U of T student calls for Disability Studies program

Online petition has garnered over 200 signatures

U of T student calls for Disability Studies program

In response to U of T’s lack of a dedicated disability studies program, a student has started a petition to establish one that would be on par with those of universities across the country. The petition has received over 200 signatures in less than two weeks.

UTM student Marianna Figueiredo began the petition on November 15 in an effort to get Governing Council’s attention. Governing Council is the highest decision-making body at the university.

Figueiredo explained in the petition that she has cerebral palsy and decided to enrol in courses focused on intersectionality.

“But, I noticed that disability was absent in nearly all of them at UofT, but not for my friends at other universities whose courses considered disability in both the sociological and [criminological] respects,” wrote Figueiredo.

According to U of T spokesperson Elizabeth Church, the university offers “a number of opportunities for students interested in studying disability issues.”

“The Faculty of Arts and Science has an Equity Studies program offered in association with New College, where undergrads can take a core group of disability studies courses,” wrote Church in an email to The Varsity.

For Figueiredo, the petition is a way to demonstrate to Governing Council and the provost that there is a need for a designated Disability Studies program through numbers and support.

According to Church, proposals for any changes to programs or new programs emerge from discussions within departments or faculties.

“There is a rigorous development and approval process, which includes consultation with programs and units, students, and others,” wrote Church.

Course offerings at U of T

The Equity Studies major or minor programs offer courses such as NEW240: Introduction to Equity Studies and NEW341: Theorizing Equity.

While there is no separate disability studies program, there is a disability studies stream within the Equity Studies program. The university also offers a few disability related classes, such as JNS450: Sexuality & Disability, NEW349: Disability and Representation, and NEW448: Advanced Special Topics in Disability Studies.

UTM offers courses like PSY442: Practicum in Exceptionality in Human Learning and PSY345: Exceptionality: Disability and Giftedness, which explore various aspects of mental, physical, and learning disabilities. Similar courses also exist at UTSC, such as WSTC40H3: Gender and Disability.

The Social Justice Education program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education also offers disability studies opportunities for graduate students.

Other Canadian universities with disability studies programs

The courses offered at U of T pale in comparison to disability studies programs at other universities in Ontario.

“Ryerson, York, Western, Brock and Carleton offer major and minor programs,” wrote Figueiredo in the petition. “The top school in the country is obviously out of touch. This needs to change.”

On a part-time basis, Ryerson University’s School of Disability Studies offers 17 courses at the undergraduate level.

King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario has a Disability Studies program, with major and minor options, that offers 20 courses. Brock University’s Applied Disability Studies program within its Faculty of Social Sciences offers 35 graduate courses and nine elective undergraduate courses. Carleton University undergraduates can enrol in a Disability Studies minor that offers five different courses with two offered by other departments.

Editor’s Note (November 28, 12:28 am): This article has been updated to clarify that there is a disability studies stream within the Equity Studies program.

Comment in Briefs: Week of October 1

Students react to price tag for writing surfaces in Daniels Building Main Hall, UTSC Al Berry lecture, and university policy on student-professor relationships

Comment in Briefs: Week of October 1

Intentional design flaw reflects ableist ignorance

Re: “$30 price tag for writing surfaces in lecture hall stirs controversy at Architecture & Visual Studies town hall”

It is appalling and absurd that the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design (FALD) intentionally designed a lecture hall without writing surfaces. It seems like the FALD is trying to make the lives of students more difficult.

Dean Sommers asserted that the decision to exclude writing surfaces was, in part, because it provides pedagogical value by discouraging students from using their laptops during lectures. He ignores the fact that a laptop, by definition, can be used on one’s lap without a surface.

Professor Jeannie Kim seemed to reiterate this pedagogical value excuse, claiming that it is better to take notes by hand. She ignores the fact that taking notes by hand is a lot easier when there is actually a surface to write on.

The pedagogical value excuse used by the FALD is laughable, and once again exemplifies the ableism embodied in the university’s mindset. Many students struggle to keep up with the pace of lectures as it is, and not everyone is an expert at shorthand. Some students may have a disability that requires the use of a laptop. A student’s level of dependence on technology does not, and should not, reflect on their academic abilities.

Adding insult to injury, the FALD opted to sell lap desks instead of offering a rental program, showing a blatant disregard for the inequitable economic context of student life.

Ultimately, the dean chose chair stackability over the best interest of students.

Madeleine Kelly is a fifth-year Ethics, Society, and Law and Environmental Studies student at New College.


Development comes at the monumental expense of equality — and it shouldn’t

Re: “‘Development or Justice?’: Jeremy Adelman speaks at annual UTSC Al Berry lecture”

Adelman is a professor at Princeton University. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Jeremy Adelman’s recent remarks at the sixth annual Al Berry lecture are now, more than ever, essential to keep in mind. Speaking about the unequal distribution of wealth, Adelman pointed out that the current drive for international development may further divide the global community.

With increasing nativist and nationalist movements at home and abroad, Canadians must remember that to consider ourselves a nation that truly stands for equality, we must care to leave no one behind. While traditional forms of global divide, such as colonialism, have been gradually disrupted, the innate competitiveness of capitalism has quickly replaced tangible partitions with less visible ones.

The development of one group inevitably comes at the vast expense of the other. Neocolonialism, especially at the hands of international fiscal institutions, tends to put non-western countries at severe disadvantages. As Adelman describes it, development is simply a “new form of empire” that serves to divide the globe into its northern and southern hemispheres.

