Disabled students share their experiences with inaccessibility and discrimination at VIU

Ableism, like many other systems of oppression and marginalization, is a complex and nuanced concept. A simple way to understand ableism is to think of it as discrimination against disabled people, whether intentional or not. As I take the time to educate myself on ableism and deconstruct my own internalized ableism, I notice things like microaggressions and accessibility issues more often and more clearly. There have been many ableist issues popping up at VIU this year which have angered me more than they might have in the past.

My experiences from the past school year as a disabled student have been extremely varied. From being harassed for parking in accessible stalls, to having a professor correct the word “ableism” to “able-ism” in my writing (as if it is not a real word, not a real thing) and everything in between, it seems I have been pained by ableist culture more than I have been by my own disability this year. When your existence is continually twisted into something other than what it is, you wear down.

On the other hand, I have been really lucky to find not only a supportive partner who goes above-and-beyond for me, but also a supportive friend group who never call into question the validity of my experience. I’ve had friends save my padded, accessible chair in class when I was running late, listen to my rants about ableism and ableist assholes, ask for my artwork to be displayed at disability-related events, and even encourage me to write articles like the one you’re reading for the Navigator. My Access Specialist at Disability Services has also been an invaluable member of my support team this year.

I’ve learned many things from having a disability and by choosing to openly identify as disabled, and the biggest lesson is the importance of community. Along with holding my friends and partner close, I’ve taken steps to become active in online activist communities, where I’ve learned so much beyond my own experience and been fully heard and understood by my peers on more than one occasion. I’ve also learned the importance of protecting and defending myself when necessary. I’ve “rehearsed my lines” to better respond to ableist questions I often get asked, and begun to carry around cards to explain invisible disabilities to strangers who approach me for parking in accessible stalls.

The following pieces of writing from fellow disabled students give a broader perspective than I alone can offer. They take into consideration the effects of mental illness, learning disabilities, functional disabilities, and more on the educational experience, and consider what VIU is (or isn’t) doing to not only accommodate, but support disabled students. You’ll notice some are written anonymously for fear of further discrimination or backlash, but the importance of their stories is no less.

I’m a student with invisible physical disabilities that restrict my mobility. Despite my academic pursuits at VIU, my illnesses—along with regular doctor and emergency room visits—never stop. I have a life-threatening autoimmune disease, nerve dysfunction, and chronic pain, and I don’t have access to mobility devices, so I don’t “look sick” to most people on a day-to-day basis. Because of this, the validity of my physician-ordered disability parking permit continually comes into question by ignorant, humiliating, and ableist parking vigilantes.

At VIU, disabled people with disability parking permits are allowed to park in any accessible stall, as well as in all general and employee parking lots. Yet, in March 2017, I parked beside the Malaspina Child Care Centre (near the Malaspina Theatre building), and noticed a ticket on my windshield when I got back to my vehicle. I was reading the ticket over in shock, when I noticed a worker from the Care Centre exiting the building and coming out to scream at me in true vigilante style. She told me I had made parking “extremely inconvenient” for parents picking up their children, and that she had called VIU security on me. When I told her I’m disabled and allowed to use my emblem to park on campus, she openly doubted the validity of my disabilities and even went so far as to point her finger to her head and scream, “oh yeah, you have a disability,” in an attempt to mock me by insinuating a developmental disability. I followed her to the door of the Care Centre, insisting on receiving her manager’s name, and noticed the children inside who she had left behind when she approached me outside. They looked scared as she continued to mock me in front of them.

After this incident, I spoke to VIU Parking and Security, who assured me they issued a fake ticket to appease incessant, non-binding parking claims of the Care Centre workers. I then followed-up with the Care Center manager via voicemails and emails, but she didn’t respond until sending my counsellor in Student Services a patronizing and insincere apology which served to assert their ongoing frustration with parking outside the Care Centre.

Only the odd, less aggressive parking vigilante had approached me until February 2018, when I parked next to building 345 and was approached by a woman who asked, “do you have a disability parking permit?” Annoyed, though not at all surprised, I said yes. She said, “good,” and walked away from me hastily. Then I noticed she was also parked in an accessible stall. I asked her the same question, to which she responded “yes” and I said “good.” Suddenly, she began to snap back at me, exclaiming that she was teaching faculty—as if that gave her the right to harass me for parking. I responded by telling her I was a disabled student, then walked away as she yelled after me about her annoyance with students who use parking permits that don’t belong to them.

The responsibility of ableism falls on each non-disabled person to educate themselves and act to dismantle their privilege. Between harassment from people within the VIU community, students allegedly illegally using emblems from other people, and disabled people judging other disabled people, there is so much ableism at play on this campus with regards to letting disabled students use accessible parking. But, in reality, parking is only one of many adversities faced by diversely-disabled students at VIU.

