabilities face concrete, structural barriers on  campus. But their accommodations are no longer granted the profile once given. Instead, we see disabilities “bundled in” with access requests on religious and a wide selection of other grounds.

At Dalhousie in particular, students with disabilities and their special needs have been given reduced priority while imaginations have shifted to other identity group concerns. We do not see this happening to the same extent at Saint Mary’s, which has lifted the profile of students with disabilities on campus, mainly through its Fred Smithers Centre for Students With Disabilities. Dal, in contrast, has moved in the opposite direction, a plausible driver of which is the ideological hegemony of identity politics that holds sway on this campus.

We can speculate on reasons for the sidelining of accessibility conversations impacting students with disabilities that are eclipsed by discussions about “accessibility” demands on topics requiring trigger warnings. How can this be explained? The changing definition of “accessibility” has emerged within the context of identity politics, which pivots on an oppressor/victim template.  White privilege and colonialism/settler discourse cannot, however, explain the marginalization and structural conditions affecting persons with disabilities. Some may argue that the ever-proliferating demands of “accessibility” prove that campuses are becoming more equitable. That analysis misses the point that such demands are more ideological than equitable.

Some may argue that these shifts are inconsequential.  Those who do can explain why “Respect Week” on campus is preoccupied by identity group politics while students with disabilities receive no mention. The Human Rights and Equity office, together with South House, in organizing “Respect Week” on campus focus exclusively on other themes that are informed by the dominant victim/oppressor narrative while ignoring disability issues.

The sidelining of accessibility issues affecting students with disabilities did not take place overnight. The reimagining of accessibility can be understood within the emergent intellectual paradigm of Intersectionality, a discourse that can be maintained only when its victim/oppressor matrix is accepted at face value.   The fact that persons with disabilities do not hold white males or their “accomplices” responsible for their marginalization compels intersectionality theory to fall flat on its face.

Returning briefly to El Jones’ argument that students must be given accessibility with respect to trigger warnings, my question to the spoken word activist is this: when I and dozens of other students graduated from gender and women’s studies programs, how does she explain our success and ease in doing so while navigating a curriculum when “trigger warnings” didn’t exist?