Report on the fifth NEADS Student Leadership Forum - Antigonish, NS

Saturday, October 21, 2000
Written by Steven Estey


This report summarizes the discussions and recommendations that have arisen from the recent NEADS Student Leadership Forum, held at Saint Francis Xavier (STFX) University, in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, on October 21, 2000. Those who attended the NEADS November 2000 AGM in Ottawa, held during the National Conference, will be familiar with some of what follows. However, the report given at the AGM touched only on a few highlights of the Leadership Forum. What follows is a more detailed description of the events that day ... so read on!

The Leadership Forum was hosted at STFX by NEADS board member Holly Bartlett, Nova Scotia representative on the board, and Steve Estey, who has been assisting NEADS with these meetings since 1998. This was an exciting opportunity because it was the first time that a meeting had been held away from a large urban centre. Those who have read the previous report will be aware that forums have been held in Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary and St. John's. The difference between student life in an urban centre and a rural setting is not something that the Association has been able to devote much attention to up until this time. So we went to STFX with great enthusiasm, especially as it related to learning what, if any, differences could be found in the experience of disabled students.

In order to provide a context for the discussion, the meeting began with a panel discussion. We were extremely fortunate to have three members of the STFX community come and share their experiences and views with participants. Panel members included Mary MacLennan, STFX equity officer, and Professors Tanya Titchkowsky and Rod Michalko, both from the STFX department of Sociology.

Details of these panel presentations will follow, as will a list of recommendations flowing from the panel and the lively discussions that followed. But before moving to that it should be noted that this report is structured differently than previous reports, in that it goes into some detail on the panel presentations. This approach was adopted because of the different style of presentation the panel at STFX gave, as compared to panels at earlier forums. Previously panel members had been representatives of various disability consumer organizations. They spoke about their organization and the challenges involved with organizing and communicating with national offices.

However, because STFX is in a small town, there were not many local disability organizations with whom to arrange panel participation. For this reason during the organizing of the meeting we turned to the campus community itself. The panel members, therefore, are all people with a deep understanding of equity issues in general and disability issues and disability studies in particular. For this reason the panel tended to be a more academic one than at previous forums, and a more detailed discussion of the presentations is warranted.

Panel Discussion

The first panel member was Mary McLennan, a lawyer and long-time disability activist in Nova Scotia. Mary has recently accepted the position of Equity Officer at STFX.

In her remarks, Ms. McLennan noted that STFX does not have a student group for students with disabilities. There is, however, a disability advisory committee set up through the counseling office. The group brings together various campus departments like the Physical Plant, the Registrars' office, the Counseling Office and the Deans Office, as well as the faculties of Arts and Sciences, and the Library. Importantly, there are also two disabled student representatives on the committee and the Student Union Vice-President also sits on the panel.

The committee deals with access issues on the campus. Although the committee only meets two or three times each year it is still fairly well organized with good lines of communication, and fairly effective in terms of its mandate. The difficulty with this approach, she said, was that, since the group primarily responds to specific individual needs as they arise, the actual advancement of accessibility on campus is incremental and ad hoc. The committee reacts to the needs of students once they arrive on campus. There is little proactive work, which would reduce barriers, and in turn, perhaps, encourage more new students with disabilities at STFX.

Ms McLennan noted that increased student participation in the advisory group might help to move it to a more proactive stance. But here, as in many cases, the problem is high student turn over. This is particularly an issue in smaller schools with very few graduate programs. Students will spend the time needed to get their undergraduate degree, and by the time they are beginning to get a sense of disability on campus it is time for them to leave. (NOTE: while this is an issue at most schools it is particularly acute at smaller ones like STFX).

From this discussion about the specific approaches, issues and concerns the panel turned its attention to a larger arena, that of how society sees disabled people! The second panel member, Professor Tanya Titchkosky, received her Ph.D. in Sociology form York University in Toronto, where one of her areas of specialization was disability studies. As such, she spoke authoritatively about the evolution of our understanding of disability, and the social model which, she argued, should be used to frame our understanding of disability. This model includes issues of access and participation in all areas of our society. Post-secondary education is an important component.

Professor Titchkosky began her presentation by saying that, "Mary raised issues that the social model of disability can speak to. Why is it old news that disabled people's needs and accessibility have not increased? Why are employment levels dropping? Why is no one seeing past the dollars?"

From there the presentation looked at the origins of the disability rights movement in the United Kingdom. In 1973, said Professor Titchkosky, disabled people were asking the same questions as now, and were faced with same issues. A group called UPIAS (the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation) was fighting another group of disabled and non-disabled people who were saying the best way to address disability is to offer funding for the survival of people with disabilities. Their idea was to provide money to get by; the assumption being that disability means that something is wrong and it's a terrible calamity, so the best you can hope for is to get by.

UPIAS argued that people have a faulty conception of disability, and that a lump sum of money does not change society! With this approach disabled people still have no education, no jobs; they are just taken care of as 'charity cases.' UPIAS addresses our definition of disability, which they argue is a big part of the problem.

An alternative conception of disability is needed; one that supports efforts to advocate for change based on equality and the full citizenship rights of disabled people. This is what the social model of disability offers. It says that impairment is a universal human phenomenon; many people will experience some sort of disability through the course of their lives. Therefore, to assume that impairment will result in exclusion from society is not acceptable, since it would leave so many people out. This view (or model) shifts the focus from special needs to universal access - a much more empowering and justifiable cause.

