NEADS Conference 2004 - Right On!


Mahadeo Sukhai

Mahadeo Sukhai Photo


Mahadeo Sukhai is a 5th year PhD student with low vision in the department of Medical Biophysics, University of Toronto. He is the 2004-2005 President of the Graduate Students' Union, and is the student member of the co-ordinating committee of the University of Toronto's Ontarians with Disabilities Act Accessibility Planning process. Mahadeo has been instrumental in numerous initiatives enhancing the inclusiveness of students with disabilities at U of T.




Building a Collaborative Network: The University of Toronto Experience

Students with disabilities face many barriers to inclusion in campus life and the out-of-classroom experience in post-secondary education. The accessibility and inclusiveness of events, the lack of funding and provision for disability-related accommodations, and, often, the lack of a social space or network of students with disabilities are some of the barriers to inclusion. Can a student in a power chair go to the campus pub, or campus restaurant, for example? Are social spaces and lounge areas accessible?

The development and maintenance of the Students for Barrier-Free Access at the University of Toronto, and its influence on the mainstream student movement at both the graduate (via the Graduate Students Union) and undergraduate (via the Students Administrative Council) levels, as well as on the university administration, provides a case study of a consistent and long-term students with disabilities movement. Our approach has been to establish a presence for students with disabilities, raise awareness, provide education, effectively lobby, and directly influence many of the systemic issues through the network we have established. This work culminates in the new Access Centre at the University of Toronto, funded by a student levy, and launched September 2004.

The accessibility planning process mandated by the Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2001 provided us a unique opportunity to address issues of inclusion in the campus environment in a systematic and long-term manner. During the current iteration of the ODA planning process, the SFBA and GSU have worked toward the vision of an inclusive environment for students with disabilities in developing initiatives within the Plan. The SFBAs Access Centre builds on its previous successes, establishes both a funding source and a full-time presence for disability issues at the University of Toronto, and is an integral part of the universitys 2004-2005 ODA Plan.

The students with disabilities movement at U of T has also enjoyed increased influence within the mainstream student movement, as several members of the Students for Barrier-Free Access have been elected to executive office in student unions at the University. Those who succeed in attaining leadership positions within their student governments are also faced with barriers to accommodation, as well as the organizational inertia of a mainstream student movement not traditionally concerned with issues faced by students with disabilities. No student union is in itself an ideal model for inclusion, as each has different issues and challenges to face in the accommodation and integration of students with disabilities.

This presentation will focus on the Access Centre as a model of collaboration between students and administration at the University of Toronto, and describe the planning and history behind its creation and its projects. A brief history of the Students for Barrier-Free Access will be provided, along with what can be learned from the experiences of the self-advocacy generation, students with disabilities striving for inclusion within the campus environment.


Mahadeo Sukhai, President, Graduate Students’ Union, University of Toronto, discussed the developing awareness of disability issues and campus inclusion at the University of Toronto. He began by offering a philosophical perspective on the “worlds” of disability activism, commenting that such activism comes in two forms:

  • A mainstream movement is composed of organizations, coalitions, and groups who are loosely working toward the same goals.
  • “Ambassadors-at-large” represent the best that people with disabilities have to offer, but choose not to become formally involved.

Collaboration, feedback, and tension exist between the two groups. The student movement in general (not just among students with disabilities) can be very monolithic and can take a “with us or against us” attitude. However, action on disability issues can occur outside the students-with-disabilities movement.

The students-with-disabilities movement has strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths include its large numbers, organizational ability, coalition-building, long-term movement building, and potential to access money. Its weaknesses include questions about whether it is fully representative and whether it exhibits a “lowest common denominator” factor—that is, can it create a unified voice without resorting to the “lowest common denominator”?

People who function as ambassadors-at-large also have strengths and weaknesses. They can talk to people in person and are in sole control of their lobbying tactics. Their good reputation precedes them, and they can lead by example. Also, they can integrate into campus organizations without being assimilated.

