Menstruation frustrations

A cycle of quiet suffering on campus

Menstruation frustrations

Several days ago, I was having a conversation with my friends about the worst bathrooms we have seen so far at U of T, and while some of the characteristics that came up were expected — such as laughably-bad lighting, poor design, and lack of hygiene — a recurring theme also emerged: most of the bathrooms mentioned were not designed with menstruation in mind.

Whether it is dim lighting or cramped space, these spaces are already frustrating on a regular day, but when it comes time to deal with all of your period blood, the ridiculousness of the situation becomes even more evident. Since these unpleasant and tough situations only come about once a month, it seems much easier to just forget about those problems entirely.

This perspective is often shared by those who don’t see the value in investing in better bathrooms or creating better policies. In high school, my friends and I would have issues keeping up with school events and exams while dealing with our periods, but we were advised to “just deal with it,” since the ‘issue’ would go away in a few days and then we could forget about the problems until next month. But the real systemic issues never go away: somebody is always going to be menstruating, and members of the community will continue experiencing the same problems day by day unless the problems are addressed.

Although the taboo surrounding menstruation has lessened quite a bit over the last few decades and conversations surrounding it have become quite normalized, important changes have yet to be made with how the topic is handled. One would expect U of T to be better at this than other institutions, given its work on inclusion and its position as a global leader, and yet it still fails to have the most important conversations surrounding menstruation and provide appropriate avenues for support.

On a small scale, it’s generally much easier to have conversations about menstruation face to face, but even that approach has its own difficulties. How comfortable can it be to approach an old, male professor to talk about your bodily functions? In any case, these face-to-face conversations are nearly impossible at U of T, where classes are being taught to over 90,000 students every semester, making staff members even harder to communicate with and access.

But why are we even having these conversations? Why can’t we “just deal with it” and move on with our lives? Shouldn’t we be used to it by now? Can’t we just go to the doctor and get our problems permanently fixed? Why is menstruation such a big deal?

Well, periods can range from merely irritating to debilitating, and they don’t stay the same from month to month, much less throughout one’s lifetime. Along with a loss of blood, accompanying symptoms include headaches, exhaustion, cramps, nausea, light-headedness, and even fainting. There are several options to deal with these effects, such as birth control pills or painkillers, but the fact of the matter is that for many people, menstruation is difficult to endure, and no matter how many times they experience it, there’s still no guarantee that they’ll be prepared.

What are the systemic challenges that can be expected for someone getting their period at U of T? Let’s say that you go to the bathroom half an hour before the beginning of a midterm, and you’ve been feeling a bit off all day. You realize that you’ve gotten your period early and you’re completely unprepared: you don’t have anything to stop the flow and you’re freaking out in your stall. While U of T bathrooms have sanitary waste disposals for period products, some bathrooms don’t have operable pad and tampon dispensers, with some appearing to have been around since the dawn of time.

So, instead, you can ask a friend, or even a stranger, if they happen to be carrying a tampon or a pad. But this isn’t high school; your friends might be in a class on the opposite side of campus or there might not be anyone around. If you want to buy period products, you’ll likely have to go to the nearest drugstore, since they’re not nearly as easy to get on campus as free condoms and lube. As a last resort, you may be left relying on paper-thin toilet paper, an option that is used far too often, even in today’s day and age.

Now that you’ve successfully staunched the flow, you start feeling those dreaded cramps, and nausea on top of that too. What can you do? Perhaps you can buy some painkillers and ginger tea, but your midterm is now in 15 minutes and you know that it might take up to an hour for those cramps to go away, even with the painkillers. If you take the midterm, there’s a chance you’ll screw something up because of the pain, but there’s also no guarantee that you’ll be able to take a makeup test.

It’s generally more likely that you’ll be allowed to reschedule the test last-minute if the class is a small one, but for larger classes, you might run into trouble; some courses require valid documentation to be sent within 24 hours of a missed test. This documentation should either be the equivalent of a doctor’s note or a note from your college registrar, and missed labs require a doctor’s note. It’s easy to see why this system is flawed: doctor’s notes can be bought and faked; some doctors give notes too easily, while others never give them; and ultimately, pain is difficult to prove in any circumstance.

