According to Bruce Pardy, I Shouldn’t be a PhD Student

In the years that I have spent in graduate school, I have not once been subjected to a timed test. All of the work in my program of study is based on either written work or oral presentations. While this isn’t the universal experience of graduate school, it isn’t wholly unique either. Yet, according to a recent piece in the National Post, I probably shouldn’t be a PhD student.

Bruce Pardy, a professor of law at Queen’s University wrote a piece in the National Post which was based on an academic article he had written in the Education and Law Journal (which thanks to my student status I have access to and was able to read). In both, Pardy makes the argument that students with mental and learning disabilities should not be given additional time to write exams.

His argument relies heavily on athletic metaphors and a semantic deconstruction of the word discrimination. In his National Post piece he begins,

Last week at the World Track and Field Championships, Usain Bolt ran his final race. Andre De Grasse, the Canadian sprint star, missed his last chance to beat Bolt because of a hamstring tear. If, instead of pulling out of the race, De Grasse had claimed accommodation for his injury and demanded a 20-metre head start, no one would have taken the request seriously.

He continues later with his definition of discrimination,

To “discriminate” means to distinguish or tell apart. While the law prohibits certain specific instances of discrimination, telling people apart is not illegal but an essential tool for functioning in the world. People discriminate constantly. They choose to be friends with some people and not others. Employers hire better qualified candidates rather than those less qualified. Distinguishing between people even on prohibited grounds is proper if done for a bona fide purpose.

While it is true that discriminate can simply mean to tell apart. His semantic parsing of the word is used to set the reader up for the idea that people with learning disabilities are simply either genuinely inferior students or students who don’t really have an inherent disadvantage at all. It also serves to create a barrier against rebuttals which would call out his opinions for potentially being the potentially illegal, prejudicial kind of discrimination.

He argues that extra time inherently gives students with learning disabilities an advantage based on what he perceives to be the primary intentions of timed testing, “how well they can think, learn, analyze, remember, communicate, plan, prepare, organize, focus and perform under pressure” (quote from the National Post piece). He assumes that additional time for students with learning disabilities fundamentally undermines these things. In his lengthier academic piece, he claims that arguments supporting the idea that additional time level the playing field for students with learning disabilities are false. His argument is entirely premised on the idea that the skills ostensibly being graded are skills that students with learning disabilities simply fundamentally lack and can be faked by the addition of more time. In both the National Post and journal article he references Alicia Raimundo, a mental health advocate who explains that additional time for students with learning disabilities could potentially mean the difference between a C grade and an A grade.

He disingenuously claims in the National Post “Given enough time, many students could put together a paper that would earn a 90”. The thing is that he presumably knows better or at least has been presented with information that contradicts this assumption. His entire argument is based on the idea that given enough time everyone would do better (thought to be clear students with added time accommodations are still subject to time limits). Yet, in his academic piece he actually references a paper that actively contradicts this assumption. He cites Suzanne E. Rowe’s 2009 article in Legal Writing which makes the complete opposite argument. Not only does Rowe support students with learning disabilities being given additional time on exams, she proves why it’s effective and why it doesn’t disadvantage nondisabled students.

Pardy claimed that many students could achieve a grade of ninety given sufficient time, however, Rowe cites a number of studies which showed that this is not the case. That while students with learning disabilities tended to score better after having been given additional time, students without disabilities had no or only minimal benefit from being given more time.

Despite citing Rowe’s article, himself, Pardy does not engage with any of those findings or acknowledge that they exist. Instead preferring to base his argument against additional time on the insinuation that students with learning disabilities simply do not have the skills to succeed. His evidence? That they perform less well on timed exams when held to the same time constraints as their nondisabled peers. He does not accept the idea that students with learning disabilities are going into such exams with an inherent disadvantage and that the process is already tilted against them and that the addition of time for these students levels the playing field. He is however, unable to explain how students who apparently possess weaker analytical skills, weaker skills in preparation for testing, weaker skills in time management, and weaker focus etc. somehow magically gain those skills when given extra time to write the exam.

Rowe is very clear in stating that those students already have those skills and that during studies on the benefits of additional time, those students who were weaker in preparation and analytical skills still tended to do poorly regardless of being given additional time. Ultimately, at the end of the exam, students are still exhibiting those skills regardless of whether they have been given additional time or not.

In the footnotes of his academic piece Pardy notes that on occasion he receives exams from students who have been given extended time about which he observes “[s]ometimes the answers in those exams are significantly longer than any of the others.”

