Category Archives: Accessibility

Together We Are Equity Office Blog – Year Three!

Another successful year for the Together We Are blog! Thank you to our bloggers and readers who gave so graciously of their time, creativity and passion. Without your energy and support the blog would not be possible.

2017-2018 marks a special year for the Queen’s University Equity Office, it is our 20th anniversary. In honour of this significant milestone, this year’s blog will look both backwards and forwards in time. Over the course of the next year you will hear from students, staff, faculty and alumni reflecting on the challenges and accomplishments of the last 20 years as well as discussions on how and where we can move forward.

Check out our contributors’ profile page for the full listing of 2017-2018 Together We Are bloggers.

Oh and don’t forget, YOU are part of this conversation as well. Together We Are all part of the Queen’s and broader Kingston community and therefore your comments and feedback are welcome.

Privilege and Defensiveness: Unlearning in Order to Learn

In our first blog piece for 2017-2018 we hear from Queen’s alum, Mike Young. In his piece, Mike passionately discusses privilege, anger and courageous compassion.

There are a great many hurdles that one is likely to encounter while doing social justice work. As a cis-man who does not identify within the Queer Community and is of Euro-settler descent, I’ve become increasingly focused on the questions surrounding privilege within the anti-oppressive space. In particular, I’ve found it both internally productive and professionally relevant to begin interrogating and unpacking the relationship that exists between privileged socio-political locations and a tendency towards defensiveness. A relationship, I believe, that is central to answering the question: “Where do we go from here?”

It seems we live in a world where people are consistently enraged with political and social institutions, each other, and even sometimes with themselves. Unfortunately, we also live in a place in time where these feelings of anger/sadness/frustration, often borne out of sickening real-life experiences, are incredibly valid. The human condition in 2017 appears tattered and bruised in many ways, and it calls us to look ourselves in the mirror and do what we can to be productive pieces of a collective puzzle.

I have had countless conversations with friends and family over the past several years about issues surrounding sexual/gender diversity, anti-racism, sexual violence, and mental health. Through these conversations I’ve had what I think are illuminating moments that speak to a trend in our social consciousness. This trend is built around the notion that many folks feel that they care about these issues, but are not interested in engaging with other folks who are angry at them for saying the wrong thing. By extension, words like “racist”, “misogynist”, and/or “bigot”, just to name a few, have become dialogue-enders for many. Of particular note, though, is that this trend also seems to be correlated to one other prominent and noticeable feature: the folks who most passionately talk in these terms are often folks of privilege.

What is privilege? It is quite literally the ways in which different parts of one’s identity might serve to insulate them from different systems of oppression and discrimination. It is not something that one should feel guilty about or apologize for, but it is unquestionably something that we should all take time to become aware of and more importantly, accountable to. Privilege, then, is not something one should feel bad for possessing, but it is something that we are called to use in positive ways and to leverage to make space for the amplification of different voices. We’re called to understand how much space privilege affords us in different ways, and to understand how we can use it for good.

What is anger? Anger is a tough one for a lot of folks. For me, its value was something that I long struggled to understand and come to terms with until I read Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger”. The fact of the matter is that anger is unavoidable, valid, and productive. Unavoidable and valid in the sense that daily manifestations of systemic oppression will make folks angry over time, and that we ought not to police the tone with which people respond to oppression in lieu of seeking to dismantle oppressive systems; productive in that it has directly led to social and political change over generations, especially when public anger has forced public institutions to respond and prove that they hear the voices of their people.

I was unable to validate and empathize with anger because I was blinded in many ways by privilege. I didn’t (and still don’t) know what it was like to fight every single day, simply because of who I was, where I came from, who I loved, or to whom I did or did not pray. All it takes is a moment of active listening to hear the stories of folks for whom life is a constant struggle, and whose protest or activism is often deemed radical or “too emotional”, to understand how and why anger is so prevalent within anti-oppression activism. It might make you uncomfortable. In fact, it probably will, and that’s kind of the point. If we don’t become uncomfortable with the ways things are, these ways will remain indeterminately.

