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

Conference Report

Workshops A and D: Networking

Chris Rebus , Vice-President External, NEADS (Moderator)

This workshop was designed to explore the importance of networking for students with disabilities, and to share methods that can be used to promote successful networking.

Christian Généreux, President, Quebec Association of Post-Secondary Disabled Students (AQEIPS)

Christian Généreux spoke about the successes and challenges AQEIPS has had in forging ties with the various student federations throughout Quebec. AQEIPS was formed in 1991 to promote accessibility for post-secondary students with disabilities in Quebec. The association provides direct services to students with disabilities, offers scholarships to recognize exceptional social participation of students with disabilities, and advocates improving access for students with disabilities in the province.

Généreux observed that networking is vital for students with disabilities, to advocate for themselves and others.

The Federation of College Students of Quebec, which represents 23 student organizations, and the University Students Federation of Quebec (FEUQ), which joins 17 provincial student organizations, are both leadership forces in Quebec. AQEIPS has spent the past nine years trying to strengthen links between itself and these organizations, with varied results. The first significant contact between AQEIPS and the students' federations was in 1994, during talks concerning new guidelines for provincial student aid. After limited contact between the federations in the following two years, the fall of 1997 saw them begin to work together again. AQEIPS began talks with the student federations to determine how it could participate in a campaign to freeze tuition and adopt legislation on financial aid.

Since then, ties between AQEIPS and the student federations have moved from an ad hoc basis to a regular partnership.

Généreux pointed out the advantages to AQEIPS' approach. Firstly, the partnership allows AQEIPS to sit in on meetings and put forth concerns facing students with disabilities, while having a hand in solutions. The partnership also creates a stronger presence and awareness for students with disabilities on campuses throughout the province. Lastly, a "reference link" has been created between AQEIPS and the student federations, giving AQEIPS more direct access to the direction of the student federations' activities.

But Généreux also noted that AQEIPS' approach had some disadvantages as well. For one, the Quebec student movement remains in its infancy, so it is prone to frequent changes in procedure and leadership. In such instances, AQEIPS must restart the sensitization process over again. Another related problem is that AQEIPS must constantly promote accessibility issues at federation meetings, reminding the other student groups that meeting rooms must be accessible, and that "we can't just go (long distances) at the drop of a hat," said Généreux. Perhaps most significantly, increased ties between AQEIPS and the student movement reduces AQEIPS' autonomy as an organization.

Généreux concluded by urging students with disabilities to get involved with the student movement at the national and provincial levels.

Barry Wheeler, Program Co-ordinator, Centre for Students with Disabilities, University of Guelph

Wheeler spoke about how networking helped him throughout his academic career, and ultimately led to his current job. He defined networking as a group of people who exchange experiences for academic and social reasons.

Wheeler suggested students should try to network with their professors early in their post-secondary career. Not only will this open important lines of communication during a student's academic career, but it can also help when a student later needs a letter of reference from a professor. "If I hadn't made the initial contact with my professors, it would have been hard to expect them to remember me later on," Wheeler noted.

He also mentioned the benefits to networking with fellow students, especially when trying to choose courses. Wheeler said he was stronger in essay exams than multiple-choice format. Networking with students who had already taken the courses he was considering allowed him to discover the format of the courses in advance. The friendships forged while networking also allowed him to easily form study groups when it was time for tests.

Networking within the school allowed Wheeler to discover what services were offered for students with disabilities, find out why certain services were not offered, and determine what he could do to ensure those services were considered in the future.

Wheeler suggested sitting on student committees and volunteering as two possible venues to begin networking within a school environment. These activities bring diverse groups of students together, forge friendships, and also allow students to acquire valuable leadership and social skills that can aid in later job searches.

Wheeler told the group how networking led him to do a work practicum at the University of Guelph's Centre for Students with Disabilities, where he wrote and submitted a report detailing what services were needed for students with disabilities at the university, and what needed to be done in order to get these services put in place. At the end of the report, Wheeler included a note saying, "If you hire me to work with the Centre, I will ensure that these things get done." Soon afterwards, the Centre did hire him to his present position where he is working to keep his promise.

Cory Wright, Chairperson, Students with Disabilities Constituency Group, Canadian Federation of Students (CFS)

Wright discussed how networking has allowed the CFS to advance accessibility issues for students with disabilities.

The CFS was founded in 1981 on the premise that education is a right, not a privilege. To advance that notion, the CFS attempts to have any barriers impeding full access to post-secondary education removed. They do this through lobbying for access - both funding, and physical accessibility.

Wright says the CFS is made aware of the concerns of students with disabilities through giving members a voice at the annual general meetings, and by arranging seats for students with disabilities on relevant committees at the school, community and government levels.

In recent years, the CFS has worked to help start access centres for students with disabilities at post-secondary schools that still lack such centres. Wright pointed to George Brown College as an example of where CFS influence has been positive in this regard. The CFS recently helped pressure the college to open one, and was helped in part by the rating system the school is subjected to: when George Brown College was listed near the bottom of the pack in accessibility for students with disabilities, the need for a student access centre was illustrated. In contrast, Nippissing University, which lacks a centre but is not subjected to a rating system like George Brown College, has been slower to respond to CFS urging to open a centre. But, Wright noted, they are now in the process of opening one.