One of the problems is that after ambassadors move on to other activities, no structure is available to continue their work. Little permanence or money is attached to their activities. Ultimately, the work conducted by ambassadors-at-large boils down to “one person’s worldview.”

At the University of Toronto, those two worlds work in partnership. A friendly environment created by ambassadors-at-large has led to the creation of a students-with-disabilities movement. That movement, in turn, fosters an environment for mentorship and individual self-advocacy.

In the last three years, awareness and action with regard to disabilities issues at the University of Toronto have increased, and the situation has improved. The systemic approach that created the change involves collaboration between students, service providers, administration, staff, and alumni.

The student approach has been to establish a presence for students with disabilities, to raise awareness, to provide education, to establish lobbying strategies, and to lead by example. Much of the success has come from seizing opportunities and understanding the system. Building a network involves learning what people do, who to talk to, how to approach them, how governance works, and how to lobby effectively. The strategic use of rallies can also be effective.

Sukhai mentioned that the University of Toronto has created a vision statement for an inclusive campus. He also discussed the planning process required by the 2001 Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA), which legislates public sector and scheduled organizations in Ontario to develop annual accessibility plans. Plans must identify barriers and outline initiatives to address them.

In year 2 of its ODA planning process, the University of Toronto established a global advisory committee with 40 members, including people with disabilities. That group coalesced into seven subcommittees and a coordinating committee. The committee work lasted from February to July 2004 and resulted in a 98-page report on the 2003–2004 initiatives. It also presented 40 initiatives for 2004–2005. The initiatives focused on attitudes (disability issues and orientation training, for example), physical issues (universal design seminars and chemical sensitivities, for example), technology, and instructional design.

Student involvement resulted in a number of elements being put into place, including Breaking Down Barriers 2004 (a conference series), a poster awareness campaign, a statement of commitment to people with disabilities, and the Access Centre.

Breaking Down Barriers, now in its second year as a conference, has developed into a model of localized grassroots disability awareness and education. It is designed for long-term self-sustainability and includes delegates from the community outside the university.

The poster awareness campaign showcases 11 students from various constituencies following various programs of study and with various disabilities. The students are mainly ambassadors-at-large who volunteered to be highlighted. This campaign would not have been possible just four years ago.

A groundswell in accessibility has been occurring at the university, with many additional projects distinct from the ODA plan. The additional initiatives include accessible chemistry teaching labs, redesigned and upgraded accessibility websites, and a disability anthology.

Self-organization has an associated “critical mass.” Four years ago, a few people at the university were working on accessibility issues in isolation. Today, many people are working in loose concert, promoting a welcoming climate, and laying the groundwork for further action.

The system has some problems: No firm commitment of resources has been obtained from the provincial government or from institutions and departments. Institutional inertia is also in play. For example, how do equity and accessibility meld with the University of Toronto meritocracy and concerns about the dilution of standards? Some administrative indifference—and even resistance—exists, as does a degree of community indifference, based on the fact that students with disabilities represent just 2% of the university population. But 2% is a large number of students, given that the total student population at the university is about 70,000. Sukhai emphasized that having equity simply as a principle is not enough: action must also be taken.

Sukhai discussed the creation of the Graduate Accessibility Committee (GAC), whose mandate is to improve the quality and accessibility of the graduate school experience for students with disabilities. This research, policy, and lobbying group succeeded in having a Graduate Students’ Union accessibility policy passed in April 2003. The GAC has participated in a number of taskforces and committees and has developed a personalized and targeted lobbying strategy, with an extensive network of contacts.

Another important organization at the university, Students for Barrier-Free Access (SFBA), was founded in 2002. It performs advocacy and outreach on behalf of students with disabilities. Recently, it launched the Access Centre, funded by a levy from the Students’ Administrative Council. The Access Centre was established in response to the ODA planning documentation, which identified barriers experienced by students with disabilities that could be addressed through the creation of such a centre. The Centre’s governance model ensures that its board has majority student representation, including members of student government.

Sukhai concluded that a collaborative atmosphere at the University of Toronto has developed over the last three years. The creation of the SFBA Access Centre was a big step forward and a marker of the permanence of the movement.