Making Accessible Media

This post was written by former student, Anne Zbitnew.


Screen shot of Accessible Design in Broadcast Media

In fall 2016, the School of Media Studies and Information Technology at Humber College received a grant from the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund for a project called Making Accessible Media: Accessible Design in Broadcast Media.


Making Accessible Media: Accessible Design in Broadcast Media was designed for broadcast media professionals, other post-secondary institutions, and all Canadians. This fully accessible open source online course, offered in French and English, focuses on the representation of disability in broadcast media; transcription, captioning; described video and live captioning for broadcast; alternative text for image description and tutorials on how to make documents and presentations inclusive and accessible. The website includes a built-in screen reader and magnifier; all video is captioned and transcribed and original video is accompanied by ASL video; captioned video tutorials with transcripts and accessible PDF descriptions and more.


Making Accessible Media: Accessible Design in Broadcast Media is offered through Humber’s School of Media Studies & Information Technology to all 4,000+ Media Studies students, helping to shape the next generation of broadcast experts. While this course offers practical insight into how to make media accessible in the final stages of production, it also reminds that accessibility should not be an afterthought but part of the initial development process. One of the mandates of this course is to raise awareness of the systemic, attitudinal, physical, information and technological barriers that interrupt accessibility in current broadcast media practices.


The course is made possible by a generous grant to the School of Media Studies and Information Technology at Humber from The Broadcasting Accessibility Fund, which supports innovative projects providing solutions to promote the accessibility of all broadcasting content in Canada.


As broadcasting content becomes widely available across many platforms – televisions, computers, phones – it is critical to ensure that persons with disabilities are provided with the practical and technical means to access this content. The Broadcasting Accessibility Fund (BAF) was established for this purpose. The BAF supports projects that address a range of accessibility needs, and encourages project submissions from a variety of applicants and expects that applicants will employ inclusive design, which sees accessibility built in at the earliest possible stage of its development. The BAF supports projects that work to advance accessibility to content across all platforms, and contribute to a model for innovation that will establish Canada as an international leader in broadcasting accessibility.

Here is a link to the project:

And some of the key features of each module.


Module One-Introduction to Accessible Design in Broadcast Media

AODA Legislation

Representation of Disability in Media

Media Models of Disability


Module Two-Creating Accessible Audio Content


Manual Transcription and Tips for Transcribing

American Sign Language and Quebec Sign Language

Transcription and Captioning at Humber College


Module Three-Captions for Video and Live Events


Captioned Video and Tips for Captioning Video

Video Captioning Format and Grammar

Captions for Live Broadcast


Module Four-Creating Described Video for Broadcast Media


Described Video

Integrated Described Video

Live Description


Module Five-Designing Inclusive Images and Words


Writing in Plain Language

Alternative Text and Screen Readers

Designing Accessible Documents and Presentations


Module Six-Accessibility Innovation in Broadcast Media


Broadcasting Accessibility Fund

Broadcast and Beyond

Choosing Inclusive Language and Style Guide

Making Accessible Media: Documenting Our Process

For more information, contact:


Project Lead:  Anne Zbitnew

Project Manager: Jennie Grimard

Broadcast Media Expert: Mike Karapita


Ok, let’s talk: A response to the Bell Let’s Talk campaign

This piece is re-posted from 2017. This was written by Danielle Landry. She teaches Mad People’s History as part-time instructor with the School of Disability Studies.

A drawing of a road side stand with the words "psychiatric help 5 cents" on top. Inside the stand there is a person with a blue text box. The bottom of the stand reads "The corporation is in"

Ok, let’s talk.

Let’s talk about how those two new workplace scenario commercials only reinforce the idea that it’s unsafe to talk about mental health to your boss or co-workers, instead of establishing that employers in Ontario actually have a duty to accommodate disabled workers, including those with psychiatric disabilities.

Let’s stop positioning disabled people as charity cases through a-nickel-for-every-text campaigns.

Let’s talk about the erosion of our social systems through corporate greed.

Let’s ask why Bell hasn’t instituted any programs to support its low-income customers, such as if they need a reprieve from paying their bills during a hospital stay.