It’s challenging to figure out how the rules should be fixed, since a balance should be maintained between not encouraging people to lie about their pain, while also helping those who really are experiencing it. In terms of solving these bathroom problems, all bathrooms on campus should meet certain standards. All stalls should contain proper sanitary waste disposal, and functioning pad and tampon dispensers. For such a necessary part of daily life, menstruation products are quite hard to find, and U of T certainly isn’t making it any easier to get them where they’re most needed.

How should we start addressing these concerns? First, we should acknowledge the problems and ask students and staff what changes they want to see across campus. Then, the bathrooms on campus should be improved, starting with those in colleges and buildings with higher foot traffic. Course and testing policies concerning sudden illness should be updated, and U of T should explicitly outline what measures should be taken when conflicts arise between schooling and personal health issues, such as those brought about by menstruation.

It’s important to realize that most of the people dealing with these issues are female, and failing to address them would mean giving half the students at U of T, around 45,000, a systemic disadvantage. The issues aren’t going to go away by themselves, and it’s incredibly easy to forget about them unless it happens to you. Once you start noticing flaws in U of T’s system, though, it’s impossible to stop, and every time you count yourself lucky for not being stuck bleeding in that dark, cramped bathroom in the basement, you’re neglecting to realize that your inaction only means that someone else will experience it instead. 

“Ableist and discriminatory content” described at training sessions for test invigilators

Invigilators at Test and Exam Services speak out against training

“Ableist and discriminatory content” described at training sessions for test invigilators

Invigilators at Test and Exam Services (TES) are speaking out over what they see as discriminatory training sessions, which have been described as “clearly [pathologizing] students with disabilities.”

TES is “the department responsible for coordinating quiz, term test, and final examination accommodations for students with documented disabilities,” according to its website. It employs roughly 40 to 45 “highly-qualified graduate students” to act as invigilators.

The issue regarding training sessions was first brought to light by a Facebook post made by an invigilator who had attended a training session on September 5.

In her post, which has been shared over 100 times, graduate student Elizabeth Davis wrote that “the training contained strong ableist and discriminatory content which is inappropriate and wrong to disseminate in a training environment for Invigilators working with students with disabilities.”

In particular, she and other invigilators took issue with two presentation slides that they believed described students with disabilities as “difficult” and comparable to US President Donald Trump.

The slides were presented as part of their training to become invigilators.

In an interview with The Varsity, Senior Director of Student Experience David Newman clarified that those slides were part of general de-escalation training given by the Student Progress and Support Team and were not specific to students with disabilities.

Powerpoint slides from a training session. Courtesy of ELIZABETH DAVIS

“The training was really about dealing with difficult situations and it was not about any specific group and it was not developed specifically for this group,” said Newman.

Newman continued that this presentation is given to many groups on campus, though he did not specify which ones.

“It’s a general type of presentation that is given to any group that there’s a large population of at the university… It’s a wide range of groups that training is provided to.”

Davis questioned the university’s explanation, saying that “if they weren’t there to talk about students with disabilities, why were they training us?”

“They’re invited to come train people who work with students with disabilities and they weren’t talking about students with disabilities… There’s something that doesn’t add up to me about that defence,” Davis said.

U of T Professor Tanya Titchkosky, who specializes in Disability Studies, told The Varsity that she saw the issues brought up at this training session as part of a growing trend at U of T of a “disregard of disability as a human rights issue.”

“To train people to conceive of disability as a burden and as a problem and not to include any training on human rights, I don’t know how that’s going to help anybody, including the employees at [TES],” Titchkosky said. “All they do is confirm a stereotype.”

Beyond training that seemingly described disabled students as “difficult,” Davis also said in her post that invigilators were told to see their jobs as related to “customer service.”