I have invigilated and graded my share of timed exams for both standard timing and those with accommodations. Even in the confines of the standard exam, there will be students who write significantly more than their peers. This does not necessarily translate into better work or a higher grade. In terms of exams that included accommodations including addition of time, they were not all stellar and I have failed students who wrote extended exams because the content of their exam did not merit a passing grade. Pardy does not expand on whether the longer exam was in fact a better exam. The insinuation seems to be that because the student was able to write more content that they somehow did not require the accommodation or that this somehow proves an unfair advantage when it is in fact just an anecdote which lacks context.

He is in effect dog whistling the idea that students with learning disabilities may not deserve their accommodations and may not have learning disabilities at all. He laments the fact that in some Ontario universities (mine included), students with mental disabilities are not required to disclose their diagnosis. They simply require a letter from their doctor outlining the fact that they have medical needs and that those needs require specific accommodations which the doctor then outlines.

He implies that students may be lying about their conditions when he says “Typically, only a medical note is required to get accommodation, even though many clinicians rely on self-reported symptoms to measure impairment.” In his journal article, he is frustrated by the limited power that he and universities have to interrogate the validity of accommodation requests. As though, the university’s nonmedical staff might know more about the reality of a particular diagnosis then does an actual doctor.

His prejudice against people with learning and mental disabilities is clear in his continued support for the accommodations of students with physical and sensory disabilities. Some of whom he seems blissfully unaware might also benefit from additional time as a result of their disabilities.

In the National Post he argues, “Other kinds of disabilities can be accommodated because they are not what the exam is testing. Blind students, for example, may need to access exam questions with a text reader.” Those same students may also require the use of a computer and dictation software to answer those questions. They might also require text-to-speech software to listen to what they have written in order to ascertain that there are no errors in dictation. This is a time-consuming process. Dictation software is notoriously finicky (I would know I am writing this piece using dictation software right now). Failure to properly proofread and edit text written with dictation software might result in submitting something that has sections which are entirely incomprehensible (or in the case of this article, that Bruce Pardy be routinely refered to as Bruce party). Does the validity of the accommodation end as soon as it might require added time? Or is it a legitimate accommodation?

Fundamentally, Pardy premises his argument on the idea that allowing additional time for students with learning disabilities is unfair to students not given additional time. While I have already addressed why this is a weak argument and that students are not actively disadvantaged by having their disabled peers be given additional time, in his journal article Pardy persists, “[s]tudents have a direct and personal interest in the conditions and criteria imposed upon the other members of their class. They have a stake in the fairness of the competition.”

This argument boils down to the idea that students with learning disabilities should not be given additional time because their classmates would think it was unfair. Basically, privileging the prejudicial opinions of classmates over the rights of disabled students.

This is likely why Pardy focused on the false argument that everyone or at least many people might benefit from being given this accommodation. It makes the output seem unfairly weighted in favour of disabled students.

Not only is there no evidence that this is true in the case of granting additional time, it is not true of some other other accommodations where nondisabled students might feel disadvantaged. As an undergraduate I benefited from not only additional time during exams but also having a notetaker. The former accommodation was relatively easily hidden from my classmates as I wrote exams separately. Having a notetaker was not so invisible and I was occasionally confronted by resentful classmates who suggested that I should not be in university or claimed the same argument as Pardy that “everyone would benefit from that”. Again, this is untrue. It has been suggested that students who take their own notes, particularly if they are hand written tend to retain information better. Having a notetaker simply allowed me to have access to notes that I would otherwise not be able to take myself. I was actually still at a disadvantage because I could not access the added benefits of taking my own notes. The injustice was entirely in the perception of different treatment not actually in the outcome of my academic achievement.

Pardy repeatedly claims that allowing students with learning disabilities to have additional time on exams is somehow comparable to allowing an athlete to run a shorter race than their competitors. This is however a false equivalency, it is entirely dependent on the assumption that students with learning disabilities were already on a level playing field with their nondisabled peers and that the accommodation gave them an advantage when in reality the accommodation seeks to erase an inherent disadvantage. Either, that or it assumes that the disabled students should not be taking the exam at all. This seems the more likely of the two as he utilizes the story of De Grasse, an athlete who sat out of a race because of an injury. The implication is clear, if you are unable to perform within the constraints set by the professor, then don’t show up. Pardy would likely dispute this as being his intention but it is a logical conclusion based on his sports analogies. It has to be assumed that students with learning disabilities are either the athlete who was right to sit out or be an athlete with an unfair head start. There is no room in Pardy’s argument for the reality of academic disadvantage that can be controlled for through the reasonable accommodation of extra time.

