Features | A culture of neglect

Campus remains physically, financially and socially inaccessible for many, despite McGill’s supposed commitment to accessibility for all.

Accessibility: a word that conjures up images of wheelchair ramps and automatic doors, but aims to encompass so much more than just physical mobility barriers. While spaces like McGill’s campuses can be – and indeed are – physically inaccessible for people with mobility impairments, they are also inaccessible for a variety of other reasons. There are numerous physical barriers that aren’t accounted for by wheelchair ramps – not that McGill has many of those either.

Social and financial accessibility are physical accessibility’s lesser-known cousins, and I’m still waiting for them to receive their acceptance letter and come to McGill. Once you start looking, it’s hard to ignore their absence: from the nine-to-five (or worse, ten-to-four) business hours of university services that exclude those who work from accessing them, to the ever expensive university meal plans and dining halls, McGill becomes nearly impossible to navigate if you’re poor, working, a parent, or really anything but a well-off student 24 hours a day.

McGill’s website boasts that “we know the importance of attracting the best and brightest,” but somewhere along the line “the brightest” came to mean only the able-bodied, able-minded, full-time, financially stable students. McGill claims to be accessible, and in theory offers services to help students, but in practice, support for students is inadequate. As Matteo, a third year science student, puts it, “Giving all students equal and fair chances is imperative to success. A modern institution should be doing more, and not less, to address the varying issues around accessibility.”

McGill becomes nearly impossible to navigate if you’re poor, working, a parent, or really anything but a well-off student 24 hours a day.

This article was inspired by what should have been a ten minute walk from Otto Mass to the Education Building that turned into a twenty minute jungle gym adventure over icy metal stairs and past grumpy cops, ending with a $4 piece-of-shit latte-like object that I never would have ordered had the price been posted. Really though, my frustrations – and it seems other’s too – run much deeper than the recent construction surrounding McGill. Certainly the constant jackhammering, traffic delays, and occasional giant open flames have worn on us, but these disruptions to accessibility, and McGill’s response to them, are merely the loudest and most recent of the systemic problems saturating this university.

This article isn’t meant to be a bitch fest, though at times it will read that way. It’s meant as a wake-up call. A plea to a university that claims to care about students, while doing stunningly little to make their lives easier.

Physical accessibility

Let’s begin with the traditional sense of the word accessible – that is, accessible to wheelchair or other mobility assistive device users. Most buildings at McGill are physically accessible, or at least parts of them are. But several buildings (such as McTavish 3438 and the Hosmer Annex) have no elevators, and are therefore not accessible past the first floor. Even more buildings lack even one accessible washroom (these include Dawson Hall and Bishop Mountain Hall), forcing students with mobility impairments to travel to nearby buildings every time they need to pee.

Even buildings with elevators and accessible washrooms face issues; currently, the only accessible entrance to Redpath library is through service point, which closes by 5 p.m. on weekdays, is not open on weekends, and requires students to have both a key and a key card, which they must acquire from the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD). Similarly, access to the Currie Gymnasium (where students often write exams) is accessible only through the back entrance, and requires students to “make prior arrangements or call” to use it. Clearly McGill sees no problem in wasting the time and energy of students with disabilities.

The University has at least realized that it was built on the side of a mountain, and offers an adapted mobility bus to shuttle students around the downtown campus (not including Solin Hall, of course, so hope you don’t live there!). However, its use requires medical documentation outlining your impaired mobility, something which costs money and time, and might not be readily available to international students, or students with a short term disability, like a broken limb. Many of the STM and AMT transit stations fail to be accessible (only 11 of the 68 metro stations are equipped with elevators), leaving students the choice of expensive options like cars, unreliable options like the STM paratransport system, or living close to campus in apartments with higher-than-average rent.

Clearly McGill sees no problem in wasting the time and energy of students with disabilities.

