OUSA’s 43rd General Assembly had the responsibility of revising and ratifying the Students with Disabilities policy paper. It’s important to frame this decision as a responsibility given the perennial challenge of being a student leader: having to represent students whose lived experiences you may not share.
Our President, Spencer Nestico-Semianiw, recently spoke to this challenge at our Partners in Higher Education Dinner. He described the pressure he feels under expectations to speak to unique student experiences that he personally has not had as a defining feature of his tenure as Vice-President Education at the McMaster Students Union and OUSA’s spokesperson. Sharing the stories of students who stop him between classes and reach out through social media is something Spencer takes very seriously and considers vital to his role.
This was something GA delegates took seriously as well: discussing and strengthening policy for the disability community, from outside of the community and its culture.
This led the GA through some lengthy debates about the use of language. They wrestled with assigning the most contemporary and accurate descriptor to a community they did not identify with. As an aside, there was no pressure for those who may have identified to out themselves and we sincerely hope they felt that they had space to have their voices heard.
Delegates cycled through several possible titles, suggesting that this be the policy paper for “students with different abilities,” “students who are differently abled,” or “students with disAbilities.” The question of which descriptor to use remains unanswered even among disabilities studies scholars. Contributors to Dianne Pothier and Richard Devlin’s Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law (a source we relied on in the creation of the paper) invoke a number of other possibilities: “disabled persons,” “people with impairments,” “people who experience activity limitations,” and “people who live with impairments.”
While the jury is still out, our students had to make a judgement.
There was a clear preference for ‘person-first’ language--that is, the use of terms like ‘student with a disability’ over ‘disabled student’--and a desire to avoid derogatory language. Consider that the 2004 Canadian Oxford dictionary defines handicap as “a thing that makes progress or success difficult,” and disability as “a physical or mental handicap...” or “a lack of some asset, quality, or attribute, that prevents one’s doing something.” These definitions place disability squarely within individuals’ bodies and, as Pothier and Devlin also note, convey the idea that an entire person is disabled because of a specific impairment or limitation.
Delegates were acutely aware of these connotations and acutely aware of the power of language. Language has the power to shape how individuals construct and express their identity as well as the power to determine the range of identities individuals are expected to embody. In representing a diverse student population, delegates wanted to avoid painting everyone with a single brush coloured by pity.
Language has the power to determine perceptions and delegates felt pressure to create impressions of dignity and respect.
After two and a half days of passionate discussion, we talked ourselves in circles. This is not to imply that discussions were fruitless; rather, the intention is to shed light on the careful deliberations that were had. So despite ending up where we started in terms of a title, we hope our delegates learned a little bit about themselves, their roles as student leaders, and the communicative structures that shape interactions with their constituents.
We are pleased to present our new and improved Students with Disabilities policy paper, replacing the 2012 policy of the same name. You can find the policy here.