And this is where privilege and anger meet the final piece of the puzzle: defensiveness. A white person wears a Halloween costume that is meant to be lighthearted and celebratory that is called out as cultural appropriation and racist. A common response? “I’m not a racist and I don’t appreciate you throwing that word around”. And the dialogue ends. And this story is repeated and repeated, often in less direct ways (with people engaging with social issues online, for example), with anger being generated by oppressive forces and defensiveness becoming a defacto response. In my experience, the crux of the issue lies in the blindspots that privilege creates, which reactions of anger often illuminate. When someone doesn’t realize that their actions or words are racist but is called a racist by someone who experiences it, there is often an aggressive bout of cognitive dissonance that takes over. This happens organically and makes logical sense, but it’s a recurring script that we must take the time and effort required to interrupt.

The moment I realized that I was mobilizing this very script every time I ran into a response of anger was one of the most important moments in my growth as a person. As someone who has just recently started a new initiative that more-or-less commits the rest of my life to remain focused on anti-oppression in its many forms, I’ve become passionate about being part of a new script that can help facilitate multi-directional growth, compassion, and humanity:

  1. I’ve been called out. Someone is communicating to me that I’ve hurt them, and I didn’t mean to. I feel bad and uncomfortable.
  2. I realize that in the situation, the worst I have to worry about is having a label associated with me; I don’t have to worry about experiencing the violence of oppression itself (when I hold a privilege within that particular social location).
  3. I apologize, I validate, and I listen. If the person I’ve hurt decides to share with me what I can do differently next time, then I try and learn from it. If they don’t, I take it upon myself to read and reflect in order to see how I can be kinder and better next time.
  4. Repeat.

For a long time, the onus has been on folks who experience various systems of oppression to dismantle them. It’s time for folks of privilege to be courageous in their compassion and accountable in their activism, and to find new ways of working with one another to help progress these issues along. The tendency has to become critical reflection and growth rather than defensiveness and self-preservation.

I’ve come to understand this process as non-linear, as uncomfortable, and as extremely hard to do properly. I’ve made lots of mistakes and I get my guard up now and again. But I’ve taken the time to understand how and why anger bubbles to the surface, I have admitted that I often cannot truly understand how someone feels, I’ve committed to trying to figure out where I fit into the anger I’m experiencing, and I’m becoming increasingly aware of how my privilege makes all of the above even more complicated. In order to learn, grow, and become inclusive in our work, we have to commit to unlearning defensiveness. We need to create and learn a new set of social scripts, we need to rehearse them each and every day, and we need to recognize that every interaction is an opportunity to better ourselves and our communities that we need to start taking full advantage of.

Advocacy: Inspiration and Practical Advice

In our February blog post we hear from Maria Aurora Nunez. In this blog piece, Maria explores advocacy through the lens of strength, courage and determination. Reflecting on real life experiences, Maria provides practical tips and strategies for achieving your own advocacy goals.

Feeling discouraged one day, I asked my professor, “Can the law make a difference?”

Hello beautiful reader! ¡Hola! Bonjour! Привет! My name is Maria. I am an artist – I oil paint, write songs and poetry. I am a “dreamer” and an “idealist.” I am also an advocate. Coming from a family of political refugees from Chile, I have had an interest in supporting equity and a diversity of causes since I was a child. My law degree and personal experience have taught me that advocating can be difficult. The important thing is to not give up and to keep following your goals!