Of course, these students could always live in residence! Unless they have a service animal, because many of those aren’t allowed in residence, and unless they need an accessible room, because of all twelve of McGill’s residences only three offer universally accessible rooms, and of those three, none are apartment style or shared living. It’s also worth noting that none of those three are even close to being the cheapest options, or offer the option to opt out of the expensive meal plans. Furthermore, none of those three are on the MacDonald campus. None of the accessible rooms are even within a five-minute walk of campus.

Discussions of accessibility at McGill often center on students, but faculty and staff are similarly affected by inaccessibility. Junie, a third year anthropology student, told me about how a faculty member had to be carried into a building to attend a conference. This same faculty member was then unable to attend the launch event for her own journal, due to physical inaccessibility. Not only is this sort of incident demeaning, it’s also dangerous for the faculty member. Nonetheless, it remains the everyday reality for many at McGill.

Let’s return to the construction, the thing that inspired this whole article. This year has featured some of the most extreme projects, with the complete dismantling of Sherbrooke, McTavish and Dr. Penfield, but no year has been without its share of building, breaking down, or re-doing something at McGill. The tearing up of McTavish seems to have been monumentally poorly dealt with, as the management’s solution to blocked and missing stairs was, as fourth year science student Jane describes it, “horribly icy and crowded scaffolding.” In October, The Daily wrote an editorial about the construction, reminding students that while we all complain about the construction death traps, they have more serious repercussions for some: “For most people, having to take extra stairs, a longer route, or navigate an uneven sidewalk is an annoyance, but little more. For others, it can mean pain or discomfort, missing classes or appointments, and being barred from campus life and activities.” Beyond the scaffolding, constantly moving construction has meant constantly changing paths to various buildings. This changing landscape may be inevitable, sure, but McGill’s poor handling of it is not. Daily updates on how to get to buildings, signs on the fences, maps on their websites, or any other number of solutions would have been appropriate. Instead McGill has only provided students a web form to lodge complaints about construction, which I’m sure will be handled about three days after it’s all finished. The true damage isn’t even in the twisted ankles or lates to labs that the construction causes – it’s students’ and staff’s autonomy, stress levels, and sense of belonging at McGill that are irreparably hurt by this treatment.

Junie, a third year anthropology student, told me about how a faculty member had to be carried into a building to attend a conference.

It’s important to consider barriers that campus-users may face that are not related to mobility as well. To begin with, almost the entirety of campus is lit with fluorescent lights, often aging or broken ones, that flicker and cause extreme pain to students with photophobia or migraine conditions (I’m looking at you Otto Maass 10, and your light that has flickered for three years now). Similarly, health conditions can be aggravated by faulty equipment like projectors that flicker and distort images. If you think there’s a running theme here of everything at McGill being broken, you’re right. Libraries at McGill use audio announcements to signal closing times, events, and other announcements – a medium that is completely inaccessible to the hard of hearing or deaf. For those with chemical or scent sensitivities, almost the entire campus is a nightmare, one easily avoided by declaring spaces “scent free,” or at least using unscented soaps and cleaning products.

If you’ve ever needed to change a diaper in public, or empty a menstrual cup, then you’ve likely realized the usefulness of single user bathrooms. McGill campus is rather devoid of them, despite the many benefits they serve for those with disabilities that may want privacy, for mothers and fathers, and for those performing religious ablutions. Not to mention, they can also dually function as gender-neutral bathrooms (which, you guessed it, are also scarce).

In the face of all of this, McGill argues that accessibility renovations are expensive. They are, and the Quebec Liberal government’s austerity measures aren’t making it easier on the institution, but the dismissive tone with which McGill treats concerns of accessibility shows that it’s low on the University’s priority list. McGill’s students, who pay thousands of dollars to attend this university, deserve a safe and comfortable learning environment.