So, convinced is he, that students with learning disabilities have no inherent disadvantage that in his academic piece he takes the comparison to even more absurd lengths,

If a professor granted extra time on the exam to Caucasian students, the others would obviously have a complaint under the Code. If she gave extra time to five students who did renovations on her house, the rest of the class could well seek administrative law remedies.

He equates racism and potential bribery with an academic accommodation for disability. The only reasonable explanation as to why he feels this a fair analogy is if he discounts the reality and validity of learning disabilities.

He also seeks to limit how people can disagree with him. Through his parsing of the word discriminate. He seeks to suggest that people who would call his opinions discriminatory (in the sense of social disadvantage) are over reacting. He seeks to rob people of the language to express how problematic his opinions are by setting up a scenario where that word no longer means what it is culturally understood to mean and what it usually means specifically in circumstances like this one. He wants people to believe that it isn’t an inappropriate kind of discrimination to openly imply that students with learning disabilities are either measurably inferior or simply fakers seeking an unfair advantage. An advantage that research shows doesn’t even exist. In the unlikely event that a student hoodwinked a doctor into an inaccurate diagnosis and gained extra time. The research clearly suggests that they would not benefit. They would simply be stigmatizing themself.

And if Pardy has done nothing else, it is show what sort of prejudice exists against people with learning disabilities in academia. He also shows just how comfortable some people are in utilizing that prejudice to justify discrimination.

Under Pardy’s argument, I should not have reached the level of graduate student. Much of my undergraduate academic success is as a result of academic accommodation. Interestingly enough, I only sought academic accommodations which did include additional time on exams after the urging of one of my professors who saw how much I was struggling and realized that I could and deserved to do better.

Professors like Bruce Pardy rely on the public acceptance of misinformation. And he is misinforming them. He has read Suzanne Rowe’s work which contradicts the very foundations of his arguments and yet he not only fails entirely to substantially contradict it but ignores the existence of this conflicting information altogether. It is based in prejudice and is only sustained through the widespread acceptance of that prejudice. His argument is based on the acceptance of statements that he has not proven and are maintained through an attempt to sow the seeds of doubt around the validity of learning disabilities and the real needs of people who have them. Not through evidence but through implication.

According to Bruce Pardy, I have potentially illegitimately taken one of a limited number graduate spots from a more deserving (read: nondisabled) student. That I might lack the critical thinking skills to truly deserve to be a PhD student. But then again, I didn’t write and publish an article in a journal defending prejudicial treatment against students with learning disabilities that included a reference to an article that completely contradicted my argument and then pretend that I had not been exposed to those ideas.

 

 

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When the Real Life Murder of a Disabled Child Was Used as a Moral Dilemma in a University Class

Being disabled in academia can be difficult. Not just in terms of access to physical and academic supports but also in terms of the disability is presented in academic discourse. The social environment of universities can be toxic for disabled students and academics. So much so that some people feel that they have to leave. It is bad enough that we have to navigate and fight for accommodations. We shouldn’t be faced with bigotry in the classroom.

It is not entirely surprising that issues of disability are coming up in academia, I mean disabled people have existed as song as the rest of humanity. What is unfortunate is how disability is framed when it does come up and how poor representations are not questioned or contextualized.

Writer s.e smith (name left uncapitalized in line with author’s preference) wrote an article about why disabled people leave academia. In it ou profiles a woman who fought through the bureaucratic quagmire necessary for accommodations. She railed against but ultimately put up with issues in physical accessibility. It was not until she faced a professor who refused to contextualize a discussion of how disability is used as a metaphor for evil throughout literature, that she finally had enough.

Now it cannot be argued that disability has been used as a metaphor for evil throughout literature and media generally, and so it is a valid topic of discussion. It should however be questioned and contextualized in terms of the social position of disabled people. Disabled people are real and are not a metaphorical construct and any time a group of people are used to symbolize something, particularly something negative, people should absolutely ask, why? Failure to do that gives a historical and continuing trend of marginalizing disabled people legitimacy.

