The SSMU Ballroom sat almost completely empty on the evening of October 25, the date on which SSMU’s Accessibility Town Hall was scheduled to be held. A Reddit post promoting the event made by one of the event’s organizers, Fanta Ly, suggested student interest in the event – the post garnered 96 upvotes and received several comments about students’ negative experiences trying to access health care and accommodations at McGill. However, boxes of pizza ordered for attendees went untouched and round tables remained unoccupied throughout the evening. As journalists from the Daily, The McGill Tribune, and Le Délit were its only attendees, the event essentially became an impromptu press conference rather than a Town Hall with group discussions and on-stage speakers.
Nonetheless, panelists and organizers had a productive conversation over the course of ninety minutes. “Maybe this town hall has taught us that students feel more comfortable communicating online in terms of what they want to see in terms of the advocacy from their representatives, and that’s okay,” remarked Sal Cuthbertson, SSMU’s accessibility coordinator. Ly added that the surveys conducted by SSMU have received “quite a few responses,” which will help advocates understand how to address students’ needs.
While the aforementioned Reddit post highlighted issues with the Wellness Hub and Student Accessibility and Achievement (SAA), formerly known as the Office for Students with Disabilities, speakers explained that accessibility issues include the obstacles which students face when reporting harassment and discrimination. Ly, who is the Policy and Mobilization Researcher for the VP External portfolio, said that her introduction to accessibility advocacy came by way of research into McGill’s harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence policies. Clara McGaughey, who is employed as a senior advocate at the Legal Information Clinic at McGill (LICM), also spoke about these policies. The Student Advocacy Branch of the LICM helps students understand McGill’s policies and navigate conflicts within the university. “In terms of accessibility issues, that usually looks like us attending meetings with SAA, or filing grievances on behalf of students whose rights have been violated,” she explained. She added that the LICM can help students file “discrimination reports, harassment reports, [and] any kind of violence reports” as well as accompany students to the ensuing meetings with administrators or faculty. The LICM can also assist in informal dispute resolution by speaking with the Dean of Students or the ombudsperson so that a student does not have to file a formal complaint.
After McGaughey explained her work at the LICM, VP University Affairs Kerry Yang made an appearance to discuss two accessibility-related projects he and Mental Health Commissioner Maya Willard-Stepan have been working on. As of yet, McGill does not have a service animal policy, although service animals are permitted; Yang previously discussed his efforts to establish such a policy at the Fall Consultative Forum, and he elaborated on this during the town hall. “Compared to other Canadian provinces, [Quebec is] like decades behind […] And as a result, McGill follows exactly,” he said in explaining the province’s strict definition of what counts as a service animal. Yang said that he is advocating for McGill to broaden its definition of service animals and adopt a service animal policy which allows psychiatric service animals. The second of Yang’s accessibility projects is to improve short-term accommodations. Currently, students must ask their professors for short-term accommodations – for example, a last-minute extension or unexpectedly deferring an exam – which produces widely varying results from professor to professor. Yang is seeking to establish a policy comparable to those at Concordia and Western University – so far, he and Willard-Stepan have had preliminary conversations with a few administrators, and are hoping to present the policy to the Senate as soon as possible, Yang said.
Rine Vieth, a graduate student who has been advocating for improved mental health and disability accommodations since 2019, added that although McGill could choose to provide accommodations without medical documentation, the university is leaving those decisions up to individual instructors – whether a student gets accommodations comes down to how sympathetic their instructor is. They also recounted their work as the Mobilization Officer of the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM), which included advocating against imposing punitive measures on students experiencing a mental health crisis. For example, AGSEM unanimously passed a motion discouraging members from using the Early Alert System (EAS) – a mechanism on myCourses that instructors can use to “express concern for a student experiencing difficulty,” per the Office of the Dean of Students. According to Vieth, the committee in the Office that oversees the EAS involved the SPVM. Rather than involve the police, AGSEM chose to recommend directing students toward mental health services provided on campus and in Montreal. That same year, Vieth also advocated against the drafted Policy on Involuntary Leave, which would have prohibited students who posed a threat to themselves or others from accessing university services with the aim of pushing them to “get support external to McGill.”
Speakers also shared their experiences sitting on various committees in the university and working at the Wellness Hub and Peer Support Centre. Combatting burnout is a difficult part of advocacy work: “Something I’ve noticed is that a lot of disabled people also get very used to accepting less than what they’re actually entitled to […] it feels like if you only have so much energy, it’s better to use it in other ways than to use it to try and improve,” said Zeke Bertrand, one of the External Affairs Commissioners. Cuthbertson added that working on McGill’s Accessibility Strategy has been a “slow and inefficient” process, and that communication between administration and students has been far from perfect. Although Cuthbertson has been working as the Accessibility Coordinator at SSMU for about a year and a half now – longer than McGill’s own accessibility advisor – they weren’t contacted about the Accessibility Strategy until recently. “It wasn’t until four months ago that I was mandatory to consult [as] a student representative for their EDI initiatives […] it was only then that I actually found out that this Accessibility Working Group was even being put together and an advisor had been appointed.” They continued to explain that while McGill organized a public relations campaign to tout the Accessibility Advisor, the university neglected to establish an infrastructure through which the advisor could connect with “the current accessibility framework that existed at McGill, and [which] existed from advocacy initiatives by student representatives.”
Ly had a similar experience in her work. “I think with a lot of the Black Student Associations that I was involved with, it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, we never expect McGill to take the lead on anything, so we’ll do it ourselves,’” she said while detailing her experience in advocating for improved mental health support for racialized students. Ly said that in 2020 she and other student advocates were told they would receive funding for a Black student wellness initiative that would fund therapy sessions for students who experienced trauma. However, Executive Director of Student Services Martine Gauthier expressed opposition to the initiative and directed students to use telehealth services instead, per Ly.
Later, Vieth remarked, “Black students need support, and to me, everyone wins if Black students get more support, right? […] I feel like getting more students involved and making sure there isn’t just one type of student representative is so, so important.” Ly added that while her experience working as a consult for the Black Student Wellness Plan was one of the best she’s had, the implementation of the plan was disappointing. “They can say they did that consultation, right? It’s in their report, but nothing follows through.” Another factor which may hinder the efficacy of McGill’s EDI plan is the limited extent to which various positions within McGill’s massive bureaucracy can advocate for students. For example, the Black Student Affairs Liaison and the Office for Mediation and Resolution report to the Provost’s Office, Ly said. So, if a student raises a concern to the Black Student Affairs Liaison about the provost’s response to a harassment and discrimination report, that puts the Liaison in a tricky spot: “Is he going to call out his boss and be like, ‘Oh, you didn’t do this investigation properly?’” she asked.
Despite the notorious inaccessibility of the Wellness Hub and difficulty of accessing academic accommodations at McGill, advocates in the VP External portfolio and elsewhere are continuing to push for a more accessible university. For students who would like to get involved, the VP University Affairs and VP External can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively; a list of SSMU advocacy committees with open positions can be found at https://www.mcgill.ca/engage/campus-advocacy/ssmu-advocacy.