“I am deeply upset by this frank espousal of commitment to structuring social justice issues like accessibility as ‘customer service issues,’” Davis wrote. “However, what is directly relevant to this incident, is that a human rights issue is being framed as a customer service issue at the highest levels of administration at the University of Toronto, and at TES specifically, and this appears to be systematically linked to ableism, racism and poor labor practices.”

Powerpoint slides from a training session. Courtesy of ELIZABETH DAVIS

The description of TES as providing a customer service was confirmed by two other invigilators who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

Davis also noted in her Facebook post that she was the only person who spoke out at the training session because “the environment for Invigilator staff at TES has become so toxic, and Invigilator staff are subject to such punitive reprimand for any disagreement with management staff, that no one wants to speak up about anything even when what is happening is clearly wrong.”

Two current invigilators and one former invigilator agreed with Davis’ description of the “toxic” atmosphere at TES. The former invigilator told The Varsity that staff would be admonished when they tried to speak out against problems that they saw, particularly when it was about standing up for students.

The invigilators who spoke to The Varsity said that issues with the university’s treatment of disability have been a longstanding problem that has become worse in recent years. They point to the example of training that increasingly recommends that invigilators call police when they encounter difficulties.

Davis confirmed this in her post. “One thing that was continually emphasized in this training was that Invigilator staff can and should call Campus Police, as well as 911, when appropriate.”

When asked about what the university plans to do about these complaints, Newman said, “Certainly we are always reviewing the training based on feedback and we will be doing so in this instance as well.”

Titchkosky, when asked what she thought the university could do, said that people need to “start thinking about the conception of disability they’re working with.”

“It seems to me most classrooms seem to think disability is something you might encounter elsewhere,” Titchkosky said. “But they don’t really expect that blind students are showing up or deaf students are showing up.”

Conceptualizing inaccessibility on campus

In the context of the recent OHRC policy on accessible education, it is necessary to examine how ableism still persists in universities

Conceptualizing inaccessibility on campus

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.

Hart House to include accessible entrance in Arbor Room renovation

Donations being solicited for funding of project

Hart House to include accessible entrance in Arbor Room renovation

Hart House is seeking donations to help fund a full renovation of the Arbor Room, located on the building’s south side, including an accessible entrance. The renovation is part of an effort to increase Hart House’s accessibility, which has already included adding a ramp on the east side facing Queen’s Park.

Hart House Warden John Monahan explained that when the Arbor Room’s last food provider’s contract expired, renovation plans were already in place due to the floor sloping “dramatically towards the centre of the room.” According to Monahan, around the time of that contract expiry, Hart House was undergoing an accessibility review, which recommended more accessible entrances to the building.

“The Arbor Room, being so important and integral to the house, being at the front of Hart House really, right there on Hart House circle, that had always been dependant upon stairs, and therefore was not accessible to everybody,” said Monahan. “So since we were going to be repairing the Arbor Room anyway, we took the opportunity to expand the work to look into the feasibility of creating an accessible entrance into the Arbor Room.”

Monahan said that renovations on classic, neo-Gothic buildings can be expensive. Hart House receives roughly half its operating budget from student ancillary fees and roughly half from business revenue, including room rentals, catering, weddings, and fundraising.

“There are donors, we believe, that share our commitment to making spaces like Hart House more accessible for everybody,” he said. “We would rather have that money to spend on accessibility than have to depend upon the revenue provided by student ancillary fees. We’d rather put that money towards supporting the programs and activities that students really associate with Hart House.”

Students and community members can donate online. The donation page references “maintaining the heritage character of the building” while making it more accessible. Hart House will be working closely with the university’s property management and capital projects departments, recruiting engineers, architects, environmental assessors, and heritage consultants to assist in designing the new entrance.

“100 years ago, people didn’t have the same appreciation or same approach to accessibility as they do now. So we certainly don’t want to sacrifice accessibility at the altar of historical authenticity,” said Monahan. “At the same time, we don’t want to in any way mar the entrance to Hart House with a design that is going to fight with the heritage character of the rest of the building or the other buildings at the university for that matter.”

