By Catherine Duchastel
I am a Quebec student doing my masters at York. I have watched and supported my friends in Montreal who have worked tirelessly in the student movement over the past few months. I have seen them organize demonstrations, raise awareness in their departments, and educate themselves and others about democracy. I have offered as much solidarity as I can from Toronto, and I have also wished I could go back to Montreal and be directly part of the student movement many times since last February.
But, my desire has been tempered by my awareness that I need to be here, because I need the knowledge and experience in disability rights activism and scholarship that I am gaining here at York. I am in Critical Disability Studies, a field that does not exist as such in Quebec, yet. I need to do this because the student movement in Quebec and everywhere else in Canada is ableist. This can be said of all student activism. In fact, it can also be said of social movements everywhere. This needs to change.
In Quebec, if you are a disabled student that can medically prove your disability, you receive bursaries instead of loans. This can seem like a really good deal, and a reason not to include disabled students as part of a student movement that is fighting for lower tuition. After all, you do not end up with the same crushing debt that nondisabled students have at the end of their studies. You also do not end with a job afterwards. But, surely, that’s a social problem, not one that student activism should be faulted for failing to address, right? Well, we receive the same amounts nondisabled students do, but also incur extra costs, and often take longer to finish our degrees. And of course, in order to get bursaries, we have to qualify. (I qualified my first year of undergraduate studies, but not the following 5 years.) We have to contend with inaccessible campuses, classrooms, and course material, as well as inaccessible student events and groups. We deal with isolation, poverty, discrimination and inaccessibility every day, yet our experience is neither valued nor acknowledged by other students. When nondisabled students discuss issues of inequality and discrimination, they are about inaccessibility in education, but when disabled students bring them up as part of their reality, which are being compounded by student groups themselves, they are treated as only disability related and outside the scope of the student movement.
But, really, who do you think knows more about inaccessibility than disabled folks?
I spoke with Laurence Parent about ableism in student and activist communities. Laurence is an alumnus of York who completed her Masters in Critical Disability Studies, and her major research paper won the Critical Disability Studies Program Human Rights Prize. She is now completing her PhD at Concordia in the Humanities department. She is the vice-president and a co-founding member of RAPLIQ (le regroupement des activists pour l’inclusion au Québec), an activist disability rights group, for and by disabled people. She also participated in the student strike in Quebec.
Laurence Parent: RAPLIQ is a disability rights group, I would like it to be more like a visibility justice group, but it’s hard. Our goal is to eradicate discrimination based on disability, and that kind of discrimination is not well-known in Quebec. It’s not understood, you know, and there’s no concept to talk about it. I would say that this is the biggest obstacle that we are facing right now: to let [people] know that this thing exists [discrimination based on disability]. So it’s hard to connect with other social justice groups.
I feel like we are just at the beginning and just fighting for basic, basic things, like access to public transit which is one of our big, big issues, and access to housing and accessibility in general.
As a student with a disability and an organizer and activist, how were you involved with the student strike?
I was more involved through AEAIPS (l’Association des Étudiants ayant des incapacitées au post-secondaire). For example, we wrote a press release to talk about how the tuition hike would affect people and students with disabilities because it wasn’t included or talked about at all. […] Getting attention for us was impossible but we tried. We were at every monthly mass protest. I know that in Quebec people with visible disabilities are still not visible, so despite not being a huge number of disabled people on the streets, we were enough for people to be aware that we, we were there.
Also the strike started in winter so it’s very difficult [for people with disabilities] to get around because it’s not accessible, and then the strike got very dangerous very quickly for people with disabilities [who may not be able] to run away fast. So it’s not really welcoming for people with different abilities to join the protest and we never knew where the protest would go, and stuff like that.
Did you feel that there was an awareness on the part of nondisabled students or organizers, as to why the demos would be dangerous for disabled people? In part because of how aggressive the police were, and also not knowing when or where the march would end?
I think that they didn’t understand, but it [the student strike] was like a war, a real war, and the organizers themselves didn’t know where the march would end. It was like a state secret, so it was really hard to know who was really in charge. I guess it was because students with disabilities were not there at the higher levels of student organizing.
What do you think contributes to the fact that the disability rights movement has not worked in Quebec?
The [disability rights] movement [in Quebec] is really apolitical.