I have found myself in a classroom environment where negative feelings about disability were not only discussed but tacitly encouraged. It was during my undergrad and I was taking Political Science 100. At the beginning of the semester as I was perusing the syllabus and noticed the the Latimer trial was going to be discussed, I got worried. I read the associated reading and my worse fears were confirmed. The class was going to discuss the Latimer trial. A case involving the murder of a disabled child at the hands of her father, with only a biased news article as context.

First off I’ll start with the history of the Latimer case.

I was still a young child when Tracy Latimer was killed but the news coverage was so overwhelming that I couldn’t help but be aware of it.

In October of 1993, Robert Latimer (a Saskatchewan farmer) killed his twelve year old daughter Tracy, I was aware of the situation as soon as it hit the news. At the time I was to young to understand the nuances of the case but I was aware that Robert Latimer had killed Tracy because he claimed she suffered greatly from her cerebral palsy.

This concept troubled me as I saw a lot of similarities between myself and Tracy. I too lived in Saskatchewan and I also had cerebral palsy. I was aware of the basic differences as well. I knew Tracy had used a wheelchair and couldn’t speak but for me the connections were stronger than our differences.

It was the initial crime that unsettled me at first but as the trial progressed and the subsequent reporting on it through the years, the most disturbing thing about the case sadly is not that a child was murdered by her father but that he has gained almost folk hero status in Canada for his actions. People readily believed and continue to believe his assertion that he killed Tracy because he wanted to end her suffering. This narrative is so widely believed that though he was convicted of murder, people still defend his actions and Latimer himself has firmly positioned himself within Canada’s assisted suicide debate, which though his actions would still be illegal under our recently relaxed restrictions on assisted suicide, his presence in the debate gives him legitimacy.

When the Latimer trial is covered in the news and it still is even 22 years later, Tracy is almost always reduced to a non-being who was just a thing that was alive and suffering. Her father is almost always framed as a loving father who killed his daughter out of necessity to relieve her suffering.

That narrative did not ultimately sway the court (after a mistrial, retrial and his sentence being debated all the way to the supreme court). He was convicted of murder. However, in the court of public opinion, he is very much the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

This narrative however does Tracy a disservice, it entirely dehumanizes her and if you look past the lazy journalism it isn’t all that difficult to find holes.

Things that don’t generally enter the public discourse

  • Laura Latimer’s (Tracy’s mother) own records refute the idea that Tracy had no quality of life. She described how Tracy was socially included in the family and clearly enjoyed this social engagement.
  • Robert Latimer refused to allow Tracy to have a feeding tube despite the fact that Tracy had difficulty eating, was malnourished. and a feeding tube might have allowed for more effective pain management.
  • Robert Latimer had a phobia of medical intervention. It is not hard to see how this fear might have influenced his perception of his daughter’s life.*

I was aware of the more contextualized reality of the Latimer case and was more than a little concerned about how the the class would approach the case or why it was being presented at all. I contacted the professor with my concerns and provided sources that gave the case more context. She rejected my concerns and refused to provide the class with more context. She claimed that nothing negative would come of the limited view of the case being presented.

In reality on the day that the Latimer case was presented in class, I was surrounded by ableist sentiments that deviated from the specific Latimer case. Comments were general “well of course people like that would want to die” “If I was like that I would want to die”

I tried to give context in discussion and explain that disabled people do not as a group universally want to die and that many of us are perfectly happy with our lives. Even disabled people with conditions considered severe. I was roundly ignored and accused of having an unhealthy bias.

Turns out the professor not only believes the miscarriage of justice narrative of the Latimer trial but intended it to show that just because the outcome of the trial was in line with the law that it was not just.

To this day I regret not filing an official complaint over the class. Not because she holds a differing opinion from me but because she created an entirely toxic and unsafe environment in her classroom.

I also know that she is not alone in using the Latimer trial in this way. I have at least one other disabled friend who found herself in a similar classroom experience. The discussion just as bad. In her case however when she brought her concerns to the professor, he apologized and tried to contextualize the conversation in the next class.

The willingness to frame the disabled experience through the Latimer case is problematic outside of the harm it does to individual disabled people who happen to be in those classes because it happens when we aren’t there to try and defend ourselves as well.