SCSU report makes recommendations on academic, accessibility rights of students

Report part of academic advocacy campaign led by VP Academics & University Affairs Christina Arayata

SCSU report makes recommendations on academic, accessibility rights of students

Self-declared sick notes, a maximum cap on late penalties, and an extension of the credit-no credit option to the last day of classes are among the recommendations made in a report published by the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) to make students aware of their academic and accessibility rights.

This report, titled “Creating an Accessible Campus: Guidelines and Recommendations for the University of Toronto Scarborough – 2017,” is part of an ongoing academic advocacy campaign being led by the SCSU’s Vice-President Academics and University Affairs, Christina Arayata.

The proposal of self-declared sick notes comes in response to the high cost of getting medical documentation, as well as to free up resources from the Health and Wellness Centre used to verify students’ illnesses.

“This is just a recommendation towards the University, it is through meetings and consultation with the administration where we would be able to come up with a pilot/system that would ensure academic integrity is not affected,” wrote Arayata. “Flexible academic policies are already in effect in other institutions like Simon Fraser University or Queens.”

There is also a proposal calling for a maximum five per cent cap on late penalties. According to the report, 68 per cent of students at the Scarborough campus rely on OSAP, requiring them to find part-time jobs, and excessive late penalties — some of which reach 25 per cent per day — force them to choose between assignments and going to work.

The report also suggests extending the credit-no credit deadline to the last day of classes, a process currently in place at UTM. The SCSU believes that doing this would eliminate inaccurate choices made by students predicting their grades two weeks before receiving them. Doing this, according to the report, “has the potential to lessen the load on petitions surrounding this particular area,” which would save resources.

With regard to accessibility concerns, the report includes a proposal of the development of a mandatory policy against the banning of laptops in lectures, as removing laptops “is also mandating the ways in which students can/are supposed to learn in the classroom.”

The report also calls for the university to include the Student Bill of Rights in course syllabi and on Blackboard and ACORN. The inclusion of the bill, which stipulates the right to receive a syllabus in the first week of class, would prevent documented cases where students did not receive a syllabus in the first week of class or received parts of it as the semester progressed.

The report has been presented to the university’s administration, and the SCSU is now “working with the Administration to get these items into actionable items.”

Liza Arnason, Assistant Dean of Student Life, Community Outreach and International Experience at UTSC, said that although conversations are underway, significant progress toward the implementation of the recommendations will not be made until the winter semester.

Understanding mental health services at U of T

Students, know your rights

Understanding mental health services at U of T

A 2016 survey conducted by the Canadian Association of College & University Students Services estimated that nearly a fifth of Canadian post-secondary students struggle with mental health. The University of Toronto is certainly not an exception to this; its intense, competitive academic atmosphere can leave students feeling isolated.

The spontaneity of symptoms of mental health issues can make it difficult for students to complete their work on time or plan with professors for adjustments.

Mathias Memmel, President of the UTSU, told The Varsity, “The administration’s primary focus is academic excellence, sometimes at the expense of students’ well-being. U of T was one of the last universities to start taking mental health issues seriously.” Memmel added that things are slowly improving, but the university’s “instutitional priorities” remain a barrier.

U of T is obliged to follow the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and it has committed itself to following the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s guidelines on accessible education. Internally, the university’s Statement of Commitment Regarding Persons with Disabilities states that “the University will strive to provide support for, and facilitate the accommodation of individuals with disabilities so that all may share the same level of access to opportunities, participate in the full range of activities that the University offers, and achieve their full potential as members of the University community.”

If you are a student struggling with your mental health, you are guaranteed fundamental rights to make education accessible. The following rights represent only a portion of those afforded to you.

You have the right to register with the Accessibility Services office on your campus. While you are required to provide documentation of your disability and its related functional limitations, you do not need to disclose your specific diagnosis to instructors.