Let’s talk about why it’s not okay that we have to rely on corporate sponsorship to sustain our mental health system. Let’s ask if corporate influence serves to deter (or co-opt) the kinds of radical approaches and critical thinking that are essential for challenging the mental health system to improve and innovate.

Let’s talk about how we’re constantly establishing and maintaining divisions between people (labels, diagnoses, categories of who is ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’) and how these divisions keep us from working together for change.

Let’s question the false dichotomy that’s been created and is being perpetuated in the media between those ‘productive citizens’ with mental health problems and those ‘others’ diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, and how this is a tactic to divide our community and squash social movement.

Let’s talk about how we shouldn’t shame ourselves for not achieving all of the things the white upper-middle celebrities who’ve ‘come out’ to lead these campaigns have managed to achieve in their ‘overcoming’ narratives.

Let’s acknowledge that our experiences differ based on our various social locations, but let’s come together to recognize how we all have a role to play in dismantling all forms of oppression.

Let’s talk about the importance of community.

Let’s talk about universal access as a standard of living.

Let’s talk about our rights.

Let’s talk about our collective history and where we need to go from here.

Charting Your Course(s)

 This post was written by alumnus Scott Allan White, PhD(c), OCT, Reg. Psychotherapist.
photograph of light skinned male wearing glasses and looking at camera

On my own path toward a PhD Critical Disability Studies at York University, I made several ports-of-call along the way. I was a part of the Gay Purge from the Canadian Armed Forces in 1991 and began looking into different colleges and universities at that time. I set my sights on Loyalist College which had just opened up a new student residence and entered the School of Human Studies in 1992. I served on the DSW Program Advisory Committee at Loyalist for two years, as a Don in the residence and worked as a tutor through Student Counselling Services. When Ryerson started a Disability Studies Program in 1999 I came onboard and was excited to be a part of this new beginning in the Faculty of Community Services. I served as a representative on the Search Committee for the School of Disability Studies first faculty member and Director, and was later a recipient of the Bill and Lucille Owen Award in Public Policy. Over time, I’ve worked for a number of Toronto non-profits including Community Living, LOFT, Cota, the AIDS Committee of Toronto and with Canada’s National Ballet School. While at NBS I worked primarily with the Junior Boys at the school and decided I’d be thrilled to train as a Primary Junior Elementary School Teacher. I returned to studies and attended OISE at the University of Toronto to complete a Bachelor of Education in Social Justice Education. After my training at OISE I worked in a role as a workshop facilitator with Neighbourhood Link where I started my Master of Education part-time while also working on my competencies for registration with the newly forming College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario (CRPO).

I’ve prioritized my studies over some work options, but I’ve also enjoyed the work opportunities I’ve come by and tried to happily transition moment to moment with my own dreams in mind. At the heart of the issue was always my own vision and mission for the work and social justice issues I felt personally connected to as a human being. While I’ve certified myself in a number of areas including CBT, ABI and in CAM therapies, my general professional approach to counselling has always been holistic in nature. I connect well to the post-modern, holistic, vitalist and emancipatory politics of both study and work. More often than not, if the work isn’t connected to something philosophically and ethically grounded I feel the earth shifting and the arc of my own trajectory leaning in new directions. I’m more committed to causes and people than the places and bureaucracies and happy say, that’s worked out great! I’m not sure I’d have instrumental advice to provide others, but simply to say follow your heart and reason and you rarely go wrong.

My own journey has taken me from place to place and I’ve learned a lot about human nature and human services that I hope to connect to my current work in academia. I’m now pursing a PhD at York University in Critical Disability Studies in the Faculty of Health and work as a Teaching Assistant in the Department of Equity Studies. I’ve committed myself to a number of initiatives at the school, including work on the Critical Disability Studies Student Association Executive Committee, as a representative on the Faculty Committee and I’m currently serving on the 2018 CDS Admissions Committee. I’ve allotted a bit of time to also work with the Board of Directors of AccessTO, a non-profit devoted to highlighting accessibility in the City of Toronto. A work life balance would be impossible without a healthy sleep and gym routine, and maintaining good relationships with others – so I’ve tried to keep these in my wheelhouse along the way. If I had a motto, it’d be something about keeping busy and lending a helping hand.