This came into sharp focus for me one day on Facebook when I was trying to explain why many disabled people have issues with bioethicist Peter Singer (who has argued that disabled children should be euthenized or that disabled people should be denied health care). An acquaintance mentioned the Latimer case as a defense of why killing disabled people without their consent might in certain circumstances be acceptable. He presented it as a given, that it was right to kill Tracy. That mentioning the case was enough of an argument in itself. When I refused to accept such an unnuanced argument he said “well we studied it in one of my Philosophy classes” and my heart sank. I then disabused him of his narrow understanding of the case. He was then forced to defend nonconsensual euthanasia through hypotheticals that had nothing to do with disability “well what if you are in a war and your friend has been gut shot, is going to die and there is no medical treatment available?” kind of scenarios. Things that deviated so far from the original discussion as to be irrelevant to it.

The social atmosphere that universities build for disabled people is just as if not more important than the physical accessibility of the academic space. The key thing here is that this is true whether disabled people are present or not. Considerations of how disabled people are presented in course content and discussion should be considered without a disabled person actually having to be present because eventually those people in those classes will likely be faced with an actual disabled person. Building an inclusive space doesn’t just mean when the marginalized group is present. It means that when they do show up, people won’t have to fight to not be excluded socially or physically.

This does not mean ignoring things like the history of disability in literature or the Latimer trial. Disabled people deserve to have their history and social context be a part of academic discourse. We however don’t deserve to be treated to one sided arguments that devalue our lives and experiences.

*reference: Enns, R. (1999). A voice unheard: The Latimer case and people with disabilities. Halifax, N.S.: Fernwood Pub

How University Professors React to Requests for Disability Accommodations

Requiring accommodations in post-secondary education can be complicated to maneuver through. I have had experience with the bureaucracy of asking for accommodation at three separate universities and my experiences have been mixed at all of them.

Most universities in my experience have similar policies around delivering accommodations to disabled students. The process goes like this.

1. Get all the necessary documentation to prove you are disabled and in need of the requested accommodations.

2. Draft a letter to all potential professors outlining your individual needs.

3. Send copies of the letters to potential professors and you.

4. Have you approach professors individually to discuss accommodations and acquire their consent.

5. You and your professor sign the letter indicating that they agree to provide accommodations

6. Send copies of the letter to the academic department and the Accessibility Office.

7. Professors provides all pertinent accommodations to their course.

8. Never follow up with you or the professor fails to submit the letter to the necessary people.

The system is based in the idea that self-advocacy is important for disabled students and this is true to an extent. People need to know not only how to make their needs known but also that it is ok to make those requests. What the system  fails to do is recognize and address the inherent power imbalances at play in accommodation requests. The professor has significantly more power. They control the student’s grade and learning experience so if a needed accommodation is refused, a student might not feel comfortable reporting it. Particularly if the course is required for the student’s degree (unfortunately some required courses are only taught by one person so the option of leaving isn’t available). Even if the student decides to complain, there is no guarantee that the university will address the issue.

So for the benefit of both universities and disabled students I will describe professors in terms of how they respond to accommodation requests (I haven’t experienced them all personally but where applicable I will give personal context and outcome).

The Good

1. The professor who not only accommodates but troubleshoots to make the learning experience a good one.

I had a professor who not only unreservedly provided my needed note taker and made sure the notes were good but also gave me copies of her power points which she did not usually distribute which helped keep the notes in context.

2. The professor who accommodates

These professors happily accommodate as required with no other follow-up.

The Middle-Ground

3. The overzealous professor

I don’t need all my accommodations all the time. Usually indicating that a particular accommodation won’t be necessary for a given glass is sufficient. I one instant though, I had a professor insist that she must not only provide all my accommodations but she also felt they required stricter implementation. I didn’t need a note taker but she insisted that I would have one. Usually a note taker is just another class member who provides copies of their notes either via e-mail or carbon copy. This the professor insisted was not sufficient. She needed to hire me a grad student. Remember this was for an accommodation I didn’t need.

I felt that this would draw unnecessary attention to me so I had the Accessibility Office send her an e-mail confirming that I could in fact decline my accommodations if I saw fit. She calmed down, I Aced the course.

4. The professors who accommodate during the course but fail to make sure that accommodations are available during exams.

I had a class in an auditorium which features only partial desks, with so little space, I couldn’t juggle all my course material with my one good arm. During the semester I was provided a table and chair. I was assured that it would be available for the final exam. It wasn’t and I was forced to choose between writing on the inaccessible desk or delaying everyone while the professor tried to fix the situation at the last moment. I chose the first option and had a very uncomfortable exam experience.

After that I began writing exams separately but even that was problematic as separate exams still need to be supervised. I once had a supervisor be 40 minutes late and when he arrived, he realized that he had forgotten the exam.

