Every day, multiple students living with disabilities at St. Thomas University are forced to find and make their own physical, educative, and emotional accommodations to meet the standards of professors. The lack of support is a failure of the accessibility and disability services on campus.
The fundamental issue at hand is STU’s lack of understanding of ableism on campus as limited to some physical barriers to mobility. This perspective on disability works to perpetuate an environment that, at best, leaves ableist discourse unchallenged and at worst, festers them. If they had more understanding and empathy, the university would provide the students and faculty a forum to address disability and ableism and to take meaningful action.
Disability and impairment are notably different lived experiences: where disability is socially constructed, it’s society that disables people with impairments while managing their condition, not the condition itself, according to Sheena L. Carter. Looking at disability through a social perspective, impairment can be defined as a missing or defective mechanism of the body, while disability is defined as the disadvantage and restrictions imposed on individuals by the systems that they inhabit.
STU’s slow push towards renovating buildings on campus to make them more accessible addresses impairments, it fails to address disability. To address disability meaningfully, we must unearth these ableist foundations, and not merely bandage them with ramps. By failing to address disability in critical ways, the university perpetuates the social idea that addressing disability and ableism is an inconvenience rather than an essential accommodation.
To name a specific example, Brian Mulroney Hall has an “accessible” washroom that has an extremely heavy door with no accessible buttons, a stall that is not big enough to navigate larger mobility aids, and emergency pull cords that are broken or inoperable.
For students using mobility aids trying to get to class, they’re forced to go out of their way to find working elevators, lifts, and ramps with only 10 minutes in between most classes.
During the winter, students must navigate uncleared walkways before, during, and after snowstorms. For anyone experiencing mobility difficulties or using mobility aids, it’s imperative to have safe and clear pathways for disabled and non-disabled people to get to and from classes on campus.
People who aren’t living with disabilities, particularly those who set policies on campus, need to understand that those living with disabilities have valuable knowledge, lived experiences, and a particular perspective that is not attainable for a non-disabled individual. With the perspectives of disabled individuals taken into account, the university can redesign its spaces such that the entire student body can contribute to the academic community.
Katie Squires is a social work student at St. Thomas University, a youth support worker and is working with the New Brunswick Coalition of Persons with Disabilities this summer.