Reconciliation with Canada’s past must also play a part in lessening the divide. The liberal Canadian government tends to focus on the more social aspects of reconciling with our painful history of colonization. However, it seems to forget that the western model of development is not a universal one. The traditional drive for profitable trade has seen Indigenous peoples all over the globe being “excluded from their land that was made valuable to the public.” This lack of integration is seen all too well in First Nations reserves, where over 80 per cent have a median income below the poverty line.

To settle this global crisis, countries must look beyond their local interests and ensure the redistribution of wealth across and inside their borders. This work begins with education. Adelman aims “to keep the global horizons open and to teach that to students” at Princeton. U of T and other Canadian universities would do well to adopt those principles of teaching in their classrooms.

Ori Gilboa is a first-year Humanities student at Victoria College.


U of T’s current disclosure policy regarding student-professor relationships is sufficient

Re: “What are U of T’s policies on student-professor relationships?”

TIAN ZHENG/THE VARSITY

Discussion surrounding student-professor relationships has never crossed my mind, as I have always just assumed that they were not allowed at U of T or at any university. However, while examining student-professor relationships at face value may indicate inappropriateness, we do need to remember that university students are in fact adults and may choose to have a relationship with any other consenting adult.

The student-professor dynamic does spark the issue of having a conflict of interest, such as the professor giving the student an unfair advantage in comparison to the rest of their students. There are also more extreme cases that raise questions, such as the case of the UBC student who accused her professor of sexual assault. He has denied this allegation although he did admit to having an affair with said student.

Nonetheless, U of T’s current policy of requiring professors to disclose their relationship to the chair of their department seems to be sufficient without being too constrictive. Consenting adults should be able to be in relationships with whomever they choose. In cases where sexual assault come into play, investigations and punishments concerning that case should be handled appropriately. These particular cases should not be the sole influence on whether or not students may be in relationships with their professors though.

With any relationship, when sexual assault or any form of abuse occurs, it should be addressed appropriately by the authorities. As long as student-professor relationships are consensual and are disclosed, I do not find any immediate issue with the matter.

Areej Rodrigo is a fourth-year English, Professional Writing and Communications, and Theatre and Performance student at St. Michael’s College.

Comment in Briefs: Week of September 24

Students react to ableism at test invigilator training sessions and law professors’ opposition to Ford’s notwithstanding clause

Comment in Briefs: Week of September 24

Our education system needs to do better for disabled students 

Re: “‘Ableist and discriminatory content’ described at training sessions for test invigilators”

The recent revelations coming out of Test & Exam Services (TES) are genuinely frightening for the many students who depend on TES and Accessibility Services for essential academic functions. TES has demonstrated an astonishing lack of care for the student population for which they are supposed to provide. This lack of care seems to be part of a larger, just-as-foreboding trend, which treats students like numbers, or ‘customers,’ rather than essential participants in an ever-changing institution.

While this trend may seem benign to many ‘abled’ students, it is destined to hit disabled students particularly hard. The idea that students are simply customers of a business produces a dangerous drive to optimize student results, particularly quantifiable, academic ones. Of course, this is never a good idea, and goes directly against the premise of modern higher education, but it is especially harmful to students who do not fit an optimizable academic ‘mold’ — namely disabled students.

The content present in the TES employee training material demonstrates a disturbing lack of understanding of disabled students’ basic needs. They ignore the scientifically-validated truth that many disabled students are capable of exemplary academic function with the right tools. Focusing on correcting ‘problematic’ behaviour indeed, focusing on this behaviour at all, rather than the environment that brings it about is dismissive of the truth that disabled students live every day.

Our education system should not be leaving disabled students behind. It should be finding more holistic ways to include them. Whether or not the individuals behind the TES training intended to focus on behaviour rather than identity, their approach is wrong from a human rights standpoint. The focus on optimizing behaviour rather than understanding it is cruel and will only leave deserving students behind.

As a student registered as disabled, I have used TES many times. My life at university would be much worse without them. The invigilators at TES have always been nothing but kind and understanding. They have always catered to my needs and the needs of those around me. But our understanding of the needs of disabled students must continue to grow as the education system becomes more humane and interdisciplinary.

If the repressive and discriminatory environment at TES continues to exist, these invigilators will not be able to provide for disabled students, and a large, deserving population of students will be left in the dark.

Arjun Kaul is a fifth-year Neuroscience student at St. Michael’s College.


Ford should heed the advice of U of T law professors

Re: “U of T law professor pens open letter against Ford’s threat to use notwithstanding clause”

The letter was written primarily by U of T law professor Brenda Cossman. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Over 80 Ontario law professors have signed an open letter directed at Premier Doug Ford’s threat to invoke section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedoms, also known as the notwithstanding clause, in order to pass legislation that would cut the size of Toronto’s city council in half.

The legislature’s ability to waive sections of the Charter without explanation is unnerving, and as such should only be considered when all other avenues have been exhausted. The purpose and power of the Charter would be undermined if section 33 was invoked any time a Premier was frustrated with the limitations it imposes. Ford’s actions reflect a troubling view that the Charter is simply a set of suggestions that can be overruled when desired. However, the role of the judiciary is to be a non-partisan actor and to make sure that legislation is in line with the rights and freedoms granted in the Charter.

The letter warns that if such a role is to be challenged, it could lead us down a slippery slope further and further away from Canada’s democratic principles. While the notwithstanding clause exists in writing, it should not be used in practice without careful consideration. If the rights granted to Canadians can be so easily thrown away, what point do they serve?

Yasaman Mohaddes is a fourth-year Political Science and Sociology student at St. Michael’s College.

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.