Access and Equity Services’ assimilation model distracts from transformative change

By in Opinions

The University of Saskatchewan offers accommodations for its students through Access and Equity Services. Despite changes to the program, AES functions as an institutional Band-Aid, providing services and accommodations that only temporarily obscure inequity among students rather than addressing and dismantling the systemic barriers that differently abled students face.

AES serves over 1,800 students or 7.5 per cent of the student population, myself included. Last November, AES changed their name from Disability Services for Students in an effort to more accurately represent the students they serve.

AES provides a variety of accommodations and services to a variety of students, including those with mental illnesses or disorders, learning disabilities and medical disabilities — such as physical disabilities, temporary injuries, chronic illnesses and mobility issues. Additionally, AES provides for students who require accommodation based on religion, family status, pregnancy and gender identity, in accordance with The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.

On paper, AES appears to be a well-designed, and overall, successful service for students. However, the program itself fails to successfully combat ablest inequity on campus. AES boasts a mantra of “accommodat[ing] individuals requiring accommodations based on disability, religion, family status and gender identity” — meaning that they seek to provide students with equal access to a post-secondary education.

An equal-access approach functions on the basis of seeking equity — every person should be provided with the tools, services and accommodations they need to succeed. Some would argue that this allocation of services and programs is an adequate approach to tackling ableism, but for people who actually use AES, myself included, this approach is far from sufficient.

An equity approach presents a skewed argument in which students are allocated a one-way route for success via institutionalized capitalism. Success is then measured by numerical ranking in rigid, elitist assessment environments. Equal access thrives on this singular route to success but provides supplementary services and accommodations, levelling the playing field for differently abled folks.

Neurotypical folks are not expected to acknowledge their privileged existences, but rather, atypical folks are expected to rise and build themselves up — with accommodations — towards a neurotypical existence.

Equal access expects assimilation. It allows the hierarchical and elitist educational system that is often heavily ingrained in Western education to remain. Those who exist outside of the dominant model of neurotypicality are slowly but surely erased from view.

Ashlynn Weisberg, a students who uses AES, poses for a photo.

In contrast, centring on justice as the primary goal of both AES and the U of S could result in countless multifaceted and ever-expanding routes to success. With the justice model, the definition of success can extend beyond what falls in line with an individual’s productivity.

AES and its equal-access services are currently embedded into the U of S as an extraneous program. I propose a model in which the goals of AES are not contained within a singular program but are expanded upon and rooted in justice-based initiatives to face systemic barriers head on and dismantle them.

With the deconstruction of institutional, social and systemic obstacles, there is no need for a separate, confidential, and ultimately, bureaucratic accommodation and service-based program. Within a model of justice, the source of inequity is addressed directly rather than bypassed.

If the U of S works to apply such a model, AES could eventually be dissolved as a supplementary program. The goals of equity education would be altered to create space for students to directly ask their professors and colleagues for what they need without the necessary signed contract provided by a third-party.

A justice-based design is — perhaps — utopian and idealistic at this point in time. However, that doesn’t negate the necessity of trying new approaches. The problem is not AES but how AES is being used and promoted as an extraneous program rather than a transformative social system. Ideally, moving towards a justice-based system would push the institution to celebrate all kinds of learning styles and knowledge systems.

Ashlynn Weisberg

Photo: Riley Deacon / Photo Editor