Removing barriers for an inclusive and accessible society

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Dec. 3 marks the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Here at UVic, there are approximately 950 students either self-declared or declared by the provincial or federal governments as persons with disabilities. On Dec. 3, a presentation called “Celebrate Diversabilities in Recognition of International Persons with Disabilities Day” will be held from 1–3 p.m. in the Michèle Pujol Room (Student Union Building). This discussion will feature a panel of speakers, including self-advocates Shelley DeCoste and Sheenagh Morrison, and I encourage all to attend.

In the lead-up to Dec. 3, we should ask ourselves: what does it mean to be a person with disabilities to you, to me, to all of us who form UVic’s multicultural, multidimensional student body?

The United Nations’ definition of the term is  “all persons with disabilities including those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various attitudinal and environmental barriers, hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” The UN goes on to point out that a person with disabilities may be regarded as a person with a disability in one society or setting, but not in another, depending on the role that the person is assumed to take in his or her community. “The perception and reality of disability also depend on the technologies, assistance and services available, as well as on cultural considerations,” the UN explains.

Personally speaking, I wear both the federal and provincial labels of “disabled.” My disability affects both my biochemical structure and my physical well-being — essentially, my bones weep trauma. My chronic physical illness is the result of accumulative trauma — trauma passed down through three generations or more.

To say I am driven to raise awareness around this issue would be an understatement. I also feel considerable shame around the entire concept of disability. In reading over most basic historical records on disabilities, I can easily see why I would feel this way. I was born into a world that, while privileged enough here in Canada, also marginalized all people who were not considered the norm.

It is almost shocking to read in UN documents that “[t]he 1970s marked a new approach to disability” as “[t]he concept of human rights for persons with disabilities began to be accepted internationally.” For me, it is totally unimaginable that the concept of human rights for any disabled person would even have to be identified. In 1982, the UN General Assembly followed up on 1981’s International Year of Disabled Persons by adopting, on Dec. 3, 1982, the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons. According to the UN’s website, “The Programme restructured disability policy into three distinct areas: prevention, rehabilitation and equalization of opportunities.” I am particularly compelled by the concept of prevention, as it is my sincere belief that poverty creates multigenerational trauma and its coexistent possibility of severe addiction, which in turn fosters many symptoms of mental illness.

Though UVic has a long way to go in reducing exhausting paperwork and helping alleviate student poverty, it is nevertheless important to recognize UVic’s significant attempts at the removal of barriers for disabled UVic students. The Resource Centre for Students with a Disability (RCSD) is the university administration’s official support network for disabled students. It was my entry point into the UVic Students with a Disability system.

My experience at UVic has been in so many ways one of inclusion. I returned to UVic this summer after an absence of 25 or so years. Both the professors with whom I spent many long summer hours were so generous in their understanding of my at times confused, stressed and bewildered state — I did not know what Moodle was and could not tolerate a film that may have been simple enough to other students but for me carried powerfully destructive images. Much of the summer term was a serious challenge.

Not once did I feel in any way that I was considered anything but an at times too loud, silver-haired woman with a whole lot to say. The UVic Health Clinic provided me with what had been missing in my life for the past few years: weekly, high-quality medical care. I would not be writing these words today without the amazing, gentle patience I experienced from both my doctors and the nurses. The human face of UVic has been one of welcome.

Blessings on Dec. 3, 2012, and on a fabulous UVic community that does so much to remove barriers for many of us who have experienced them.

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