With the new Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) policy that includes broader definitions of disability and ableism and stresses the importance of accessible education, it seems that Ontario is taking a step forward to further naturalize disabled people in university environments. However, many students are likely still unaware as to how the university environment might be exclusionary or what discrimination toward disabled people looks like.
Disability is a very broad category that holds within it much variation, from various physical disabilities to learning disabilities to chronic illnesses to certain mental illnesses. These disparate groups of people are united in some aspect by their societal treatment: ableism.
Ableism can be described as a guiding set of negative and derogatory beliefs about disability and disabled people that can manifest in stereotypes, exclusion, discrimination, and abuse. These beliefs are woven deeply into our culture: into our language, in which descriptors for disability are often substituted for ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’; and into our media and art, in which disabled bodies and minds are frequently used as symbols for degeneration, perversion, or evil.
Disability, in history, has often been used as an excuse for denying the rights of various groups. For example, it was once argued that women were mentally disabled in relation to men, which is why they could not carry the responsibility of voting in the United States. Certain characteristics of women, real or imagined, were used to point to some underlying ‘deficiency’ that rendered them incompetent.
This process, which surely seems atrocious to us now in retrospect, is still weaponized against disabled people. However, discrimination as a result of ableism is difficult to challenge because disability is so naturalized as an inherently bad quality. Unlike other systems of marginalization that are based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or class, it is seen as fitting that a disabled person be found inferior to an able-bodied person. In a ‘common sense’ way, it seems right that disabled persons be thought of as lacking or deficient.
This compulsive negative valuation usually does not rear its head outright, but obscures itself behind discourses of competency, skill, or ability. It is therefore seen as valid when a boss fires a disabled employee instead of putting in effort to accommodate them for the ‘common sense’ reason that the employee is less ‘capable’ compared to non-disabled employees.
The continual reaffirmation of disability as a way-of-being that is wrong, unnatural, or negatively-valued is coupled with a near-total exclusion of disability, both in the public material sphere and in the public consciousness. The city teems with markers of exclusion: stairs in the entranceway to a shop, a subway station with no elevator, a lack of braille on public notices. These material markers speak to an exclusion of disability from the public consciousness. Despite the presence of disability everywhere in our culture, disabled bodies are not thought of as immediately existent; they are not thought of as potential inhabitants of space.
The situation is mirrored and perpetuated on university campuses. The disabled student is not thought of as a rightful inhabitant of the university environment. There are some concessions made in attempts to accommodate the student — for instance, Accessibility Services at U of T — but just the concept of an accommodation mechanism points to the fact that our university, at base, is not constructed with disabled students in mind.
If a structure needs to be especially manipulated in order to be accessed by disabled people, then that structure is intrinsically designed non-inclusively. The underlying structure is inaccessible and might only become more accessible with various tweaks to the foundations. These tweaks, of course, are available only to those who, through various navigations of bureaucracy, prove themselves to be ‘disabled enough’ to deserve them.
The idea of accommodations also places the onus of the work on the disabled students rather than on the institution. The student needs to especially register with a service, undergo medical examinations and cross-examining, and provide letters of reference just to obtain some degree of comfort in their classes or be able to complete their work.
Last semester, I had a class on the third floor of a building, and for a period of several weeks, the elevator was out of service. The university had been cognizant enough to place a sign outside that kindly informed that the elevator was out of service — but that was the extent of their efforts. It was only until I personally ventured to Accessibility Services and informed them that it was difficult for me to attend my class that the elevator was fixed.
I ask, what is the meaning of accessibility when the work to render things accessible needs to be performed by those being excluded? Why not render the university environment accessible and accommodating as a baseline and not just as a special concession granted to a select few? Why not fit classrooms with more comfortable chairs, give extensions to all those who ask for them, and ensure that all buildings are fully accessible at all times?
If this were done, the disabled student might be assumed as a natural inhabitant of the university environment and not as an outsider who must constantly prove their case to be allowed to enter the front hallway. However, we can ascertain that this subsuming of the disabled student into the university environment is a process to which the university is actively opposed.
One only has to look at the school’s policies policing the inclusion of its disabled students — for example, the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP), which passed this summer. With such a policy, the university re-establishes its ability to exclude and exile disabled students who seem to them to be wrongful inhabitants — in this case, those who are too mentally ill, in ways that the university deems unfitting.
This policy has yet to be used against a student — and one might be optimistic that it is challengeable. The first version of the policy was strongly and explicitly opposed by the OHRC, and it is likely not coincidental that its recent statement on accessible education coincides with the passing of a later version of the policy. Though the naturalization of the disabled student as a rightful inhabitant of the university environment is being contested by administration, an ally might yet be found in the OHRC.
This might prove useful in the future, since discrimination against mentally ill students by universities is commonplace. Earlier this year, and south of the border, a student who checked herself into a hospital for anxiety was later barred from returning to her dorm by the University of Maryland. In words that eerily echo the UMLAP, administration cited concerns over her ability to live on campus.
A few years back, a Princeton University student recovering from a suicide attempt was barred from attending his classes and escorted off campus by security guards. Again, this exclusion was justified by concerns over the student’s ability, reflecting the rhetoric that justifies discrimination against disabled people.
Besides the need for structural changes on campus, how able-bodied students might push for increased inclusion of disabled persons in a university environment remains an important question. It does not have to necessitate intense amounts of activism and protest. It is as simple as remaining aware of one’s environment and disrupting the normalcy of exclusion in subtle ways. When you enter a classroom, you may ask yourself about the ways in which this environment is inaccessible and in what ways the rules set out by the instructor lend toward exclusionary practices.
By drawing attention to these aspects, one can spread awareness of the normative practices of exclusion — through speaking about them to your peers and instructors, and opening up discussions about accessibility. In these ways, disability might become a real presence in the university environment.
Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College.