Professor Titchkosky summed up her comments as follows, "as was argued in 1973, so it is today; we need to consider disabled people as an oppressed group, not as individuals who have special needs. As an oppressed group, accessibility and participation have to be addressed toward that group, not focused on the special needs of one person. CCD (the Council of Canadians with Disabilities) argues for the same approach, they phrase it like this, 'People must put an access and inclusion lens on each and everything they do.' All things that we do must show people that disability is not something that is wrong with the individual, but rather a natural part of being human. We all spend time there, and this commonality helps to limit the question of cost."

It is necessary, she concluded, " to conceive of disability as political issue, and to evaluate our actions through this lens called the social model. We can do 'good' on behalf of disabled people, but that is really another form of oppression, and charity which responds to special needs and not the equality rights and the inherent dignity of the person."

From this discussion about disability in society, the panel turned its attention to the question of leadership in the disability community. Professor Rod Michalko spoke to this issue. Professor Michalko is graduated with his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of British Columbia and since that time has taught at universities in Alberta and Ontario before coming to STFX.

He began by observing that organizations comprised of university students have a tremendous potential for leadership and change in society. This is, at least in part, because students have the luxury to think about things, and often study about society and discuss the problems. Evidence of this can be seen throughout the history of the student movement, which is often progressive and a leader in social movements of various kinds. In the same way that general student organizations may have a major impact on a society or a community, he argued, NEADS can have a major impact on disability issues here in Canada!

There is a challenge, and a responsibility that comes with having access to higher education. Professor Michalko pointed out that statistically, a small proportion of disabled Canadian's earn post-secondary degrees or diplomas. Thus, NEADS members are a small group and, he suggested, as such bear some responsibility to other disabled people who have not been able to get a post-secondary education. This is not intended to be an elitist position, rather it recognizes that disabled university and college students are fortunate people and, as such, they may feel it is important to share their good fortune.

This notion tied into the other key point made by Professor Michalko: leadership and organizing people together, he said, worked much better when people gathered around positive things. Organizing around negative issues, such as poor access to a library, may be effective for a short time while the issue remains. But once the issue is resolved the group will no long have a reason to stay together. However, when you organize around a positive issue you can always work to make things better in the area you have identified as your cause.

Therefore an organization like NEADS, or campus groups of disabled students should try to find positive things to gather around and to commit their energy. This is the challenge identified by Professor Michalko, and with this the panel discussion came to a close and a general discussion followed.

As you can imagine based on these stimulating presentations a very interesting discussion followed. Rather than try to recount that dialogue the following section will summarize the reflections and recommendations that emerged.

Recommendations and Ideas

Challenges at the Campus level

  1. Find positive reasons to bring students with disabilities together on your campus. For example, efforts could be made to attract speakers on disability culture, which would be of interest to disabled students.

  2. Another positive thing, which could be used as a basis to draw disabled students together, would be to work to set up a mentoring program with disabled high school and junior high school kids in the community. Bringing the students together with disabled students who have made it to post-secondary education would provide role models for younger students and at the same time could be a valuable learning experience for older students.

  3. Organize campus groups around technical issues like computer access, or to raise money for improved physical access on campus. Sometimes specific, high profile, fund raising activities will attract people in the first place, and you can then begin to build a group from there.

  4. Another area where student groups could be active on a campus with a school of education is to provide workshops on disability and education for students enrolled in teacher training programs. Teachers know it but there is a gap somewhere. Many student teachers will never have met a person with a disability, and it could really help to overcome myths and apprehensions that many able-bodied people face when dealing with disabled people.

Challenges for NEADS

  1. NEADS should recognize that smaller universities do not have the resources that larger ones do when supporting students with disabilities. In some cases there is no office for disability services; instead, a counseling staff person would be charged to ensure accommodations are in place when need be. The work of this person may, or may not, be supplemented by an Equity Officer. Therefore, NEADS should develop a specific outreach program to smaller schools to identify these people and to determine what sort of resources would be helpful to them, and to ensure that they are aware of the resources available from the NEADS office and the NEADS web site.

  2. On many smaller campuses physical access is a very big issue. The NEADS web site should provide information and links on physical access and universal design. Another thing that NEADS could consider to assist here would be to develop some sort of standardized access audit materials which could be used on smaller campuses to generate a basic list of priorities for improved physical access and prioritization of projects etc.

  3. Following on the campus based mentoring program mentioned above NEADS may wish to consider developing an internet based mentoring program for disabled high school students across Canada - particularly those in rural areas. NEADS members could be trained as on-line mentors and be asked to volunteer some time each week to be available to answer email or participate in on-line chat discussions. Support for this type of activity may be available through government funding agencies such as the Office for Learning Technologies, at Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC).

  4. Furthering on the idea noted above (challenges at the campus level number 2). It was recognized that while the Internet offers a great opportunity to develop a mentoring program, many younger students with disabilities would not have access to the Internet. To address this lack of access, it was suggested that NEADS could develop a program in conjunction with Campus based groups of disabled students in order to reach out to local high schools and junior high schools. The idea would be to develop a face-to-face program of mentoring and peer-support. NEADS could work to develop a workshop program to be delivered by campus groups to local schools. Follow-up activities could also be designed to enhance the effectiveness of the initial workshop.