By: Alex Wilson
The following piece is based on the candidates’ responses to the debate question:
“Classroom and campus accessibility is an essential part of student life, as well as a priority in the long term advocacy plan. For candidates who do not include accessibility in their platforms, why not, and to those who did, what research or consultation did you do?”
Every year, accessibility becomes more and more of a buzzword in McMaster Students Union politics. It becomes this catch-all term for when you need a catchy way to market yourself as a good person. I’d like to try and disambiguate what this word truly means in a McMaster setting, why it matters and why our six candidates for MSU president simply don’t get it.
Accessibility can be defined as the degree that people with and without disabilities can access services, goods and work, physical, social and educational environments without encountering barriers. But if you were at the debate or tuning in online, you would think accessibility meant a “late-night shuttle bus” by Aquino Inigo’s answer, “a space for Bread Bin” by Shaarujaa Nadarajah’s answer or that it had something to do with “the second floor of MUSC” by Patricia Kousoulas’ answer.
While none of the candidates are wrong, they erase those who originally and still organize around the fight for access. Focusing on these initiatives in the context of this question decenters and further silences those who are fighting to be listened to. Food security, safety and opportunities for student involvement are all important discussions, but they were not the one we were actually trying to have.
Accessibility is embracing universal design. Accessibility is podcasted courses, buildings students can actually enter with dignity and seating and desks for all students regardless of if they use a mobility device. Accessibility is varied assessment in your courses, timely and prioritized snow removal and lifts that don’t leave you trapped for hours. Accessibility is bursaries because being a disabled student is, on average, significantly more expensive than being a nondisabled student. And yes, accessibility is timely, effective and appropriate counselling and medical support.
Misunderstanding accessibility is not an answer.
Deflecting the subject to an ill placed “accessible shuttle bus” is not an answer. When you ignore a conversation this large, you actively tell students that they are simply not important enough to warrant even the basic Google search of a term and solution.
The belief that you can come up to students after you become president and try to accommodate their needs without understanding is hurtful and invalidating. It treats real people with real experiences as campaign props to be used and thrown about to garner votes.
No candidate on that stage, at any point in the debate or otherwise this week, even began to scratch the surface. No candidate showed any clear interest in doing so. Not only does that invalidate the identities of the students’ they are campaigning to represent, it effectively silences them. Passion drives conversation, and clearly accessibility disparities are not glaring enough to ignite a simple Google search instead of pivoting to barely related platform points or to nothing at all.
Not being “an expert,” as mentioned by Kousoulas, is not an excuse. Not having to think about accessibility every day is a privilege. The belief that you can come up to students after you become president and try to accommodate their needs without understanding is hurtful and invalidating. It treats real people with real experiences as campaign props to be used and thrown about to garner votes.
It’s nice that you “want to work with the experts on campus,” mentioned by Kousoulas, or “work with groups on campus to make sure their voices are heard and that I’m not speaking for them,” mentioned by Inigo. You’re right, we need to talk more, but it’s ignorant to pretend there haven’t been those talking and fighting for years.
There is no excuse for not knowing how inaccessible campus is. The MSU website has Accessibility forum reports from the past two years with feedback from over 100 students. Last year, the Student Representative Assembly passed a lobbying policy to advocate to the university on the grounds of accessibility. It will be your job as president to advocate using this policy.
Please do talk to students once you are elected, but it’s disrespectful and dishonest to pretend you haven’t already had the chance. Collaboration requires both parties and if you’re not going to do any work, then you are just reinforcing the idea the president acts as a figurehead instead of an advocate.
Admittedly, some candidates did have some points related to accessibility. But they don’t get points for doing the bare minimum. “I may have not addressed directly accessibility with respect to physical environment or accessibility with respect to educational resources, although I do still think it’s a priority for the student union,” was stated by Shaarujaa Nadarajah. Presented solutions such as improving access to the Burke Science Building from Chukky Ibe or wheelchair accessible seating from Leanne Winkels are amazing ideas, but they regurgitate existing requests with apparently little consultation.
Candidates who do have ideas have no plan for achieving their goals. Students have been asking for these changes for decades. If you are going to tokenize our struggle for some votes, at least come with a plan.