No successful journey is without advocates and people who can say a few kind words about you, about your level of commitment, focus and energy. It’s important to keep people close who can help you navigate the waters.

Re-thinking Student Distress on University Campuses

This post was written by Tobin LeBlanc Haley, ELA postdoctoral fellow, Ryerson University in response to an article in University Affairs titled: Our role is to support students when they are ready to be students.

I would like to thank Dr. Costopoulos for raising the important topic of student distress and attendant university responses in his August article for University Affairs. Regrettably, the piece does not factor in the social conditions that contribute to or create student distress, such as student debt, gendered violence, racism, ableism/saneism, and homo/transphobia on campus and the hostile post-crisis political climate and labour market.

Instead, the piece collapses distress and mental illness. To put this another way, in the original article all distress is equated with mental illness and any person with a mental illness label is perceived as distressed. In this context the ‘problem’ is mind/body of the student in distress, in particular, those who Costopoulos identifies as the “severely mentally ill and sometimes actively suicidal” who take up a “very significant portion of [university] resources” (a claim which is not cited). The ‘solution’, the fix, is to have these students take time off and access mental health care systems until/if they can “function as students” (something which is not defined) and be less of a burden on the university.

In addition to ignoring the social nature of distress, the significant problems with mental health care systems in Canada are also sidelined. Yet, these are problems that have been well documented. A very few examples include long-wait times (Canadian Institute for Health Information 2012), services that do not make space for Indigenous knowledges and expertise related to mental health (Clark et al 2017) and involuntary treatment practices which have been identified as a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to which Canada is a signatory (Minkowitz 2014). Is medicalizing distress and simply passing students off to mental health care systems (although certainly, they should be able to access public mental health services if they desire) while de-enrolling them from the university a solution?

The collapsing of distress and psychiatric diagnosis, the silence on broader systemic issues that can lead to or exacerbate student distress and the misrepresentation of mental health care systems belies an unawareness of Disability Studies or an unwillingness to engage with this scholarship. For more than forty years, Disability Studies scholars and activists, many of us who have been students in distress and/or students with psychiatric diagnoses, have argued against the individual/medical approach (see for e.g. Oliver 1983), most recently its mobilization under neoliberalism (Morrow and Halinka Malcoe 2017), developing instead a rich body of work about the social production of disability and mental illness (see Meekosha & Shuttleworth 2009, LeFrancois et al 2013). Briefly, in challenging the individual/medical model, Disability Scholars caution against a myopic focus on the individual body drawing attention to the social relations that define and often limit bodies. The focus on bodies obfuscates external factors (e.g., oppression) while simultaneously explaining the implications (e.g., distress) through the mobilization of solely pathological explanations. Certainly, we, as scholars, can understand that distress is not produced in a vacuum but rather emerges from the location of bodies in the current conjuncture discussed above and the devaluing of bodily/mind difference. The very notion of “functioning as a student” must be understood within this broader context, especially as university educators rank people thereby opening up or foreclosing future opportunities. How can we not take into account the world in which we are situated and the challenges it brings for our students when mobilizing this power?

Which brings me to the issue of accommodation. Typically, universities provide accommodation for those barriers to education that can be quantified (e.g., more time on exams to create an equitable testing experience). Should we not also be thinking about how issues like poverty, unaffordable childcare, systemic racism and colonialism, gendered violence and pathologized difference create material inequalities that can make living in the world more “distressing” for some people than others (whether they have a psychiatric diagnosis or not)? Simply telling students who experience distress to leave until they get better (even if financial and academic penalties are eliminated) means we are asking students in distress to individually cope with unequal social relations of power, the very social relations of power which are present on university campuses. Moreover, such an exclusionary practice is discriminatory and would likely be a violation of students’ Human Rights.

We must not treat students in distress as if they have nothing to contribute and/or as people who must be protected from their ‘poor decisions’ (e.g. remaining enrolled). Instead, we must ask them what they want and need and cultivate this support to ensure that they are not unfairly excluded from universities (permanently or temporarily). The following recommendations are potential first steps:

1. That the language used to describe students in distress recognizes that distress is related to oppression within and outside of the university including poverty, ableism/saneism, racism, homo/transphobia, and patriarchy.