You may have the right to make-up tests, extensions on coursework, alternative evaluation formats, and exam rescheduling. These adjustments are made on a case-by-case basis depending on your condition and recommendation from documentation from health providers.

You have the right to use service animals and support persons on campus. Possible exceptions are service animals being prohibited from areas where food is stored and served, and when their presence endangers another person’s health and safety.

You have the right to access Health and Wellness Centre services, which include individual psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, and group therapy. Students with disordered eating also have the right to access a dietician on campus.

Finally, whether or not you have accessibility needs, you have the right to file a petition for extensions on term work and final exams or for other special circumstances. UTM and UTSC students can file with their registrar offices, and UTSG students can file with their faculty. If your petition is denied, you have the right to appeal.

For students who feel their rights have been violated, the Office of the Ombudsperson serves as an impartial, confidential, independent, and accessible third party. They analyze problems, identify possible solutions, and provide advice on how to proceed.

Memmel mentioned the UTSU’s recently-launched online help desk service, which aims to connect students to the right resources and provide one-on-one consultation for any academic, financial, or service issues they may experience.

Additionally, the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS) has formed a mental health coalition with the goal of presenting “a more student-focused and holistic set of recommendations to the University to address student stress and distress, and to advocate for better resources and supports for students.” Both the University College Literary and Athletic Society and the UTSU have mental wellness commissions, and the engineers’ Skule has a director dedicated solely to mental health initiatives for students in its faculty.

For crisis situations, more information on resources, or advice on dealing with mental illness, students can access Good2Talk, a helpline dedicated to student mental health, open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.

Disclosure: Joshua Grondin is the Associate to the Vice-President External at the UTSU.

A campus of hurdles

Three student perspectives on accessibility issues at U of T

A campus of hurdles

The University of Toronto remains inaccessible to its students in a number of ways. Below, Comment contributors reflect on access to campus spaces, note-taking through Accessibility Services, and the need for comprehensive and detail-oriented accommodation.

Providing notes to those who need them should be a shared effort

Considering the number of laptops you see in any given class at U of T, you’d think that finding a note-taker would be pretty easy. This is false. I am 17 credits into my degree and, at my personal estimate, about 60 per cent of my courses have had note-takers. That means the other 40 per cent of the time, if I’ve had to miss class for disability-related reasons, I am without notes. Certain professors agree to send their personal lecture notes to make up for the gap, which I am very grateful for, but often I am left with nothing.

To be a note-taker, a student must simply upload their notes to the Accessibility Services website. If notes are handwritten, they are scanned and uploaded. If a student puts in a request for a note-taker in a given course, the instructor receives notice and is required to pass it on to the students — after that, their job is done.

More effort from all parties is necessary to ensure students get the notes they need. If no one volunteers following the sharing of the notice, it then becomes my job to pester the instructor. I am very unapologetic about my disability, so it puts me in an uncomfortable position when I’m apologizing to a prof for nagging them. Beyond that, I don’t want to have to make time so that my basic rights as a student can be met.

By nature of having a disability, I’m arguably working harder than a regular student to achieve the same levels in my work. The two minutes it takes for a student to upload their notes saves me a lot of unnecessary stress. Admittedly, Accessibility Services provides little incentive to attract volunteers beyond a nice little certificate. However, the good karma will do you wonders in your next life, and you can also put it on your Tinder profile to show the world that you are a good person. Swipe right for caring about others.

Elspeth Arbow is a fifth-year student at Innis College studying Cinema Studies and Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health Studies.

Committing to accessibility means being attuned to the finer details
Conversations about accessibility tend to centre on salient concerns like doors not having automatic-open functions or buildings lacking elevators. What aren’t discussed as much are the arbitrary, near-imperceptible ways in which environments assume full mobility. Most architectural sites are constructed with able-bodiedness in mind; accessibility concerns are an afterthought, if they are acknowledged at all.

