Category Archives: Accessibility

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.

Rethinking Barriers

In this final blog installment for the fall semester, we hear from James McNutt, a graduate student at Queen’s University. In this piece, we learn how education has and continues to be a positive resource and platform for James.

My name is James McNutt and I am a Master of Education student. I have a condition called spastic cerebral palsy quadriplegia, which means I have had to use a wheelchair since the age of two. Throughout my life, I have defined myself by the category of “student,” rather than a disabled individual. I guess I have self-defined myself this way because education at all levels has provided me with the most access over other domains in my life. I may not be able to go into a particular restaurant, but I can always learn Shakespeare!

Education has empowered me to challenge the barriers I face. I study History and there are various examples of historical figures who have challenged the normative through their participation in movements for the rights of diverse groups. From Martin Luther King, Jr. to Joan Baez, and even Rick Hansen, I have learned that we must go over barriers, or under them, to accomplish our goals. This philosophy has allowed me to envision possibilities instead of flights of stairs. I do not feel defeated in cases where there are accessibility challenges, as this is a good learning opportunity for event coordinators and business owners to fulfill the needs of the community. By educating in this way, we take one step closer to creating a more free and equitable society.

This past year, I have been involved with campus accessibility at Queen’s University, in association with the Department of Campus Planning and Development. In June 2015, I decided to demonstrate the challenges that I face while navigating Queen’s University campus. In this video audit, I visited six buildings and toured common areas, accessible gender-neutral washrooms, and some classrooms. It is my belief that, in order to facilitate an accessible campus, we benefit from the perspective of those who face accessibility challenges.

Home Away From Home

The October edition of our blog is brought to you by De-Lawrence Lamptey, a doctoral student in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy. His research focuses on improving access to healthcare for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Ghana. De-Lawrence’s piece beautifully captures the power and strength provided through the creation of community. Keep reading to hear De-Lawrence’s story of how he formed, nurtured and grew his own community at Queen’s University.

As an international student, I left my home country and came to Queen’s with mixed feelings. I felt super excited about the opportunity to improve myself and to serve the world in one of the world’s finest universities. At the same time, leaving loved ones behind and moving to an unfamiliar place thousands of miles away from my home, where I did not know anyone (except one or two kind strangers) was a bit daunting. A couple of weeks before I flew in I connected with a Queen’s University staff member willing to welcome me not only into the Queen’s community but also into her home, and this was a big relief. Eventually, I became an adopted family member of this Queen’s staff member. How did I get connected to this person? My academic supervisor connected me to this person.

Although I am a student with a disability, I do not feel different because I believe that everybody has something to overcome in order to forge ahead in life – be it a disability, a medical illness, a broken family, poverty, racial discrimination or what have you. Sometimes, we find great support to overcome whatever might be in our way to keep us going ahead in life. Other times too, life just leaves us on our own to figure it all out. That is just the way life is! Just because the challenges of life can be hard should never be an excuse for one to give up. I guess the good news is that, with or without support, someway somehow, we have all survived experiences in life we never thought we could. This alone ought to inspire us to hope for the best and to not give up in the face of challenges.

Queen’s has supported and challenged me to develop my potential to its fullest. As an international student and a student with a disability, I have received phenomenal support from the Queen’s University International Center, Disability Services, the School of Graduate Studies, and the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, as well as Queen’s staff, faculty and students. Several members of the Queen’s community have been generous enough to share their personal experiences and stories with me to help set me up for success. I have also had welcoming opportunities to share my cultural background with the Queen’s community through various seminars and presentations, and through music at the jamming sessions of the Queen’s Music Club.

A unique part of my Queen’s experience has been the challenges that Queen’s has thrown at me as a way of nurturing an overcoming spirit in me and toughening me up to confront the challenges of life to better serve the world with my fullest potential. Admittedly, some of these challenges were not fun at all to deal with but knowing that the Queen’s community was there for me, especially my close friends and the Queen’s staff member who adopted me, kept me going. Come to think of it, I can testify that the times in my Queen’s experience I found myself happiest are often times I engaged in fun activities. However, the times that grew my potential and character most are often the challenging times when I had to overcome something as part of my learning experience.

Let me conclude with three principles that have been reinforced in me during my time at Queen’s University:

  1. Life is not about who has the best abilities but, it is about granting everyone the opportunity to serve the world to the fullest.
  2. Brave men and woman are not brave because they are immune to fear but because they count the noble tasks they want to perform greater than the fear boiling inside of them. They know it will not be all the time they will be successful in accomplishing their particular noble tasks, yet they never cease striving to perform at their best to enrich society and make the world a better place for all.
  3. It is not possible to win all things in life all the time, but it is possible to have a winning spirit all the time and when faced with a challenge, be determined not to allow it to take your spirit from you.