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Workshops - Key Issues on Campus

No Fists or Apologies: Inclusion in University Social and Sport Extra-Curricular Programming

Erica Tanny

Watch streaming video of Erica Tanny

Erica Tanny is a graduate of McGill University in Social Work. She will be attending the joint LLB-JD (American-Canadian) at the University of Ottawa Law in September 2008. As the first disabled student on a varsity sports team in the history of McGill, Erica swam her way through equality barriers to compete at the Canadian Beijing Trials in 2008.


In the university realm, sports and leisure programming is a key aspect of the higher learning experience. However, inclusion in university-run sports and social programming can present unique challenges to students with disabilities.

Erica has spent three years on the varsity swim team, and is now a national level para-swimmer. In this presentation, she will share her experiences, and some of the many techniques she has employed to be included in social and sport university programming. This presentation will raise awareness amongst disabled students about the breadth of possibilities, and inform educators of the importance of making the universities’ non-academic activities accessible.



Erica Tanny discussed social inclusion in non-academic university programming, such as social and sport activities organized by the university or its communities.

Tanny has spent three years on McGill’s varsity swim team and is now a national-level para-swimmer. Sports participation provides incredible advantages, she said, such as the physical benefits of increased core strength and flexibility. Sport participation also enhances intellectual ability and skills; for example, while Tanny’s fellow students panicked while writing the very time-structured LSAT exam, she thought “Five minutes? I could make it up and down the pool 50 times.”

The greatest benefit, however, is developing psychosocial skills through interacting with others. For many people with disabilities, university may be their first time living without an attendant adult separating them from the general population. This independent feeling “can be overwhelming,” she said, but university is an excellent opportunity to take advantage of that autonomy to start creating positive social links with non-disabled students.

Participating in extracurricular activities also presents unique challenges. While campus disability service offices act as a go-between in academic settings, the rules of normal social interaction are completely different. “In social environments, no one needs to be your friend, and there is no requirement to allow you to participate,” Tanny said.

Tanny noted that one facet of the medical model is “release from social obligations,” in which people with disabilities are not required or expected to participate in social events. This trickles down into policies and creates a barrier to participation.

During Tanny’s frosh week, when she asked about wheelchair accommodations at a white-water rafting event, the organizers said they had assumed such students would not be interested in or capable of participating. “It becomes a cycle,” Tanny said; people with disabilities assume events will not be accessible and so do not participate, and because organizers never have contact with people with disabilities, they do not take accessibility into account when designing events.

“I do offer you hope,” Tanny said, and shared her steps to achieving a positive experience. The first step is maintaining self-awareness about personal barriers and limits. Once, when travelling to South Africa for training, Tanny discovered that the training facility was five soccer field lengths away from the pool. She arranged for one team member to piggyback her each day in exchange for exemption from mandatory pre-swim push-ups. This turned Tanny’s accommodation into a positive social feature and a competition. However, people must identify for themselves what they will and will not accept as accommodations.

People also need clear objectives. Tanny started swimming to have fun rather than to become a disability activist who challenged the university’s assumptions about varsity athletes. “Anything else was a by-product,” she said. Students should never apologize for demanding reasonable accommodations, but they should choose their battles carefully. Tanny assails structural or implicit barriers imposed by university policies “with no holds barred” and says there is absolutely no excuse for inaccessible sports buildings.

However, social barriers require a process of negotiation. “There is no shame in recognizing that forcing a situation to meet your needs might not work, and no shame in walking away,” she said.

Tanny suggested that academic accommodations could be mirrored in social and sporting events, such as by partnering students who are uncomfortable in social situations with disabled students who need assistance to participate. She challenged participants to consider how her presentation matched their disability and experiences.

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