Disabled people are frequently reminded of this process of construction as we navigate the university campus, and it is a continuous cause of frustration. Ableist assumptions underlie every facet of man-made space. The Koffler Centre has a wheelchair ramp and automatic door fitted to the side entrance, but if I want to replace my TCard, I’ll have to stand in line. At the beginning of the semester, hundreds of people stood in line at the TCard office. With wait times potentially reaching several hours, no chairs were made available, nor was any sort of ticket-number queue system implemented as a more accessible option.

Accessing almost every service at UTSG similarly assumes the ability to stand, wait, and walk for as much time is needed. To consult with a registrar’s office representative at Wetmore Hall of New College, a student has to stand at the four-foot-high counter. And if, God forbid, a student wants to grab a coffee, they had better be willing and able to stand in line for as long as necessary.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005 mandates that certain accessibility standards be implemented in built environments. The university has been taking steps to meet them, but the act only deals with that which is overtly and generally inaccessible, without offering a full environmental critique.

In an attempt to conform to legislative accessibility standards, the first-floor classrooms at Sidney Smith Hall were fitted with automatic doors, and some of the desks were made wheelchair-accessible. Yet the podiums at the front of the rooms can only be reached by stepping onto a platform. It is these kinds of ableist assumptions that underlie false attempts at addressing environmental accessibility concerns — that spaces only need to be accessible insofar as is mandated legally, and insofar as moral righteousness demands.

Meera Ulysses is a second-year student at New College studying Middle Eastern Studies and Equity Studies.

With respect to campus heritage buildings, barriers to access remain pervasive

University of Toronto students may feel marginalized when they cannot access their classes on campus. While the university is diligent in providing students with maps of all three campuses and issuing building access notices, many places on campus remain physically inaccessible to members of the student body.

As a public institution, the university has a legal obligation to adhere to the amended guidelines set forth in both the Design of Public Spaces Standard and the Ontario Building Code Amendments. However, both pieces of legislation apply only to the construction of new or extensively renovated buildings. Heritage buildings, which exist in abundance at U of T, pose various structural constraints that hinder the capacity to conduct major renovations. Such constraints leave many buildings without elevators, accessible washrooms, ramps, and powered doors.

A heritage structure like Teefy Hall, built in 1936, possesses none of these features. Convocation Hall, opened in 1907, has no elevator.

Even when the basic building blocks of physical accessibility are available, barriers remain. It is up to the university to ensure that all accessible entrances are maintained throughout the winter months. Students also remain reliant on the presence of adequate visible signage indicating the precise location of accessible entrances, especially when they are not visible from the street. All in all, the current state of affairs could deter students from registering for courses taught in specific buildings.

Regardless of structural constraints, the university must find alternative solutions to render its heritage buildings more accessible to all students. Installing powered doors and ramps, for instance, likely has no bearing on the structural composition of the building. Simple additions such as these recognize and accommodate the needs of students with accessibility concerns, thereby encouraging greater inclusivity.

Vittoria Di Paola is a student at U of T.

Op-ed: Accessibility is a worthy investment

The Accessibility Services volunteer note-taking system is not hitting home for many students

Op-ed: Accessibility is a worthy investment

Note-taking is a recognized accessibility need for students with progressive hearing loss, deafness, poor vision, ADHD, and various other learning, sensory, and physical disabilities, disorders, and impairments. This service is an essential accommodation for departments that have historical and existing systemic barriers to entry for disabled students, such as sciences, technology, engineering, math and architecture (STEMA). 

For example, note-taking services for students with low vision allows for better contextualization and interpretation of math, equations, graphs, diagrams, and code languages, a necessity for disabled students for whom STEMA classes may otherwise be inaccessible. Lack of access to notes, especially in the STEMA fields, often means that disabled students have to switch out of those subjects. 

It is therefore imperative that lecture notes, textbooks, exams, quizzes and all class materials are made available in alternative formats in order for disabled students to have equitable access to education.

At the St. George campus, the note-taking program is administered through Accessibility Services. The program relies almost entirely on volunteers; students in the same class as those in need of notes are asked to sign up as note-takers with Accessibility Services. In return, volunteers receive a certificate from Accessibility Services. If the volunteer takes on note-taking positions for multiple classes, they may be eligible for co-curricular record accreditation through U of T. 

