By Emily Joveski and Sonia El Boury
The first inter-university disability conference was a success, says a participant, largely because she says she felt “safe” there.
“I just feel really safe here, like people believe in me and what I can do,” said Marie, who preferred not to give her last name for privacy reasons.
“In the outside world, there are barriers everywhere you turn,” said Marie, who identifies as having both a psychiatric and physical disability. You’re constantly faced with able-ism. It’s something I face everyday. Here, people understand you.”
The Intermingling Disability Communities: Reclaiming Our Bodies and Minds conference took place in Toronto from Feb. 27 to March 1.
The conference’s success depended largely on the extreme care that the organizers put into the event’s accommodation and accessibility.
As people made their way into Ryerson’s Student Campus Centre Saturday morning, Al Donato was running through a list of accessibility features: ASL and live captioning; wheelchair and mobile-device accessibility; gluten, lactose and nut-free food options; and gender-neutral washrooms among others.
The list was long, but Donato, co-ordinator of Ryerson’s disability service group RyeAccess, said she had to make sure she didn’t leave anything out.
Donato was one of the main organizers of the three-day conference, which saw talks and performances by student groups and community activists from Ryerson, University of Toronto, York University and George Brown College.
It was the first time the conference has brought together multiple universities at multiple venues. The event’s page promoted “the knowledge communities have to offer and the multiple understandings of disabilities.”
Bringing together participants from many different disability communities was an ambitious undertaking — one that required months of communication and compromise, says Donato. One of the biggest challenges, she says, was trying to meet the needs of everyone attending, even when those needs may conflict with each other.
“Lighting is an issue,” Donato said as an example. “One person may need very bright lighting while others need dim lighting.Communication is very important.”
The attention to detail given to the conference contrasts with the lack of accessibility everywhere else. Creating accessible and welcoming spaces goes beyond building wheelchair ramps, says Donato. “Ramps are important, but we also wanted to make a space that is mentally and financially accessible for everyone.”
While the conference was partially sponsored by Ryerson’s Faculty of Community Services, RyeAccess and the other schools involved also spent months fundraising to ensure all events were free to participants.
Donato says it was important to create an open space to share experiences about living with a disability. She is mad-identified, a term some people use when they have experienced psychiatric or mental health institutions. The term is a way of reclaiming the word “madness” and dispelling the stigma attached to it. She says she felt hesitant in the past to share her experiences, which include auditory hallucinations, with classmates.
Donato says she values having spaces on campus, like RyeAccess, where she feels welcome, but that Ryerson and other universities could do a better job at making the campus more accessible.
“For example, stress is such a natural part of the school system today,” says Donato. “It’s awful that stress is so normalized at university.”
Student life entails high levels of stress and lack of sleep, and teachers should be more sensitive to students’ mental health, she says.
“In disability communities we try to emphasize flexibility, and school often doesn’t.”
Despite the runaway success of the conference, Donato says that a lack of volunteer and financial resources may prevent them from making the conference an annual event.