Wright said anyone sitting on a committee or at meetings has to have a goal, and know how to articulate that goal. One must be aware that sometimes people bring different agendas to the table, and try to push their issues. In this case, it is important to know how to push your goal with equal force, he said. Do your research in advance, and network to find people who know something about your goal and can speak on your behalf, if need be. Wright also said it is equally important to learn about those who may oppose your goal. "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer," he told the group.

Equally important as networking with people who can help advance your present goals is creating links with people who might be able to help you down the road, said Wright. "We can't stay students forever," he noted. Therefore, networking with students in lower years can ensure there are competent people in place to carry on the movement, when it is time to leave school.

Wright suggested keeping a list of every contact made, since the person who helps in one fight for student issues this year, might be the person who can help find employment in later years.

Wright finished by discussing some of the things the CFS is concentrating on at present, including reversing the Ontario government's decision that prevents students receiving disability pension from collecting Ontario Student Loans, and working toward the formation of a strong Ontarians with Disabilities Act. He said that the CFS always needs people to work with them, and that anyone interested in helping out should get in touch with him.

Note: Conference delegates were assigned to work in groups throughout the weekend. The three workshops included a panel presentation, small group discussions on a series of questions based on the session themes, and a report-back. The Recommendations and Observations sections of this report reflect the ideas generated by delegates during group discussions.

Recommendations and Observations:

What is networking, and why is it an important skill to have as a student with a disability?

  • Networking is the ability to make connections with people, and agencies at the local and national levels.
  • It is the ability to make people aware of your needs; it's better to have too much help than not enough.
  • Networking is important to help establish relationships that can help you in the long run.
  • It helps students advance life-long goals.
  • Contacts made from networking can help in the transition from school to work, which can be difficult for students with disabilities.
  • Networking is the development of community relationships with a broad group that can offer support.
  • Networking can be mutually beneficial; "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine."
  • Networking is important because it helps one attain what he or she wants.
  • It helps cut through "convoluted" organizations and bureaucracy.
  • Networking means empowerment. It gives us the power to achieve our goals.
  • It allows us to feel a part of, rather than apart from, other students.
  • Networking helps form personal confidence, and helps instil confidence in others.
  • Networking allows students with disabilities to find the resources that are vital to their success.
  • Networking allows for exchange of ideas and points of view.
  • It helps to get your name out to other people.

What are the "tools" necessary to network effectively?

  • Good communication skills; you need to talk with people to get what you want.
  • Accommodations; technology and services, for example.
  • Researching skills, to find out what services are available for students with disabilities.
  • Self-confidence.
  • Time management-leaving things until later only makes problems worse.
  • Brochures, newsletters and other sources of information.
  • E-mail, listservs, newsgroups.
  • One-on-one meetings with government officials and other important groups.
  • Position papers; getting information into well researched, written form helps advance oral arguments.
  • Assertiveness.
  • Interpersonal skills.
  • Concrete goals.
  • An open mind; be willing to listen to others' views, if you want yours heard.
  • Access to funding; helps break down walls.
  • Knowledge of rights, and the distinction between policy and law.
  • Mentorship.
  • Campus disability service centres.
  • Self-awareness; know yourself and your disability.
  • Computer skills are necessary today.
  • Ability to recognize opportunities and seize the moment.
  • Good organizational skills.
  • Conferences.
  • Determination.

What are some examples/models of how networking has led to a positive outcome?

  • Volunteering, and cooperative education: they look good on a resume, can help get a foot in the door, and can lead to employment.
  • Talking with family members and peers is a good way to find out about schools with good support systems for people with disabilities.
  • Following up with contacts made in the past; one never knows what they could be up to now.
  • Self-advocacy is crucial to success; can help lay the foundation for students who come after you.
  • Meeting people through group events.
  • Teamwork leads to problem solving.
  • Networking with professors and academic staff can help one find available services.
  • One student designed a "zero-force" keyboard to facilitate own post-surgery needs; got patent and led to a job with an assistive devices organization.
  • High school funded students to attend the NEADS conference; networking with school resulted in funding for five students instead of only three.
  • Attending conferences like this one allows new contacts to be made, and new information to be collected which can then be implemented into personal activities.
  • The NEADS listserv allows dissemination of useful information.

How can NEADS build networks with high school students with disabilities?

  • Peer programs - pair up students with disabilities in post-secondary and high school.
  • Hold presentations at high schools, like universities do. Explain what NEADS does for students.
  • Get assistance from grassroots and community organizations.
  • NEADS should hold weeklong orientation sessions at universities for students with disabilities.
  • Identify barriers in universities to help with selection process.
  • Have conferences/workshops with high school students and faculty.
  • Continue inviting high school students to the NEADS conference.
  • Organize a special section on the NEADS Web site with high school-related information.
  • Link the NEADS Web site to high school sites.
  • Develop stronger links with organizations that offer technology to students.
  • See about creating a poll/review of university access in the Macleans' university guide.
  • Start teaching high school students the skills they will need to succeed later in life.
  • Convince high school educators that students with disabilities can reach their goals, and therefore the needs of these students should be met.
  • Educate students at teachers' college of the needs of students with disabilities, and the services available to them.
  • Develop local NEADS chapters at high schools; integrate into school councils.
  • Have NEADS representatives at parent-teacher meetings.
  • Set up NEADS displays at university/college information nights.
  • Promote the NEADS Web site to high schools.
  • Make use of free library bulletin boards to promote NEADS.