2. That it be recognized that student distress will always exist so long as oppression persists, and all efforts to deal with distress must be connected to decolonizing, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-poverty, pro-LGBTQ work on campus.

3. That in lieu of “the mentally ill”, language about mental health be fully representative of the diverse identities of people living with mental illness labels; for example, consumers/survivors/ex-patients/Mad people (or c/s/x/m) or some agreed upon alternative developed by impacted students. This grouping of terms, which comes from a robust social movement, represents the multiplicity of understandings of mental illness categories developed by the c/s/x/m communities.

4. That students experiencing or who have experienced in distress, especially including c/s/x/m students, BIPOC students, and LGBTQ students, lead all consultations and changes related to mental health and associated support services on campus (including accommodation) and be paid for this labour.

5. That all administrators, faculty members and services providers involved in mental health care and associated services on universities campus take a course on the history of mental health care in Canada.

6. That this course be offered by scholars and/or community members who belong to the c/s/x/m community, especially including BIPOC and LGBTQ peoples, and that all involved be paid for this labour.

This is not an exhaustive list, but a starting point to shift the recent attention to mental health and distress on campuses away from a conversation about pathologization and exclusion.

Works cited

Canadian Institute for Health Information. (2012). Chapter 4: Waits for Specialized Care. Health Care in Canada 2012: A Focus on Wait Times. Available at:

Clark, N., Walton, P., Drolet, J., Tribute, T., Jules, G., Main, T., & Arnouse, M. (2017). Melq’ilwiye: Coming Together: Intersections of Identity, Sovereignty and Mental Health for Urban Indigenous Youth. In M. Morrow & L. Halinka Malcoe (Eds.) Critical Inquiries For Social Justice in Mental Health (pp. 165-193). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

LeFrancois, B., Menzies, R., & Reaume, G. (eds). (2013). Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars Inc.

Meekosha, H., and R. Shuttleworth. 2009. What’s So ‘critical’ about Critical Disability Studies? Australian Journal of Human Rights 15 (1), 47–75.

Minkowitz, T. (2013). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Liberation from Psychiatric Oppression. In B. Burstow, B. LeFrançois and S. Diamond (Eds.) Psychiatry Disrupted (pp. 129-144). London: McGill-Queens University Press.

Morrow, M. & Halinka Malcoe, L. (eds.). (2017). Critical Inquiries For Social Justice in Mental Health. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Oliver, M. (1983). Social Work with Disabled People. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Disability in the News

These two pieces were written by current students Danica McPhee and Michelle Hewitt as an assignment for DST502 (Disability and the State).

Disability in the News – The Reality of Consultation versus Action

By Michelle Hewitt

In late October 2017, the Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) government announced the improvements they intend to make to accessibility regulations for physical spaces – buildings, parking lots and so on. These regulations only govern new construction and to extensive renovations, for features such as washrooms, ramps, parking, floor and counters, and the proportion of accessible units in apartment buildings. While there are clearly some issues with these announcements, as the regulations do not apply to structures already in place, on the face of things, the announcements show a government wanting to make positive change for disabled people. However, the following day, the response came from the disability community and it painted a very different picture. Carroll, a local advocate outlined the consultations that have already taken place in previous years, and the recommendations that had gone nowhere. She says, “We cannot consult for another five years, and then wait for another three or four years for it to go through the process within government.” Christy, the executive director of Coalition of Persons with Disabilities NL takes this a step further, and says that this continual consultation with no action is offensive to disabled people. The article continues with examples of the issues that wheelchair users currently face in St John’s, in accessing public spaces.