People want to advocate for disability rights, but they want to be neutral. How can you be neutral when you fight for human rights? You cannot be neutral. You cannot be neutral. I think there have been some people who have tried to build bridges but they have been excluded. Like disabled women, I don’t know if you know [the] group, Action Femmes Handicapées de Montreal? Well, when they founded [the group], the first thing that they tried to do was to be included in women’s groups but they faced discrimination, or they were included but in a paternalistic way. They founded that group [Action Femmes Handicapées de Montreal], and still today, they are excluded by other women’s groups. 25 years later.
It’s a trauma that I guess we have. When you are rejected and excluded, it has an impact on you. You know, you don’t feel like going back to a place where someone has excluded you. I also think that the people who are working in disability rights groups are often the people who have been able to go to school and get diplomas, and so they are like in the upper class of disabled people. So the system worked for them, so then some disabled people don’t really feel any need to change the system.
So what do you think would need to change for there to be collaboration between disabled activists and nondisabled activists?
Maybe to make them [nondisabled activists] realize that disability is not something far, far, away. That it’s everywhere that we don’t see it, but it’s there. Even though the student movement was opposing the system, it got so big that it started to reproduce how society was organized and those that were marginal were, you know, ignored. It was like a generation protesting, but we haven’t heard that much about racism either, for example, in that strike.
And it’s too bad because there are many links to be made about disability oppression and what happened, like the fact that they would prohibit protest near the university campuses. Like blocking access. This is something people with disabilities experience every day – being denied access. And, all those metaphors about access to education; I feel disabled people have more in common [with the student strike] but not metaphorically, concretely.
And the problem that we have, when we talk about education, is that it’s pretty new to have disabled people go to university. And, for many disabled students I don’t think they see this as a right. It’s more like, “I’m the lucky one who has been able to make it. I receive services, and I should be grateful.” And some people who are recognized as having a permanent disability, then all the government aid you get is transformed into bursaries. So we don’t have loans, and a big issue of that strike was students getting [into] debt and that the government would increase the amount of loans. So I felt that a lot of students with disabilities felt that it was not their fight. Because they were not affected by that measure, but in fact, they are already the poorest.
The thing that we don’t say is that they will have so much trouble to get a job after their education. Most people that I know, I explain to people how it works, most of them would be, “Oh! You’re lucky. You’re lucky that you don’t have loans and debts.” And, I’m like, that’s not what I want you to understand.For disabled people rights are privileges, not entitlements. So that [a] citizenship right, like education ends up being a privilege, not a right, if you are a person with a disability.
What would you like to see for the disability rights movement in Canada?
I think that one of the problems that we had, and that we have, is that students with disabilities are not well organized on campus. It’s much better at York. I mean, I know it’s not perfect, but I can compare [it] with Concordia and UQAM – we are not organized, we don’t know each other, we are not proud of who we are, there’s just no solidarity.
… So, what do I wish for the disability rights movement in Canada? Well, yeah, to fight back.
Universities are great places to foster activism, and more and more disabled students are joining, but when you bring up accessibility issues, you get this pained look of contrition from students politicians and activists: “We know we’re not accessible, but we don’t have the money to be, we feel really, really bad about it, but there’s just no way. It’s just impossible.” The thing is, no one understands more about how lack of resources, monetary and otherwise, affects the activities you can or cannot do, than someone who has to negotiate how much pain or energy it is going to cost them to participate, or whether or not there’s a bathroom they can use wherever they want to go. So I am going to say this once, but I am going to say it loud, because you need to hear it, think about it and act on it:
YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT ACCESSIBILITY IS!
Accessibility is having all the documents on your website in both Pdf and Word so that people who use screen readers can access them. Accessibility is having half your printed material available in large print and half in smaller print. Accessibility is typing the discussion in your meetings and presentations if you can’t afford an ASL interpreter. Accessibility is asking yourself why you don’t have money for ASL interpreters. It means giving a full description of the space you’re holding events in so disabled people can decide for themselves whether they want to go or not. It means having a no-scent policy, and an acknowledgement that 5 hour meetings are just not productive. It means removing the phrase, “We regret that this event is not wheel-chair accessible” from your vocabulary and instead starting to ask disabled people not only what their accessibility needs are, but what they think could be done to remedy this lack of accessibility in your organizations. None of these cost money.
[Accessibility] means to stop expecting disabled people to be included in your struggle, and to become part of theirs, as well as to include their struggle as part of yours.
It means understanding that accessibility to education means much more than having the money and time to go to school, it means being able to get in the school, and be included in the society that getting a degree is supposed to give you access to.
Catherine Duchastel is a Ph.D. candidate in Critical Disability Studies, a member of RAPLIQ, and a student activist.