NEADS Conference 2000 - "Networking, Educating, Advocating: Delivering Success in the New Millennium"

Conference Report

Workshop A: Advocating

Moderator: Ayshe Calisal, British Columbia Representative, NEADS

Jane Drover, President, Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-Secondary Education

Though it is challenging, it is important for students with learning disabilities to become self-advocates, said Jane Drover. The percentage of full-time, first-year college students reporting disabilities has increased from 7% in 1988 to 9.4% in 1998. Of those students, the numbers who have a learning disability has tripled.

Challenges faced by students with learning disabilities include the following:

  • Learning disabilities are invisible. Some people may try to get by without help, which can have disastrous results. If people do not know about a student's disability, they cannot offer help.
  • Learning disabilities can be hard for professors and other students to understand. It can also be hard for students to explain the problem, particularly if they have trouble processing verbal information. Students with learning disabilities may feel mislabelled, or they may be seen to have a more severe disability than they actually have.

Some of the skills that students with learning disabilities can use to become better self-advocates include:

  • Knowledge about learning disabilities and about one's own disability;
  • Knowledge about the system (e.g. exam dates and withdrawal deadlines) and the players (such as the Dean of Students);
  • Toughness, energy and the ability to release frustration (it's alright to cry sometimes);
  • Teamwork skills (working with service providers, the faculty and other students with disabilities);
  • Respect for people who are trying to do their jobs;
  • Independence and a willingness to advocate for yourself.
Lucie Lemieux-Brassard, Board member, AQEIPS and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities

The basis for advocacy is empowerment, said Lucie Lemieux-Brassard. She told the story of going back to university after losing her job and attending a meeting of the University of Montreal Disabled Students Association. She was the only student at the meeting, and became Chair of the Association. Later, at another university, she experienced a similar lack of student participation and agreed to act as an advisor for a year until the Association was revitalized.

She began asking herself questions about the purpose of local organizations and about the best way to advocate in a local setting. If a university association exists, it is important to consider the purpose and structure of the group. Does it exist simply so that the university can say that it has such a group? Is it primarily a social organization?

Students need tools and support, but everything should not be done for them. Lemieux-Brassard noted that, in a local organization, knowledge often accumulates in the hands of a few key people, rather than constantly being shared.

Students with disabilities are the ones who know what they need and what the obstacles are. However it is important to be flexible and strategic in finding ways to get around obstacles or turn them into advantages. "If we know what we need, we should prove it by acting on it," she urged. This applies to both school and employment situations.

Empowerment is the key, and it is acquired by sharing information and spending time with other people. It is important to socialize with people outside one's own group, including people with other disabilities.

Joëlle Arvisais, Vice-President, AQEIPS

Joëlle Arvisais told participants that she grew up with stereotypes and prejudices about other people with disabilities. She first learned about associations for people with disabilities at the Université de Québec à Montréal, when writing a research paper on accessibility at the university. This was her first encounter with activism, and as a result she lost many of her prejudices. Arvisais said that her experience with the association helped her to understand that it was not a ghetto or a group of one-dimensional people.

With a desire to go beyond the primarily social activities of that association, Arvisais joined AQEIPS. There, she found the enjoyment of accomplishing things in co-operation with others.

Arvisais said that she is interested in learning how to involve other people in activism. Many people may be missing out because of their own misconceptions, and it may be possible to reach out to these people by networking. She concluded by saying that she feels as though she wasted valuable time before becoming an activist, as there is so much work to do.

Tom Proszowski, Diversity Manager, Scotiabank

Tom Proszowski noted that two keys to success in employment are self-knowledge and empowerment. Successful self-advocacy depends largely on knowledge - know yourself, the system and the applicable legislation. It is important to know about:

  • Employer policy, and the difference (if any) between that policy and its application;
  • Corporate culture and values;
  • Support structure (e.g. human resources department, ombudsperson, diversity office);
  • Applicable laws (depending on whether the organization is a federal or a provincial employer) including human rights and labour legislation.

He added that a new law on confidentiality, effective January 1, 2001, strengthens the right to privacy by stipulating that employers cannot share information about a person's disability.

Empowerment comes with responsibility, Proszowski stressed. The more you can contribute, the more you can gain. Once someone is a valued employee, it is easier to negotiate for accommodations. Proszowski gave the example of a woman who lives in Montreal but works at a bank in Toronto. The bank accommodates her by flying her back and forth, reserving an annual budget of $35,000 for this purpose. "If they can value her that much, then they can value you," he told participants.