The issues faced by disabled people in NL are not unique or new. Chouinard (2001) quotes the 1998 Ontarians with Disabilities Act committee (p189) in discussing the same issues of regulations only being applied to new construction. The committee then reflects on the role that this plays on the “lived geographies of law” and that the entitlement to rights are “more socially and spatially uneven that we often assume.” This concept of the disabled people’s invisibility was expanded by Prince (2009), and given the painfully accurate label of “absent citizenship.” Carroll’s frustration with continual consultation without action is seen by Prince as a “government control of the agenda… a largely one-way flow of information and public processes that are episodic and short lived.” (p156)

My own activism faces these same challenges. In my city, Kelowna, consultation is surface deep, following patterns similar to the one-way flow described Prince[1]. Accessibility is rarely included in these consultations. A recent survey asked for thoughts on parking downtown, but none of the questions related to accessibility issues. I questioned this, and a response was posted[2], with no ability for me to continue to the discourse. Worse than that, the City intends to complete a separate parking analysis for accessibility purposes after the completion of the downtown plan, demonstrating their lack of understanding of Universal Design principles and potentially creating reports with conflicting outcomes. This consultation, similar to that seen in NL, is little more than window dressing, and it is disappointing that issues first seen by the Ontarians with Disabilities Act committee almost twenty years ago still persist.

[1] City of Kelowna engagement
[2]City of Kelowna Parking consultation

CBC (2017), “New accessibility regulations for N.L. buildings, parking lots” last accessed Sunday November 26, 2017

CBC (2017), “’This has to change now’: Accessibility advocates say time for consultation is over” last accessed Sunday November 26, 2017

Chouinard, V (2001), “Legal Periperies: Struggles over disabled Canadians’ places in law, society and space”, Canadian Geographer, Vol 45 no1, 187-192.
Prince, Michael J (2009), Absent Citizens: disability politics and policy in Canada”, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Disability in the News – Ontario Government Calls on Businesses to Hire People with Disabilities

By Danica McPhee

The Ontario government has created a new employment strategy for people with disabilities as their unemployment rates are double that of the national average (McQuigge, 2017). This strategy consists of an encouragement for businesses with more than 20 employees to hire at least one person with a disability, yet it will not be enforced (McQuigge, 2017). Other aspects of this strategy involve an online platform that will connect people with disabilities to potential employers and an ‘Employers Partnership Table’ consisting of business leaders who are expected to share best practices with the government, though few details were given in regards to the specifics of these parts of the plan (McQuigge, 2017).

This new strategy is a state intervention in the lives of disabled people that does very little toward creating actual change, especially for those people who are most vulnerable. Without enforcement or incentive, this encouragement is not likely to change the rate of unemployment for people with disabilities.

Although little was said about the potential online platform that is intended to connect people with disabilities to potential employers, I see this as an example of the masculinization of yet another part of the state. Masculinization of state interventions is defined briefly as a rejection of collectivism and encouragement toward competition in society that ultimately benefits only the most privileged of participants (Braedly, 2012). Human interaction has been taken out of the equation in favour of a ‘quick-fix’ in the form of a web platform, where the participants data is quantified and the method is efficient but not measured for it’s quality. This platform will assist the most privileged of those people with disabilities who have access not only to internet and a computer, but access to adaptive devices that make their participation in such a platform possible. Such a platform would create more meaningful change if it were to include guaranteed access for those who need it.

Very little was also said of the ‘Employers Partnership Table’, where business leaders are expected to share their best practices with the government, although I fear that it will go against the mantra of the disabled community, which is ‘nothing about us without us’. This table consists of employers who are speaking on behalf of their disabled employees and assumes that it is the employer and not the potential employee who knows how to best create an accessible work environment. Such a partnership would create more meaningful change if it consisted of the voices of those with disabilities.

Work Cited

Braedly, S. (2012). The masculinization effect: Neoliberalism, the medical paradigm and Ontario’s health care policy. Canadian Woman Studies, 29(3), 71-83. Retrieved from

McQuigge, M. (2017). Ontario Government Calls on Businesses to Hire People with Disabilities. Global News. Retrieved from:

Becoming a full-time student in a part-time program

This post was written by current student Ryan McInally.

colour photograph of two people standing in front of a sign which reads "engaging with communities to enable change that matters"
Marsha Mochse presenting Disability Studies student Ryan McInally with the 2017 Faculty of Community Services Undergraduate Award for part-time students.