Financial accessibility

We all know university is expensive – like incredibly, unbelievably expensive. So I am constantly left to wonder why the McGill powers-that-be seem hell-bent on making it even more unaffordable. Let’s talk about cell phones, something every student has, right? Naw. When phone plans can cost more per month than I spend on food, it’s a big assumption to think that all students have them, but that hasn’t stopped McGill. Accessible doors in several buildings require students to call to have them opened, and even the OSD requires students to phone to gain “after hours” entrance to the building (though why it’s considered “after hours” when exams are scheduled for these times is beyond me).

McGill recently switched from the “clicker” student response system to the web-based “Polling @ McGill.” While clickers needed to be purchased by individual students, they were often available used for around $20 on McGill student buy and sell pages. Even new from the bookstore, the approximately $60 price tag on clickers is far less than the cost of the web access devices (cellphones, tablets, laptops) required by Polling @ McGill. When a class has marks tied to this participatory system, these devices become mandatory, and therefore represent another unseen cost thrown at McGill students. While we’re on the topic of technology, I’ll never understand how a course gets off requiring students to purchase a program that will be used for all of twenty minutes in a non-graded exercise. (I might never use “Finches and Evolution” again, but I paid $5 for it in BIOL 111 and damn if I’m not keeping it forever).

When phone plans can cost more per month than I spend on food, it’s a big assumption to think that all students have them, but that hasn’t stopped McGill.

Another large financial burden to students comes with health care. Having a doctor is a privilege, especially when 25.5 per cent of students at McGill are international, and therefore separated from their primary care physicians. Many students are left in flux, unable to be seen by their home doctors, but unable to find a Quebec doctor due to the province-wide shortage of family physicians. Even for students with doctors, medical care is often an expensive and lengthy process. This leaves many in situations where acquiring medical documentation is far from easy. In some cases clinics (like McGill Mental Health) may even charge simply for giving you the documentation, even if no interaction with a doctor takes place. If you think getting medical notes isn’t that common a practice, then you’ve never tried to get accommodations from McGill, where these notes are required at every step. Most professors require medical notes to account for even one missed seminar due to a cold. With access to same-day medical notes limited to students in imminent danger of harming themselves or others, or who already have a Client Care Clinician at Mental Health or Counselling, and two-week wait times to see someone at Counselling and Mental Health Services, many students are left with nowhere to turn.

All this activism is beginning to make me hungry; shall we get a bite to eat? It’s regrettable, but knowing the cost of your food before reaching the checkout is rather hard at many McGill institutions. A lack of posted prices in pretty much any cafeteria or campus cafe that’s not student-run leaves students to guess, or forces them to ask about prices, a process which can be difficult in busy cafes, and time consuming. Similarly, the by-weight method used by restaurants at McGill, like the McMed cafeteria and Premier Moisson, results in students guessing at the price, and often leaves them unable to return food, with or without embarrassment, once scooped out. It’s like buying bananas at the grocery store – except grocery stores know enough to provide customers scales.

In some cases clinics (like McGill Mental Health) may even charge simply for giving you the documentation, even if no interaction with a doctor takes place.

Even when prices are posted, they’re not liable to be good ones. Ask any savvy student saver where to get a cheap lunch, and they’ll list off a few places: Snax, Vinh’s, Vua, samosa sales – but almost none of the answers will be McGill-run dining areas. Dining halls on campus offer some of the most overpriced meals you can find. They rarely offer deals or sales, preferring to paint themselves as gourmet eateries, at the cost of students’ bank accounts. Now, to be fair, I’ve had some pretty good food in rez, but I’ve rarely, if ever, been able to get a meal for less than $5. From Premier Moisson to Second Cup to La Prep, the $8 sandwiches and $3 coffees are beginning to wear on my soul.

In McGill’s never-ending attempt to get even more than eight thousand dollars out of me a year, they also find ways to charge for almost every minor service. Lost your student card? $25 for a scrap of plastic that literally takes them seconds to print. Need a transcript? $15 for a piece of paper. I mean, is no one else so bothered by the fifty dollar fee to add a course after the add/drop period? What is the possible justification for a process that is done completely by computer? Despite having a rather excellent financial aid office (at least if you’re Canadian) McGill seems to do all it can to drive out poor students. I guess it’s just that the working class don’t highlight the McGill brand well.

