Julia Munk is the coordinator of the University of Toronto Access Centre, and one of the founders of Canada-Wide Accessibility for Post Secondary Students, CANWAPSS. In 2002, Julia started Students for Barrier-free Access, an association of students with disabilities and their allies. As Vice-President Equity of the Students’ Administrative Council from 2003-05 and constituency coordinator for the Canadian Federation of Students, Julia built extensive coalitions and greatly raised the profile of the student disability rights movement.
Upon successfully campaigning for a student levy to fund Students for Barrier-free Access, it was decided that the Access Centre should be opened to provide non-academic accommodations and advocacy for students with disabilities at the University of Toronto. The opening of the Access Centre represents a historic leap forward for students with disabilities at U of T. Julia is also a student of Political Science and Equity Studies, and plans to attend graduate school to pursue her interests in the field of disability studies.
Autonomy and the Struggle for Social Change
Julia Munk, Coordinator, University of Toronto Access Centre
Munk spoke about her experience advocating for disabled students at the University of Toronto. In 2002, Munk and Mahadeo Sukhai started Students for Barrier-Free Access, an association of students with disabilities and their allies. Sukhai and Munk later decided that they wanted a more autonomous voice and the ability to work in the way that other equity-seeking, rights-based organizations worked—shifting from a focus on individual rights to more of an advisory role.
The group began with just three active members, Munk said—adding that most campuses require only two official members to start a group. At first, there was a great deal of public rhetoric in support of students with disabilities. However, once the group was successful at obtaining funding and became more embedded among mainstream student priorities, the situation became more complicated. Munk emphasized that a group cannot work in a vacuum; it must understand not just the common challenges of start-up but also the political context within which it is operating.
A common issue across campuses is how to effect change with just two, three, or five people. A group that small must be as loud as possible to achieve its goals. Another issue is deciding whether to start a new group or to infiltrate other student groups. The next focus is sustainability, which involves obtaining funding. Generally, the group will campaign for a referendum on a levy for its activities, with the funds coming from either the university or the student society. After acquiring initial funding, the group must build its membership. However, a number of political barriers typically surface at that stage.
One of the barriers is the use of Robert’s Rules of Order, a parliamentary process that is typically used by student societies for conducting meetings. The rules can help bring order to meetings, but when used to deal with large issues and groups, they have a tendency to shut out minority voices and exclude those who do not know the rules.
Munk explained that “Call to Question,” a term commonly used in Robert’s Rules of Order, means to stop the current debate and proceed immediately to a vote. The first “forum theatre” production would focus on some of the issues surrounding Robert’s Rules, Munk said.