These professors are good intentioned but fail to make sure that the accommodations they are responsible for are actually provided.

The Bad

5. The professors who agree to accommodate but have some personal issue with bureaucracy of the university and don’t want to sign and submit the necessary letter.

The scene: I am alone with the professor in the office, my accommodation letter is out and we have discussed my needs

The professor “I have no problem providing these accommodations, I also think that it is unnecessary to tether students to these forms. I don’t think it’s really necessary to fill out the form, make copies and submit them”

Now I’m stuck in an awkward situation, I can agree and move forward hoping that the professor will honour their stated intention to accommodate or insist that they honour the bureaucratic process and leave the impression that I think they’re dishonest. Not a fun situation. I’ve had this happen a couple of times. I never felt comfortable insisting they sign the form, I was lucky in that they did honour their word but it was unnecessarily stressful.

6. The professor who agrees to accommodate but doesn’t like the standard mode of accommodation. They promise to provide the accommodation in an alternate format, they don’t. Or just agrees to accommodate and then doesn’t

I had a professor who for some reason didn’t like the standard note taking procedure of providing the note taker with carbon copy paper (this allowed them to take a single set of notes and provide the professor with the disabled student’s copy right after class). He promised I would get my notes but was vague on how that was going to happen. Turns out he gave the same line to two other students. We had to harass him for 6 weeks (half the semester) before he got us copies of the notes.

7. The professor who suggests that you should repeat the pre-requisite course before continuing.

On the first day of class about 10 minutes before it was supposed to begin, I told a professor that I was disabled and asked if we could set up a time after class to discuss accommodations. The classroom was already mostly full but she pulled me out of the room into the far from empty hallway and proceeded to tell me–with no context of what my needs were–that it would be in my best interests to repeat the pre-requisite class I’d already taken and excelled at. She specifically cited my disability to justify her suggestion.

I sat through the class in shock. After it was over I reported the incident to the Accessibility Office. They said there was nothing they could do and defended her by saying “She probably doesn’t know any better”

I dropped the class.

8. The non-accommodating professor

I have never had a professor refuse to accommodate outright though the last example might count as I didn’t continue with the class it’s hard to tell. I have heard many stories of professors refusing accommodations for a number of reasons like

  • providing the accommodation infringes on their academic freedom
  • they think they know the student’s needs better than the student (refusing to use a microphone for a hard of hearing student because they don’t think it will be a problem in the classroom space)
  • They are concerned about their privacy (refusing to let students audio record lectures)
  • I’m sure there are many others

Universities tend to work on a reporting system so if something goes wrong, students are put in the position of reporting the bad behaviour of people who have power over their academic success. Often the response is to do nothing or fall back on the mantra of “self-advocacy” but effective self-advocy is difficult in a situation with such a huge power imbalance. The situation has to be dire before the university will step in and the first step is usually mediation. As a result many students simply do not report professors who refuse to accommodate out of fear of alienating the person in charge of grading their work.

Self-advocacy works great with people who are receptive to the requests. In cases where there is dissent the power swings in favour of the professor. While this is an issue that is difficult to remedy a good start would be to check in with professors who don’t submit the paperwork as a matter of policy. This way they have to explain themselves without the student having to report an issue. The professor then can’t blame the student for being held accountable.

This doesn’t address all of the issues like professors who submit the paperwork and then don’t follow through but it is a start. To fix the other issues there needs to be a real cultural shift in academia that normalizes the reality of people who learn differently.

Why I am Trying to CrowdFund my PhD in Disability Studies

I was fortunate to be able to complete both my undergraduate and masters degrees with relatively little financial difficulty. Cumulatively, I accrued less than $5,000 in student debt. I was able to cover the rest by working and the odd scholarship and bursary. With this history in mind, I entered my gap year between my MA and PhD with optimism. I even imagined being able to pay off my existing loans and starting my PhD with a clean slate. It was not to be.

I initially tried to find work in Toronto because I knew it was the most likely destination for my PhD , either continuing in Disability Studies at York University or pursuing Sociology at the University of Toronto (I have been accepted into the PhD program at York). I sent out dozens of job applications to no avail. I eventually ran out of money and had to return to Saskatchewan in the interim and stay with my mother.