Social accessibility

For the other cousin, social accessibility, I’ll be brief, as it has so much in common with its financial kin. Given that money is a prerequisite to attending university, I’d expect McGill to understand that many students have to work, and accommodate them. But almost every service you could wish to access at McGill is closed during weekends and evenings. This leaves students working nine-to-five with no way to access Service Point, Advising, McGill Health or McGill Counselling and Mental Health (just to name a few). All of these offices are open either nine-to-five, or worse, ten-to-four. Possibly the worst example of this is the crisis care at counselling, which operates only from 11 a.m. to one p.m.. I hardly think it’s asking a lot for these offices to offer one evening or weekend time slot a week, allowing those with typical work schedules to actually get the help that they need.

This leaves students working nine-to-five with no way to access Service Point, Advising, McGill Health or McGill Counselling and Mental Health.

I guess, though, that working students can count themselves slightly lucky to have found a job at all, especially on campus. The Work Study program is something of a joke, and if you think that’s an overstatement, let me take you out for coffee and explain how I’ve applied to over a hundred jobs through it, and received only one interview. The listings are either outdated, filled, or ‘tokens’ in a sense – though the Association for McGill University Support Employees has just ratified a new collective agreement with the University, to mandate twice-yearly meetings to discuss improving these issues within the Work Study program. Professors have been known to interview work study candidates just to say they did, and then hire a volunteer in their place, thus saving their precious funding. With so many on-campus jobs, I’m constantly baffled that so many non-students work on campus, when countless students apply to work study and receive nothing. I have two on campus jobs, and you can bet I didn’t get either through the Work Study program. Matteo described it to me as “a figurehead program, which does little to actually help students find on-campus positions.” McGill needs to focus on creating jobs for students, or putting students into existing ones. Either way, they must acknowledge that simply having a broken program isn’t enough, and that though it might work to tuck a few more feathers in McGill’s cap, it’s not working to tuck any bills into students’ wallets.

Empty solutions

There is an overwhelming sentiment of neglect by McGill present in these examples, and in students’ minds. Jane said that she feels “the administration’s claims that McGill is an accessible school are more for show than anything else,” a sentiment mirrored by Shlomo, A second year arts student, in his assertion that “McGill doesn’t care about our success, we exist to give them money as students and bump their numbers.”

Even when the administration tries to create solutions to accessibility issues, too often those solutions are implemented without adequate student consultation, or in an effort to save money, not truly improve things, and end up creating more problems than they resolve. Certainly, in my experience and across the interviews I conducted, there was a recurring theme of the poor design and poor implementation of the services designed to help mediate inaccessibility. Shlomo said that McGill “provides these services in theory but they’re nearly impossible to access in practice” and that these services (like Mental Health, Counselling, the OSD and others) “clearly are not made for people who actually need to access them.” I, and many interviewees, were quick to point to the thirty day wait times at Counselling, or one year wait times at Mental Health Services that were common until their recent merge. A merge that introduced the new stepped-care model, which was trumpeted as an improvement to cut down wait times has only served to shove students who were receiving one-on-one therapy into group therapy or online self-help modules. Former Director of McGill Mental Health Services Norman Hoffman told The Daily that the stepped-care model “makes no clinical sense,” and trans students still face barriers to receiving adequate care.

“McGill doesn’t care about our success, we exist to give them money as students and bump their numbers.”

This is most obvious during finals season, as Matteo told me, when “rather than take actual steps to address the mental health crises at McGill, such as better scheduling exams or reducing workloads, the University takes almost mocking steps like reminding us that sleep and snacks are important.” All in all, it seems that checking the box for ‘offers students services’ is what matters to McGill, rather than listening to students and making sustainable, positive changes. McGill’s lack of respect or empathy for students is embodied in Jane’s comment: “McGill seems more preoccupied with getting a good ranking on the Forbes college list than with the mental health of its students.”

