Derek Ness was elected as the Differently-Abled Liaison on the UNB Student Union in October. As a visually impaired student, he will represent the voices of those with disabilities, both visible and invisible. He recently brought attention to his position by organizing consultations and a Disability Awareness day to be held Friday, December 3rd.
“I was very excited about the opportunity to serve the differently-abled community at the Council table. Even though I am differently-abled, this position will enable me to enrich my knowledge on disabilities, since I am really only specifically familiar with visual impairments,” says Ness.
Though UNB’s campus already has a Student Accessibility Centre run by the administration, UNBSU President Shannon Carmont-McKinley explains that the liaison position will create student-led initiatives, and will assure that the Student Union is kept updated on accessibility issues.
UNBSU Vice President Internal, Ashley Wile, adds that the position will also advocate on behalf of students to the Accessibility Centre.
Matthew MacLean, Transition Coordinator at the Centre, says the Centre is looking forward to working with Ness. He explained that the “university does its best to make campus accessible wherever possible,” adding that the age and layout of the campus makes it difficult to improve facilities.
As a recent article in The Brunswickan pointed out, a UNB campus map reveals that currently only 18 out of 79 UNB buildings have both accessible entrances, washrooms, and elevators.
Adam Wright is a 4th year journalism student who transferred from UNB to STU due to the lack of wheel-chair accessible buildings. He believes that the creation of a Differently-Abled Liaison is a positive change.
“I know UNB has an Accessibility Center, however they are not students. No matter how hard they try, they still don’t know what it’s like to be a student in today’s world, and what it means to be disabled and student,” Wright said.
Wright experienced frustration more recently. When trying to vote for the provincial election, he discovered that the campus polling station was inaccessible to him.
Both Wright and Ness are very concerned with differently-abled students’ ability to access crucial services on the UNB campus. Many important buildings and offices such as the Student Union Executive Offices, the Registrar, and Administration are inaccessible to mobility impaired students.
“It goes without saying that these services are pertinent to a student. Should they be this inaccessible, it is not surprising that less than 0.1% of UNB students are mobility impaired and that less than 10% of the students on our campus are differently-abled,” Ness says. “Our campus is simply not appealing to students in these situations.”
Ness has experienced several close calls when vehicles didn’t yield to him in crosswalks. He also noticed a lack of plowing, sanding, and salting after snowstorms. And these are exactly the issues that came up when Ness held consultations for students with accessibility issues on campus: pedestrian safety and wheelchair accessibility in buildings and pathways.
Several changes to the structure of UNBSU were a topic of much debate at council meetings at the end of 2009. Much of the debate revolved around whether or not the International Students Representative should keep its voting position, or become a non-voting “Liaison” on council. The SU decided that it would keep its voting power, and added other non-voting positions to the council to represent other minorities. This is how the ‘Differently-Abled Liaison’ was created.
According to minutes of the UNBSU and former VP External Ryan Brideau, the intention was also to decide every year on the voting power of the liaisons. Whether or not the liaisons in question would have input in this decision was optional. The current council for 2010-2011 decided to leave the positions without voting power. UNBSU President Shannon Carmont-McKinley explained that they wanted to have a firm decision either way before liaisons were elected so that students “knew what they were getting into.” The International Representative position will become a liaison position next year. All liaison voting power will be decided on by council before the next round of elections for the positions.
What’s in a name?
When the Brunswickan covered the story about the new liaison positions on the UNBSU, many people found the name of the position “differently-abled” offensive.
Even Adam Wright had a few things to say about the title.
“I’m not the most politically-correct person in the world, and I definitely hate sugar-coating any situation,” Wright said. “When I read the name ‘Differently-Abled Liaison’, I laughed, then groaned. What a stupid name, I thought.”
Wright suggests instead that “disability liaison” or “accessibility liaison” might be more appropriate. Derek Ness agrees that the name ‘accessibility liaison’ may be appropriate but does not believe ‘differently-abled’ liaison is inaccurate. Former VP External Ryan Brideau argues that the title does not affect the work that the person in the position does.
Marylynn Côté writes for the NB Media Co-op.