-by Anonymous

Why won’t you focus?

I’m just trying to do homework, but the on-campus construction bustle makes it impossible. A flashback to elementary school floods my mind: I couldn’t focus, so the teacher put my desk in the corner. I was a bad student. At least the dunce cap had been retired.

I stare at my homework with frustrated, empty trepidation. My mind wanders to what will happen if I don’t finish this, but I just can’t—a mental block traps me in a maze as my mind defocuses on what’s important, like the bokeh effect in a photo.

I know I have to do it, yet weeks go by. I start to feel stupid. Dark clouds of depression and anxiety come back like old, unwelcome friends. I’m too embarrassed to bother asking for help; I’m probably just stupid, that’s it. I avoid the problem for a while. I can’t function so I should just feel badI am bad. Depression and anxiety speak over any reasonable thought in my mind, and I feel so lost I let them drag me deeper into this hole.

Finally, I reach out for help. I’m met with the deadline for penalty-free withdrawal, some phone numbers, and questions as to why I’m still here. University isn’t meant for people like me. I reach out to university offices I think may be able to help, only to be passed off aimlessly. One day, Disability Services gives me the name of a university success coach I should contact, but she’s like a ghost on the internet.

Frustrated again, I give up for a while. It’s been weeks of trying to find anyone who could possibly aid me in getting back on track. Maybe I should just stay depressed. The VIU website makes it hard to access the person I need to. One day I get ahold of her, and I hope she can help. I want an education. I don’t want to live in poverty forever.

-by Anonymous

-by Ciro Di Ruocco

I’ve had a wide range of experiences at VIU. Most of the time, it’s been amazing, but we tend to remember the bad things that happen to us very vividly.

As somebody with a vision impairment gained halfway through my studies, I can remember the layout of the university based upon the map in my head, even though I cannot read the map anymore. Our university has grown vastly from what it used to be, with a lot of construction for upgrading and improvement.

One of my most memorable accidents from recent years happened to me this past winter. The ground was just getting a slight powdering of slick, wet snow and even though an Albertan might laugh at the idea of campus closing from it, it is quite dangerous. I was making my way down a flight of stairs near the cafeteria. I had my white cane in front of me to let me know when I hit the break in the flight, when my cane became jammed in something and flew out of my hands. Due to the speed I was going down the stairs trying to catch the bus, the force caused me to slip and fall down the stairs. I figured out that my cane got stuck in a wire fence used to enclose a construction area they were working on at the time. 

My injuries were minor: bruising along my legs, back, and bum. Admittedly, my pride was hurt most. I fumbled to find my white cane, camouflaged in the snow, and missed my bus. The next day, I alerted Disability Services about the issue, and that very day they contacted facilities about it. Sometimes, the university runs on Island time—but, this time, the issue got fixed right away. I’ve noticed that whenever there is construction that uses the same type of wire fencing, they put a mesh screen in front so that another white cane doesn’t get stuck in the wire and cause somebody the same accident.

Sometimes accessibility issues are not understood by non-disabled folk, but I have always been proud of the quick and thoughtful actions the Disability Services office has contributed to making this campus a more welcoming place for people with disabilities to study at.

-by Richard Harlow

I’ve been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder for the past 12 years, and I’ve struggled with them my entire life. Routine and scheduling are essential to my success in university.

During a VIU Creative Writing course, I emailed an instructor about an addition to the class requirements two-thirds through the semester. I rely heavily on course outlines and requirements to build a semester I know I can handle. Learning that the outline would have work added to it part-way through devastated me. I was having a full-blown anxiety spiral due to the project, and reached out to the instructor for support.

I explained that my mental health prevented me from participating in the assignment and inquired if there was an alternative or if any accommodations could be made in order for me to meet the course requirements. I was not required to disclose my disability, but thought doing so would create a space for the instructor to understand the impossible nature of the change.

The instructor responded by saying that university might not be for me. If I was unable to handle the pressure, I shouldn’t expect concessions to be made for my limitations in either my education or profession.

I reminded him that it is illegal to discriminate against individuals with disabilities. I told him that implying that university was not a viable option for me was both offensive and harmful, not to mention completely unprofessional. He did not reply after that.

He spoke to the class on the issue the following week, and created an accommodation for “any students facing difficulty” with the new assignment, despite dismissing our email exchange. I became withdrawn in class, failing to participate in discussions—unusual for an extrovert like me. I felt stupid and foolish.

At the same time, I have a 3.89 GPA and finished that course with an A-. My mental illnesses do not remove my intelligence or aptitude for the profession I’m training for. Needless to say, I filed a complaint (that, to my knowledge, wasn’t followed up) and never took a course from this instructor again. I completely altered the genre of writing I specialize in, as that professor was (and still is) the only one who teaches those courses at VIU.

-by Cheryl Folland