But we should talk about the one McGill department that seems to be doing great things in this field: the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD). I’ve been registered with the OSD for three years now, and have had a generally positive experience, an attitude mirrored by several interviewees. It does, however, speak to the culture at McGill that almost every accessibility issue is relegated to this small, understaffed department (ten employees to serve over 2,000 students), even if the concerns are not explicitly related to a student’s disability. The general feeling among those I interviewed was that the OSD was doing its best, especially when put up against, as Junie said, “McGill’s culture, which is not one of acceptance or accommodation. They have limited resources and support from the wider community.”

While most experiences with the OSD seem positive, there are exceptions. Matteo expressed to the OSD that his chronic migraines are exacerbated by fluorescent lights and flickering projectors. He was told “to wear a hoodie, which does little to help” and leaves him writing exams in a sweater, in “an exam room that consistently reaches over 28 degrees Celsius.” Matteo told me that “it feels like a constant struggle to get accommodations” and worries that “they could be taken away at any second.” I have repeatedly been made to feel unwelcome or unsupported by staff at the OSD, an issue I believe occurred because their non-counsellor staff received no formal training in dealing with students facing barriers. Notes provided for students are often illegible, or just missing. Exams written with the OSD are often held in unfamiliar classrooms with construction hammering outside the window. A further issue arises when students never make it there at all – Shlomo repeatedly asked McGill professional employees where he could receive services that the OSD provided, but was never once referred to them.

“It feels like a constant struggle to get accommodations.”

McGill leaves students to suffer and drop out if they can’t cut it, as opposed to helping when possible and creating a comfortable learning environment. As Matteo explains, “The culture of hardship and attrition at McGill seems a barrier to providing the accommodations that students desperately need.” Junie likewise echoed this sentiment, calling the McGill culture “Darwinian.”

The inaccessibility of McGill is far more pervasive than icy stairs or flickering lightbulbs; it’s embedded in the culture of McGill. This is a culture in which disabled students are an afterthought, creating solutions to inaccessibility is seen as an opportunity to cut costs rather than improve conditions, and where deviations from the ‘perfect’ student are not supported. This culture of uncaring caused every person I interviewed to point out how “McGill trails other institutions in terms of accessibility.” Junie explained to me that at other institutions like the Dawson College CEGEP and Western University “they were able to see that some rules [were] created for the general, average person. They were able to see where exceptions are warranted. At McGill they’ll say that it infringes upon the rights of the other students. […] McGill feels they’re giving you some sort of advantage that you’re not entitled to” where “other schools see that students with disabilities need these exceptions to even the playing field, not to get a leg up over others.”

“The culture of hardship and attrition at McGill seems a barrier to providing the accommodations that students desperately need.”

The homepage of the OSD features a quote from Henry Holden: “attitudes are the real disability.” Clearly, if I just will myself to have a better outlook on my anxiety disorder, I’ll be able to stop throwing up in fear. If I were just happier, I wouldn’t need the store-bought neurotransmitters that my body fails to produce! If we all just stopped seeing ourselves as victims and pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, we could function according to society’s idea of how we should. McGill might be the all-time champion at the blame game, as they consistently find a way to, as Shlomo says, “Make us feel like failures, and that it’s our fault.”

So, this is me calling McGill out, getting angry and refusing to accept sub-par conditions as the norm. This is bigger than a quote that rubbed me the wrong way or some slippery stairs on McTavish. This is about McGill committing to the health, safety, and enjoyment of all of their students. If McGill wants to be ‘the best of the best,’ they need to stop seeing students with disability as inconveniences that drain resources and produce bad publicity, and provide them instead with the tools they need to succeed.

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