For the longest time, I felt embarrassed, but now I don’t care, to say that I required disability accommodations in school. Obtaining these accommodations proved to be a barrier to my participation in school. For example, despite a history of accommodations and supporting documentation, my request for accommodations for the law school admission test (LSAT) was denied by the American Law School Admission Council (LSAC), which administers the LSAT in Canada. I didn’t think that my request was treated in a procedurally or substantively just manner, so I had to be an advocate for myself and, in so doing, advocated for disability rights generally. I went through an “appeal process” unsuccessfully, was told that there was not¬hing further that I could do, and was advised to consider alternate career options. Instead, I explored my legal rights. I spoke with a human rights lawyer, spent months building my case, identifying problems, anticipating counter positions, and meticulously reviewing documents. Sometimes, I wanted to give up and questioned the point of pursuing law school. After all, if applying was so burdensome, what does that say about inclusion in the profession generally? Nevertheless, I made it to law school!

I pursued law school in the first place because I wanted to help people. I didn’t wait to graduate to get started. In my first year, I founded the Queen’s Disability and Mental Health Law Club, which aimed to reduce stigma associated with disability and mental health issues. I received a Women’s Law Association of Ontario/Aird & Berlis LLP Advocacy Award and the club received a professional excellence award from the Law Students’ Society. Most importantly, the club was making a difference. Students, professors, and professionals, even in faculties outside of law, connected to share their experiences of dealing with disability, mental health issues and stigma.

In my second year, as club chair, I was deterred from starting a scholarship to support prospective law students with disabilities. Even though the club generally received support, it sometimes experienced opposition behind the scenes. However, I believe that when one door closes, another opens. Feeling defeated one day, I asked my professor, “can the law really make a difference?” After a characteristic lawyer answer of “it depends,” she offered encouraging words and urged me to focus on the positive and what I was good at: writing. I wrote a paper that was accepted at the Canadian Law Student Conference (I could not go until the following year because of issues getting accommodations that year), and I took on an independent study project about the LSAT. Through facts and statistics, I made a strong case that law schools in Canada could be more accessible by re-evaluating their admissions processes. Staff at the Ontario Human Rights Commission read my paper and, ultimately, a condensed version was published in the Canadian Legal Education Annual Review.

In 2014, LSAC agreed to pay $ 7.73 million in penalties and damages to compensate 6,000 individuals who applied for disability accommodations. LSAC has since significantly changed its accommodation request processes. These changes resulted after the United States Justice Department intervened in a lawsuit, alleging widespread and systemic deficiencies in the way LSAC processes requests by people with disabilities for testing accommodations. So, can the law make a difference? Yes. Can YOU make a difference? Yes!

Here are a few recommendations that may help you in achieving your advocacy goals:

  1. Be curious and follow your intuition. Coming from a family of artists, I am very curious. In school, I was once told to stop questioning things, to just learn the law and apply it. However, blindly following traditions and rules without question isn’t how my mind works. If something does not feel right, speak up. Question the status quo.

 

  1. Find like-minded people. If you are passionate about something, someone out there is passionate about it too. Keep networking and searching until you find them.

 

  1. Share your experience. As an equity seeker, you have useful insight into how systems operate in practice and how things can be improved in the future. Only by sharing your experience may you find that others have similar experiences.

 

  1. Take risks and step out of your comfort zone. Whether you speak to a professor or a judge, voice a concern, or propose a new initiative, outcomes are often uncertain. However, we mostly regret the risks that we didn’t take.

 

  1. Ask for help. Finding long-lasting supports can make the passing discomfort of asking for help worth it. (My favourite place at Queen’s is the Ban Righ Centre — a little home away from home).

 

  1. Be open to feedback from others. There’s no one of us that has all the answers. We can learn from one another to collaborate.

 

  1. Stay positive. It takes courage, imagination, time, and energy to identify a concern, think of ways to make things better, and try to make change. Be proud of each accomplishment. Be optimistic about how far you have come and how much further you can go! You never know what positive changes your efforts may create.

 

  1. Be creative. Strive for win-win ways to improve systems. “That’s just how things are” is only true until someone like you changes it.