I continued my job search from Saskatchewan while maxing out my credit card on PhD application fees. Here I had a little more luck in that I actually got responses to some of my seemingly unending applications. In one case a local government branch tantalized me with possible work if I could pass their proof of clerical ability tests. I passed all the tests but only gained a place in a database with the dozens of other successful test takers. The province had also instituted a hiring freeze so the jobs available to the database pool were beyond few. I didn’t get a call.

Then, I got an interview with another government agency, for a client services position. The kind that requires a thorough security clearance. The clearance portion of the interview process was to be completed first. I filled in and submitted the 48 page questionnaire and related permission forms and waited.

Several weeks later, I received confirmation that my clearance had gone through and invited me for an interview. The interview request was accompanied by another request asking that I confirm my willingness to submit to a typing speed test and affirm that I was confident in my ability to pass it.

I’m hemiplegic, I type one handed so typing at high speeds is well out of my skill set. I was however confident that the position I had applied for did not require high levels of typing as it was more face to face client oriented. Computer use would be part of it but extensive typing would not. I responded saying that I was available for the interview but that I would be unable to pass a typing test because of my mobility disability. The response was swift and pointed.

“This position is 100% data entry at high volumes. No accommodation can be made in this instance. I will keep your resume on file if something better suited to your skills becomes available, I will contact you”

Translation

“How dare you apply for a job that you are entirely unqualified for, you will never work for this organization”

I was floored. I went back to the original job listing to see if there was any way I could have misunderstood it. It had had responsibilities like; process client document requests (basically look up the form and print it out), research freedom of information requests, and provide relief for the central client relations desk. None of these tasks can be performed in conjunction with continuous data entry (I’ve done data entry, it’s all consuming). Nowhere in the job description were the words data entry or any task that so much as suggested extensive typing.

I responded to the employer e-mail expressing my confusion and including a link to the original job listing.

The response I got was full of over the top apologies and a claim that they had gotten confused about which position I had applied for. I was of course qualified for the position I had applied for and been offered an interview to and was welcome to interview.

At this point I knew I would never get this job, No HR rep wants to hire someone whose application is tinged with discrimination. I however wasn’t in a position to turn down an interview, so I went and was interviewed by the very same individual who had been involved in the e-mail exchange. It was the most awkward job interview of my life. I didn’t get the job.

The next job interview I was offered was cancelled two days later because the position funding fell through.

My final job interview that initially looked promising took a swift turn to the wildly inappropriate when one of the first questions I was asked by the middle aged male interviewer was “If we had to travel for work, would you be comfortable sharing a hotel room with me?”. I was shocked and very uncomfortable. We were alone. I stammered through an ” I guess so” (because I didn’t feel comfortable saying no in that context). Then he showed me where I would be working. It was a basement where we would be the only two people working.

I left the interview really uncomfortable and freaked out. I was offered that job but the little money I would have made was not worth the safety risk. I turned it down.

Now it is less than two months until I return to Toronto and finding a job is no longer a realistic goal. My Go Fund Me campaign has been active for 18 days and I have had no luck. I can’t rely on family for the money as they are not in the financial position to assist me.

I goal is to get as much as I would have made if I had been able to get a summer job. Just enough to handle moving costs and initial expenses like tuition and rent.

Please share my campaign.

Kim’s PhD Fund

The Bureaucracy of Disability Accommodation in University

So I will be starting my PhD in Critical Disability Studies this Autumn. In preparation for this I have been applying for housing. I learned my lesson about campus housing during my Masters. I need physical accommodations for housing.

I like many other disabled people have been taught to shun accommodation wherever possible. I grew up believing that the less obtrusive my disability was, the more value I had as a person. I know this wasn’t my parents’ intent, they just wanted me to be independent and were a bit misguided in how that should be achieved. If I asked for help with something, I was often refused under the assumption that if I just tried hard enough, I would eventually figure it out. In reality this lack of support led to a lot of frustration and often things didn’t get done.

That is not to say that disabled people shouldn’t strive to learn to do new things but the mentality of responding to a request for assistance with “You’ll just have to figure it out” is generally not helpful. It also at least in my case led to the internalized idea that I shouldn’t ask for help even if I needed it (you can read about how well that went for me in grade school here).

While I have been getting better at asking for and even demanding (when necessary) the accommodations I need, I still often find myself with the idea that there are certain appropriate accommodations and that if my needs don’t fit that narrow description that I don’t need accommodation.

Which is how for the length of my master’s degree I found myself living on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment building. I just assumed that because I don’t require adapted appliances or lowered sinks that I didn’t require accommodation.

