Category Archives: Accessibility

Disability, more than the Wheelchair

New accessible icon parking sign

Source: Accessible Icon Project

Our December blogger is Xin Sun, a recent Queen’s graduate and an active member of the Queen’s & Kingston communities as a Disability and Social Justice Advocate. In her piece, she discusses the importance of unlearning narrow understandings of disability and accessibility

 

The International Symbol of Access (ISA) has over 50 years of history. The symbol was originally designed in the 1960s by Danish design student, Susanne Koefoed. The sign is commonly seen as a white icon of a person in a wheelchair, against a blue background. This symbol is used as an indication that a facility is accessible to people with disabilities. For instance, the ISA can be spotted in accessible parking lots, accessible entrances, and accessible washrooms, etc. In recent years, a proposal was put out by a group named The Accessible Icon Project, to redesign the symbol, and came up with the Dynamic Symbol of Access, it became an improvement of the old symbol. But it is nowhere near perfect.

As much as having a signage for accessibility for persons with disabilities is important in order to create a barrier-free and an inclusive environment; it is also important to note, not everyone with a disability uses a wheelchair. However, this blog is not to criticize the International Symbol of Access per se, it is aimed to educate and inform the public that, disability is more than the wheelchair. People in the general public, especially the able-bodied population, really needed to have open-mindedness when they encounter someone with a disability.

When someone is identified as disabled and is a wheelchair user, it usually means that the person has limited or loss of mobility.  This could be due to an injury or an illness. However, wheelchair users are only a fraction of people with disabilities, and it cannot and should not represent the disabled community entirely. There are other causes and disabilities that one can be identified as having, without using a wheelchair. These people may include: people with chronic and/or terminal illnesses – in most cases, these illnesses are invisible and known as “invisible disabilities;” people with impairments (i.e. Hearing or Vision); people with mental illnesses or disorders; people with intellectual disabilities; people with undiagnosed medical conditions; and, people who don’t always need or use (mobility) aids or devices. Often times, these people with disabilities listed above have their access denied, are discriminated against, and are even shamed when using barrier-free facilities, simply because they aren’t a wheelchair user or their disability is invisible.

Let me give you a personal example. I identify as a person with disabilities. I am vision impaired and I have chronic illnesses. Because of my visual impairment, I use a white cane in public. As you may know, the white cane is a symbol of blindness and visual impairment. With the cane, people around me in public are aware that I am vision impaired.  However, while my white cane is a symbol for my visual impairment, my chronic illnesses, are very much invisible. Why? Because I don’t use any aids or devices.

Let’s set up a scenario for you. Let’s say, I try to get on a bus, and I get on the bus with my white cane. People are likely to know that a blind or vision impaired person is getting on the bus, they are likely to try to move out of the way for me, and, they may even help me find a seat in the priority seating area on the bus. However, more often than not, the reason why I needed a seat on the bus, is not just because I am vision impaired; it’s also because, due to my chronic illnesses, I am unable to stand for longer periods of time, and it’s especially difficult to stand in a moving bus. But, it’s very unlikely that people will know about my chronic illnesses, because I don’t “look like” I have any other disabilities, other than the apparent one.

Now, let’s change the scenario a bit, if I get on the same bus, this time without my white cane. What would happen then? Would there be anyone making room for me? Would there be anyone giving up their seat for me? Unlikely. And why is that? That’s because, without my white cane, I don’t fit into the social stereotype of being blind or vision impaired and, let alone others will even notice I have invisible disabilities. From the above example, I hope you realize that, not all disabilities are visible. Disability is also a spectrum. Even putting two people together with the same disability or medical conditions, their lived experiences won’t always necessarily be the same. Therefore, it is so important to recognize, each and every one of us is unique, and this is the same for people with or without disabilities. And having a disability doesn’t always necessarily equal being in a wheelchair either.

 

Source:

The Accessible Icon Project http://accessibleicon.org/

Together We Are reaches its fourth year!

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.

In 2018-2019 our blog will focus on (re)imagination. Contributors will (re)imagine the institution, space and dream for the future. Over the course of the next year you will hear from students, staff and faculty reflecting on the challenges and accomplishments of the past as well as their respective visions for the future.

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.

Seasons

In our November blog post we hear from PhD student, Kuukuwa Andam. In her piece, Kuukuwa uses the beautiful imagery of changing seasons to reflect on the changing perspectives and ideas in relation to equity, diversity and inclusion at Queen’s University.

When I moved from Africa to North America, I was fascinated by the different seasons of the year. Of course, back home in Ghana, I was well acquainted with the two seasons of the year- Harmattan and the Rainy Season. I had learnt to expect strong, dusty winds to blow South from the Sahara Desert bringing along with it chapped lips, an unbearable afternoon sun, and the chilly mornings that made every child unsuccessfully try to convince their mother to skip bath time before school. I knew, also, to expect the rainy season with its heavy tropical rains, abundance of fruits, greenery, and snails excitedly going somewhere very, very slowly.

But here I was, staring at snow falling magically out of my window, as perfect as it looked in the Hollywood movies I inhaled every Christmas as a child. Then came Spring and the blossoming flowers glistening with dew, followed by a sizzling hot Summer and finally, my favorite season of all, Autumn. I must have taken a million pictures of all the gold, orange, red and brown clad trees I saw on my way to school, every day.

Cultures around the world often view life itself as being composed of seasons. Officiating ministers at Canadian weddings frequently recite the words of the poet who penned Ecclesiastes “To everything there is a season….” Among my people, huge parties are thrown after burials- complete with mouth-watering dishes, palm wine and melodious drumming. Clad in black and red African cloth imprinted with native adinkra symbols, the bereaved dance away to songs that remind them not to be overtaken with grief because this too shall pass.

As both Queen’s University and the Queen’s Equity office celebrate their respective anniversaries, what season are we in? No doubt, we live in a time of great polarization. Television screens are replete with scenes of protests by historically disadvantaged groups and counter protests by persons who complain that they are being replaced by these vulnerable groups. Political observers decry the rise of the ‘alt-right’ while in other circles, simply declaring that someone is a ‘leftie’ is as big an insult as it gets.

More than a year ago, minority students across the world started conversations about the challenges they encounter at institutions of higher learning. On social media, they documented daily instances of micro-aggression that they experienced from their colleagues and professors. On campuses, they gathered to demand that their institutions tackle discrimination and remove statues of colonizers and slavers. Here at Queen’s, after some students organized a costume party described as ‘shockingly racist,’ a committee was set up to consider issues related to diversity and inclusion. Months after the committee submitted its final report, students of color embarked on a protest where they asked the university to take action to address racism.

How might Queen’s make a difference during this season of division and strife? What steps can Queen’s take so that students from diverse backgrounds feel at home- just as Robert Sutherland, British North America’s first black lawyer, did? At a time when Queen’s was battling indebtedness, Robert bequeathed the largest donation ever seen at that time, to Queen’s because it was the one place “he had always been treated as a gentleman.”

In ancient times, when a new season was approaching, people would watch eagerly for signs, so they could know which actions to take. They would study how the birds and other creatures acted, listen to winds, and map out the path taken by the sun. Perhaps, the first step Queen’s can take is to listen to students as they voice their concerns and detail ways that their university can be welcoming to all.

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.