 

  1. Do not take it personally. Change often makes people uncomfortable and reactive. Sometimes, politics, ego or differing perspectives can get in the way of fixing issues that could otherwise be easy to fix. If you encounter this resistance, try to not take it personally.

 

  1. Be patient. Change and results rarely happen overnight.

 

  1. Be persistent. Try, again and again and again. If you face a barrier, re-route. Even if someone tells you that there is nothing more that you can do, respectfully take their advice with a grain of salt. Maybe you can create a new option.

 

  1. Play fair. Let your emotion and passion motivate your work, but always treat others, even people on seemingly opposing sides, with respect, dignity, kindness, and courtesy.

 

  1. Focus on your strengths. You could be an excellent advocate, just as you are. My favourite example of this is David Boies. Despite having dyslexia and self-describing as a slow reader, he is one of the top lawyers in the United States. He was lead counsel for Vice-President Al Gore (1998-2000), was named “one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time Magazine (2010), and “Litigator of the Year” by Who’s Who Legal (an unprecedented seven times).

 

  1. Do not get complacent. Equitable policies are only as good as they are followed in practice. Continuously examine how systems around you operate.

 

  1. Believe in yourself. Respectfully listen to advice but make your own decision. I was encouraged to not attend law school because I learn in a ‘different’ way. In law school, when I had some struggles, I was ‘kindly’ encouraged to leave the program at one point and questioned constantly by people about why I was studying law. I questioned myself many steps along the way, why I cared so much about certain things and whether it was a waste of resources to put myself through equity battles. In hindsight, I am glad that I ignored naysayers, some of whom may have even had my best interests at heart. If you believe that you can do something, and people tell you that you can’t, then give yourself the satisfaction of proving them wrong by not giving up.

More work needs to be done to protect equity rights, even in our modern day, and not only for persons with disabilities, but for all equity-seeking groups. Whatever your advocacy goal, I do believe that YOU can make a difference and be a good advocate. Although things may not always run smoothly, any reward will be that much more satisfying, when you can tell yourself that you followed your dreams by being unstoppable. Today is your day to start not stopping. Thank you for reading this! Gracias. Merci. Спасибо.

Moving On: The Inevitable Post-graduation Transition

Julie Harmgardt is our December 2016 blogger. In her piece, Julie explores the process of transitioning from being a university student to the “adult world.” In particular, Julie looks at this process of transition from the perspective of persons living with a disability.

There are many exciting “firsts” in our lives as young adults. The first time you drive a car. The first time you go on an official date. The first time you host a dinner party and don’t burn the food. The first time you travel solo. The first time you live on your own at university or college.

For people living with disabilities, the next “first” can be intimidating, time-intensive and outright exhausting, instead of exhilarating: graduating university and entering the down-right scary “adult” world. It’s a lot more complicated than securing a job, going apartment-hunting, packing up personal artifacts and moving into a new apartment in a bustling city and effortlessly beginning a new chapter.

What we don’t realize until after we leap headfirst into “adult” life is the widespread web of support networks that campus life provides. There’s the on-campus health clinic to help manage the seemingly long list of health issues that accompany life with a disability, counseling services to assist with and encourage mental wellness, disability office to arrange classroom accommodations, accessibility committee to attend to structural barriers and academic hurdles, human rights office to investigate and address individual and systemic discrimination and countless student clubs that create important informal support channels. The university setting allows for the creation of a community of services within an easily reachable microcosm.

Graduating university changes everything. This centralized resource system vanishes in the blink of an eye; new alumni are abruptly separated from the services and community they require. It’s no longer as simple as sending an email to a designated university-administered account to assist with a disability-related request. “Adulting” with a disability is more demanding than most people imagine. There’s finding a new doctor who will take on a “complicated” case, mapping out accessible commuting routes and spaces at a new workplace and sourcing new support systems.