One way of becoming more valuable to an employer is to take the initiative to help out. This increases your knowledge base and creates win-win situations. Taking responsibility for things means being "response-able" and makes you feel empowered. Proszowski recommended asking for more responsibility so that an employer will know that you can do more.

Des Gardner, Diversity Manager, Scotiabank

Des Gardner outlined some of the key elements to getting a job. It is important to know what the employer needs, to have those qualifications and skills, and to be able to talk about what you, the potential employee, can contribute. Networking is a useful way of finding out as much as possible about an employer. Once an interview is granted, use that network to anticipate questions and prepare confident responses.

Gardner told delegates that once they have been offered a position, they should first ask their new supervisor to describe the job in detail. It is important to be professional, have a positive attitude, and give colleagues a sense of confidence in one's abilities. The best approach if something is unknown is to ask questions.

While cautioning that in the workplace, things are not always as they seem, Gardner concluded that if one always acts professionally and has a positive attitude, colleagues will respond in kind.

Lucille Therrien, Diversity Manager, Scotiabank

Lucille Therrien remarked that a great deal is possible if one can find the right resources and available support. In Quebec, there are several organizations that can provide information and assessment, including evaluating a job and an employee's needs. Therrien noted that a manager may not know what is possible and may avoid accommodating the needs of an employee with a disability. To be successful in obtaining accommodation, employees must be confident and stand up for themselves. The qualities of confidence and perseverance are important, because even if one accommodation is obtained, things will progress and future accommodations will become necessary.

Therrien told participants that their presence at this conference indicated a willingness to advocate for themselves. She urged them to help others who are more afraid and therefore less successful.

Recommendations and Observations
  • Legislation applicable to employment and disability includes the Canadian Charter of Rights, the Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act. Supreme Court decisions have determined that the Canadian Charter of Rights applies to every jurisdiction (federal, provincial and the private sector), reinforced the employer's obligation to accommodate, and determined that invisible disabilities are included under Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights.

What are the skills and techniques needed to advocate effectively?

  • It is important to know your own abilities and understand your disability, and to have good problem-solving and communication skills. People should see themselves as part of the solution and work with others.
  • It is recommended that advocates:
  • Cultivate strong communication, research, analytical and problem-solving skills;
  • Have knowledge of many disabilities, issues, policies and procedures;
  • Have an advocate and be assertive;
  • Work with others and listen to different perspectives;
  • Be positive and understanding of the environment;
  • Attend staff/student meetings;
  • Get feedback; and,
  • Talk to others with experience in special needs provision.

How can grassroots organizations be sustained?

  • In order to sustain a campus organization, members should:
  • Secure ongoing funding (sometimes student fees can be a source of funds);
  • Conduct regular recruiting activities that target first-year students;
  • Give new recruits fewer responsibilities until they become comfortable with the organization;
  • Ensure that there are incentives for being involved (people do things partly for personal development and enjoyment);
  • Have a clear focus, including empowering the individual to act;
  • Stay in the public eye and make noise;
  • Share information with other organizations;
  • Change with the times;
  • Have at least one annual event;
  • Use different promotional methods;
  • Bring people together who work well as a group;
  • Document activities and secure official status;
  • Have a diverse range of members;
  • Have more than one focus so that if one plan fails there is a backup plan;
  • Encourage students to support the organization by using its services; and,
  • Ensure that new students are continually integrated into the organization through the leadership structure, so that there is not a core group of students who eventually graduate together.

What are some good examples of successful student-led advocacy projects/movements?

  • Student representatives on five committees at Laurentian University
  • A parent and student who are fighting for education funding in Alberta
  • The Carleton Disability Awareness Centre (CDAC)

Describe unique issues faced by students with learning and other invisible disabilities:

  • There is a need for credibility: students often need documentation to prove that they have a disability.
  • Funding issues are a concern.
  • In the classroom setting, some professors are concerned about fairness to other students and don't like to accommodate people with learning disabilities. When a professor does not understand the disability, what should the student do to address the situation?
  • Ignorance on the part of others is a problem. People with invisible disabilities are often misunderstood as being lazy or dumb and have to work hard to explain their situation. Everyone has individual needs, and many wrong assumptions are made.