The current volunteer note-taking program has over 1500 volunteers and serves over 1200 disabled students. Fortunately, U of T provides volunteer note-taking as one way to level the playing field for registered students with disabilities.  

However, the volunteer system has many limitations that create additional barriers for students with disabilities. One of the first challenges of this system is that it is dependent on professors making an announcement in class in order to recruit volunteers. Many professors do not make this announcement, make it only once, or fail to adequately emphasize the pressing need for volunteers.

In addition, reliance on a volunteer-based system — as opposed to hiring paid note-takers — frequently leads to a lack of consistent note-taking in class. Rather than submitting and uploading lecture notes after every class, note-takers often submit and upload their notes every few weeks. Thus, lectures notes are not uploaded in a timely manner and students often do not have access to the lecture materials prior to midterms, course assignments, or labs. 

Lecture notes are often shared in formats that end up being inaccessible; for example, handwritten notes that are not readable by screen readers are virtually useless to students who need to access them.

In addition, it is rare that tutorial notes are provided to students, as it is not required for volunteers to share notes from non-lecture based class sections. In fact, there is no formal mechanism in place for students to be able to request note-taking for tutorials, labs, or field courses if they require them.

The university’s reliance on an almost entirely volunteer-based system for note taking is puzzling, as the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) claims to provide $250 per class per semester for note-takers through the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment (BSWD/CSG-PDSE).

Not having access to notes promptly after lectures take place makes it difficult for students with disabilities to absorb lecture material and work through it in the sequential manner necessary for complete understanding, or to learn through the framework in which the material is intended to be taught.

In sum, due to the inconsistent submission of lecture notes, lack of guidance for note-takers, and failure to provide note-takers in non-lecture based learning spaces, disabled students are placed at a significant disadvantage. As a result, rather than levelling the playing field, the note-taking system at U of T systematically leaves disabled students behind and struggling to catch up in their courses.

The university’s reliance on an almost entirely volunteer-based system for note taking is puzzling, as the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) claims to provide $250 per class per semester for note-takers through the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment (BSWD/CSG-PDSE). Funding through this grant is decided on a case-by-case basis using a standardized application. 

While all students with disabilities requiring note-takers should, in theory, be able to get funding for this service, there seems to be an uneven distribution of this government-allocated money. At U of T, many students who have received funding for note-takers repeatedly advocated for this service prior to being approved.  

Across the province, we find that some universities and colleges consistently pay for note-takers while others, including U of T, do not. Inconsistencies also exist within U of T, which raises questions about how Ministry funding is being allocated to students. If it has been determined that a student requires note-takers, why is funding for note-takers not being provided? What are the reasons for relying on a volunteer-based note-taking program?

While U of T is is considered a publicly-assisted institution, education here is still framed through notions of meritocracy, competition, and performance. From this perspective, competition is regarded a necessary precursor to research innovation. Within the context of accessibility needs, this competition-driven system has significant consequences for disabled students. In the case of note-taking, disabled students are represented as having an ‘unfair advantage’ or a ‘competitive edge’ over their peers when they receive lecture notes from a classmate.

These unfounded perceptions lead to both professors and non-disabled students de-valuing the importance of note-taking services and, at the same time, create an even more hostile classroom environment for disabled students. Programs that are inaccessible remain inaccessible, while the lack of support often pushes disabled students out.

Without a broader discourse on equity and a reconceptualization of classroom accommodations as accessibility needs, the conversation remains focused on individual needs. Such an approach cannot lead to meaningful structural changes. In order to have a note-taker system that works for disabled students, it is urgent for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and U of T to begin to engage with disabled students and to center our needs.

Chandrashri Pal is a Board Member and the current Vice-Chair of Students for Barrier-free Access. Nadia Kanani is the Advocacy and Volunteer Coordinator at Students for Barrier-free Access.