As such I ended up in the general housing application pool and got what I was assigned.

As I mentioned, I ended up on the fourth floor of a four story walk-up. I managed but it wasn’t easy. Moving in and out were the worst, carrying everything up and down the stairs. I had help in those instances. While I walk well and can climb stairs, my balance is poor, particularly while carrying things. Added to that, stairs are difficult when I am wearing my AFO (leg brace) because it holds my ankle in a stationary position. Consequently I didn’t wear it much.

Getting groceries was particularly difficult, at first because I had to shop and get them on the bus and then from the stop up to my apartment. I was extremely limited in what I could buy because weight and balance were always a consideration. In order to avoid having to make multiple trips to the grocery store, I began having them delivered. Though it was easier for me physically, I still had to contend with delivery personnel  who were less than impressed with having to carry the food for me.

Now it is time for university housing round two, I know a lot more and I know what I need. Getting it however is a different story.

I know that to live comfortably and safely I need the option to avoid stairs when I am carrying things or wearing my leg brace so I need a ground floor apartment or an apartment in a building with an elevator. In order to get this, I had to get a form filled out by my doctor who is unfamiliar with the housing arrangements at my university. I filled the form out myself and luckily my doctor trusts that I know what I need and signed it for me. Because I saved her the trouble of filling out the form, I also luckily saved myself the usual fee charged for such services.

This was annoying enough but it was after I submitted the form that things got even more complicated.

Most universities have a single disability services regardless of type of disability (psychiatric, physical, learning, etc.). All your needs are taken care of in a single location. Not so at my current university. There it is broken up into three separate offices; physical and sensory disabilities, psychiatric disabilities and learning disabilities. They also much prefer it if you are only registered through one of them. Heaven forbid you have multiple disabilities with diverse needs. You have to decide what your “primary” disability is and go through that office.

Trying to choose a primary disability is ridiculous and kind of depends on circumstances.

I have both cerebral palsy and an autism spectrum disorder. Because the entire point of university is to learn and my autism is the most likely to impact my ability to do that, I registered with Learning Disability Services during my master’s. My cerebral palsy is rarely an impediment to learning. I can get around buildings and classrooms with minimal difficulty.

Where housing is concerned however my cerebral palsy becomes the key consideration, though it is important to note that not being accommodated for my physical needs does inevitably negatively impact my autism as added stress makes my autism more apparent.

I however cannot request housing accommodations through Learning Disability Services, they are in the domain of Physical Disability Services. So despite having already gone through the bureaucratic intake for my learning disability, I had to redo the process for physical disability.

When you go through having to prove that you are disabled and therefor entitled to accommodation you learn a few things.

1. Your permanent disabilities are assumed miraculously cured if the diagnosis or documentation is not recent

I learned this when I registered through Learning Disability Services. I provided documentation of my diagnosis but because I don’t generally feel the need to get rediagnosed on a regular basis it was considered to be out of date despite the fact that autism is permanent. All of my accommodation were thus given very begrudgingly. The reason I didn’t have more current documentation? My home is over a thousand kilometres from school and I didn’t have access to doctors that know me and my medical history. Which brings me to…

2. Disabled people are not expected to be traveling long distances to go to school (I guess if a program isn’t offered locally we are supposed to just not go)

As I mentioned, I don’t live close to my university and am trying to organize accommodations for housing. Yet upon submitting my intake form. I am invited to an in person interview. When I explain that going isn’t possible until I return to school I am treated to an explanation as to how the interview and filling out of additional forms is usually necessary before accommodations can be considered. They eventually agree to allowing me housing accommodations without the interview as I need housing in place before I arrive at school.

I was also treated to questions about why I was already registered with Learning Disability Services and a not to subtle suggestion that if I needed physical accommodations that I shouldn’t have done that.

Having secured permission to apply for housing accommodations, I begin to fill out the request form. I am reminded of my past beliefs that certain accommodations shouldn’t be sought because on the form only 3 types of accommodations are listed.

1. Do you need an automatic door opener?

2. Do you need light flashing alarms instead of audible alarms?

3. Do you require adapted appliances and a wheelchair accessible space?

My answer to all three is no. The form offers no question or space to request accommodations that are not met by those changes. I end up using an unrelated text box to discuss my needs. Hopefully I will be accommodated but it is obvious that they are not used to getting requests that deviate from what they expect disabled people to need.