Living with disability is not a choice, but it forces you to make endless decisions. Informed decisions that can take days, if not weeks to properly evaluate what will best work in the circumstances. Being on your own after graduation means you have to advocate for yourself even more than before. You must become comfortable asking for the services you require, rather than having them offered to you. You must contemplate how, when and if you will disclose your condition to an employer. You must be resourceful in reaching out to others in the disability community to access the support you need.

The next chapter is exciting, fun and rewarding, but comes with challenges, particularly for new alumni living with disability. It’s important to recognize the hard work of members and staff of the university community who create structures that minimize challenges for students living with disabilities. They have provided us with a solid foundation to build on and now it’s time to spread our wings and fly. It may be more challenging for us than for others, but the sky’s the limit!

The Comfort of the Classroom

In our first blog post of the 2016-2017 season, Precia Darshan discusses the classroom and the courage needed to ask questions and meet new people.

Despite working in a few office settings, being a student is my primary profession. During my time at Queen’s, I have had the pleasure of joining two faculties: the Faculty of Law and the Smith School of Business. From experiencing the dynamics of both student bodies, I have come to believe that there are some phenomena that are universal across any faculty.

Apart from craving Starbucks in unison, the behaviour of students in classrooms holds an uncanny consistency to it. For one, students often sit in the same spot. Why? Some potential answers: A) They did it the week before. B) All of their friends are around them. C) The professor was visible at most times during the lecture.

Is sitting in the same seat the most conducive to learning? I would posit that you are missing out on meeting your peers who are without exception intelligent and interesting. While I can appreciate the sentiment that you and your classmates may at some point be vying for the same internships and/or jobs, they will also be your champions and foot in the door when you look for a job in the future. It is important to grow your network as vast as possible and to take every opportunity you can to work with diverse people. Queen’s is home to over 22,000 students in 120 different degree programs from over 72 countries. We have a unique opportunity to learn about different cultures, expand the way we think through exposure to divergent opinions and ultimately, become open-minded individuals that are an integral part to fostering a multicultural society.

My second observation of the classroom is from personal experience. 8:30AM arrives too abruptly, as it always does, and we all take our seats. It’s the first or second lecture, so our name tags are still proudly displayed in front of us. It was only minutes ago when the classroom was filled with chatter, or breathy panting from the students who bolted into class. Then it happens… the professor asks a question. No matter the level of difficulty or whether the correct answer is on the board, this hopeful educator is met with bewildered eyes as silence encapsulates the room. Truth be told, someone in the class likely knows the answer. Sometimes many people know the answer, but this initial – if not perpetual – silence always seems to manifest.

I’m not sure when or why we became so afraid to take a chance and answer a question. We continuously hear that making mistakes is the best way to learn, yet deny ourselves the opportunity to ask the smallest point of clarification or respond to the simplest of concepts. There are eight months left in my program and this is possibly the last time I will ever be a student. While it’s tempting to focus on my upcoming job or binge-watch on Netflix, I think we should dare to be different. I intend to practice the habits and hone the attributes that I will take with me throughout my career. I wish to be intellectually curious, bravely motivated and unforgivingly fearless. “The only stupid question is the question that is never asked” (Ramon Bautista). It’s partially the start of a new term that has beckoned this reflection, but it’s also the hope that we will abandon these classroom comforts so we can maximize what we came to Queen’s to do: learn.

Welcome to Year Two of the Equity Office Blog!

Thank you to all of our contributors and readers from 2015-2016. We enjoyed your honesty, unique perspectives and thoughtful engagement.

In honour of the 175th anniversary of Queen’s University, the 2016-2017 blog will shine a spotlight on Queen’s alumni. Over the course of this year you will hear from both current and past students (undergraduate and graduate), staff and faculty. Each month check-in to see what our latest blog contributor has to say on the topics of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Check out our contributors’ profile page for the full listing of 2016-2017 Together We Are bloggers.

Oh and don’t forget, YOU are part of this conversation as well. Together We Are all part of the Queen’s and broader Kingston community and therefore your comments and feedback are welcome.