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Graduate programmes continue to shut out students with disabilities

Lynne is a feminist, blogger and postgraduate student looking for a scholarship.

But she worries that because she’s a non-traditional student with a disability, she’s going to be shut out of funding opportunities.

“One of the criteria for many scholarships in Canada is “student leadership,” she says. “This has varying definitions, usually to do with one’s involvement in student government, or university-approved ‘leadership opportunities’,” she wrote in a blog post.

“If I want to get a PhD in Canada, I need a scholarship. I have no other options,” Lynne wrote.

Lynne, who would only give her middle name to the Gazette for privacy reasons, worries that her commitment to the disability community won’t count for scholarship adjudicators as adequate ‘leadership.’

People who have to do “the ill-defined ‘reasonable amount’ of ill-defined ‘self-advocacy,’ which takes up a lot of time and energy,” Lynn noted, aren’t always credited for this advocacy as ‘leaders.’

“My work on advocating for people with disabilities on campus doesn’t fall under ‘student leadership’ since the bulk of it is not done as a member of an acknowledged student group. None of my letter-writing, raising issues to various levels of student government or university administration, or any other form of activism that I do ‘counts’ as student leadership,” wrote Lynne.

While Lynne was previously involved with student union politics—the stuff that, by all accounts, ‘counts’ as leadership—she stopped because the environment created by administration and students for ‘student leaders’ was hostile for folks with disabilities she says.

How is hostility for students with disabilities manifested? Usually, it appears both benign and indirect.

This fall, for example, Dalhousie’s Director of Student Services Bonnie Neuman invited students to her home for a leadership event.

In an email sent to the entire Dalhousie Student Union Executive, Neuman invited “Executive Members of Faculty-Level and Department-Level Student Societies” to “join (her) and other members of the senior administration to a Roundtable Kickoff Reception at (her) home”.

Students who could attend were asked to RSVP to Cheryl Smith, the Student Services Department’s administration assistant. The Dalhousie bus was also used to shuttle students between campus and Neuman’s home throughout the evening.

An email leaked to the Dalhousie Gazette shows that, when asked by a student if transportation to the event would be accessible, Neuman wrote that “the reception is in my personal home and it is not accessible to the very elderly or to anyone in a wheelchair.”

Neuman also apologized that “this social occasion presents this challenge.”

When asked for comment, Neuman wrote in an email to the Gazette that “this is a purely social meet and great [sic] type of event with no agenda and no business functions; just an opportunity for student leaders who choose to come to meet the President and other senior administrators that they might be working with through the year.”

But this supposedly social occasion was not a private party between friends. It was an event which used Dalhousie resources to kick-off a series of official meetings. This was an opportunity to create the relationship that would foster student voices throughout the year—except, of course, the voices of students who could not ascend two flights of stairs.

How do you vie for a postgraduate programme if your opportunities to be competitive for funding are undercut by the administration who’s supposed to serve you?

Neuman also wrote that “I think everyone is sensitive to the challenges of accessibility this might create and changes the format when someone in a group would obviously be excluded.”

However, this event’s format was not changed. The Kickoff still took place at Neuman’s house, even after someone who wanted an accessible space emailed the DSU to request transport information. Maybe their exclusion was not obvious enough?

High-ranking university administrators pay lip service to welcoming students with disabilities. But acts of thoughtlessness on the part of officials representing their college create an uninviting environment for people who are already marginalized.

This isn’t a phenomenon unique to Dalhousie. In 2010, Yale Law School dean of admissions Asha Rangappa compared applicants overly excited about “the law” to “the toothpick scene in Rain Man.”

“I … imagine admitting a legal genius who shuffles around muttering Supreme Court holdings under his breath, sometimes startling bystanders by randomly shouting ‘SCALIA!’ very loudly,” Rangappa said.

In using autism stereotypes to mock mediocre law school applicants, Rangappa sent a clear message: smart, non-traditional students are not what Yale is looking for. Have a social anxiety disorder? Asperger’s? Another form of neuroatypicality? Sorry, you’re shit out of luck.

Yale’s equal opportunity policy of 2009 says they encourage people with disabilities to enter their community, but comments like Rangappa’s imply otherwise.

It’s easy to put forward a document that encourages people with disabilities to apply for employment. It’s a lot harder to create a culture of respect for students who don’t fit in to the model of the able-bodied, easy-to-please go-getter who doesn’t ask people for reasonable accommodation.

University administrators need to recognize that while they’re working for their school, the jokes they make and the parties they have are representations of their university’s attitudes.

To avoid snafus like Neuman’s and create a welcoming space on campus, we need to put the needs of people who are marginalized at the centre of our decision making processes, rather than leaving them as ‘fringe issues.’ This isn’t a question of intent, but it’s a question of consideration.

Are university administrators willing to learn to work better, or would they prefer to remain self-righteous in their own error?

Katie Toth
Katie Toth
Katie was the Opinions Editor of the Gazette for Volume 143.
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