I remember June as an extremely stressful time in my life. In previous years working as an Educational Resource Facilitator, the end of the term was a time to reflect, organize and prepare as a team for the following year. This year as a teaching assistant was different. Instead of coming together as a department, I reflected alone while scraping gum off lockers for the last three days of the year. I was left feeling simultaneously drained, from excess last-minute duties, yet unfulfilled, knowing there had to be more I could do. I wasn’t the only one; many of my colleagues were dissatisfied with a new paradigm that had started mid-year and intensified towards the end of the school-year.


As I’ve come to realize over the past few years, many of my peers in the Faculty of Community Services have similar positions in various boards of education throughout Ontario. It’s hard for me to explain what a teaching assistant or youth worker does to those who have never held such a position. I think the best answer is simply: it is complicated. Our roles are not finite or rigid, and we tend to gravitate to areas that need the most attention and support. But that’s what makes it enchanting as well, given certain conditions. If your supervisor supports you and respects you, they are more likely to give you some level of autonomy.  However, it’s not always the case. I have never worked in a role where my function can change so rapidly, and on the whim of those who may or may not understand exactly what I do. I felt trapped by a position and status that wasn’t being used to its full potential. The benefits and security were something that I heavily debated giving up. I remember telling my wife that I couldn’t return to my job for the following school year. She suggested that I create a flow chart to list my options. I realized that I really only had two; first, I could quit, secondly, I could take a sabbatical and pursue more courses at Ryerson. I decided with the latter, knowing full well that if the board did not permit me to have the year off I’d likely quit and take more courses anyway. Thankfully they accommodated a one-year unpaid sabbatical.


I have said this before but never fully embraced it till this year, but self-care is the most important thing you can do as an individual. We are constantly filling up other people’s buckets, but how often do we let ourselves or others fill ours? This year off has been an opportunity for me to reflect on my educational, professional and personal goals. It hasn’t been an easy transition from steady employment to loans, but there have been supports to help me along the way. For one, OSAP bursaries have been a great help. Secondly, I have also been applying for every single school-wide bursary and award, and was honoured to be awarded the 2017 Faculty of Community Services Undergraduate Award for part-time students. Not to mention, filling out any and every survey Ryerson sends me. Necessity is the mother of all creations and by forcing myself into a precarious economic situation I have had to become thrifty. I don’t think life works in such a way that there is ever a right time to do something, such as going back to school full-time. There will always be some obstacle or reason that prevents or stops us, but this fear of the unknown can force us into stagnation and complicity.


I realized that much of my dissatisfaction for my former role was there long before this year started. Deep down, I knew it was time to pursue something different, yet I would never have arrived here without that experience. Being a part of the education system has been a big part of my life for several years now, and moving on will be bittersweet. I came to the decision a week ago that I would not be returning to work once my sabbatical is over. Instead, I am jumping out of a metaphorical plane. There is no safety net or parachute, but I feel like the first time in a long time, I have options.

To the Bone: A Mad Review

This post was written by  Tobin LeBlanc Haley who holds the ELA postdoctoral fellowship in the school of Disability Studies.

photograph of thin white woman looking at a scale
Screenshot from To the Bone

Content Warning: The following is sardonic and involves discussion of eating disorders, racism, homophobia and patriarchy

As a young woman I consumed (if you will pardon the pun) every movie about eating ‘disorders’ I could get my hands on; think “Thin”, “For the Love of Nancy”, “Sharing the Secret”, “The Smartest Little Girl in the World” and “Kate’s Secret”…the list goes on, but note these films are largely about white women (I am also a white woman). Sometimes the viewings were, admittedly, about “tips” but, more often they were an attempt to feel less isolated, about trying to get a handle on why most of my time was taken up with behaviours that got me assigned an eating disorder diagnosis. Although I watched, re-watched and analyzed these movies, they never did bring me a sense of peace or a feeling of citizenship in a common community. Instead, they made me feel more isolated, broken, damaged, crazy, sad and alone in my attempts to control the world around me and to numb the pain of living in that world by filling up, emptying and contorting my own body.

Now, as a Mad scholar, when I look back on the inability of this form of storytelling to offer me comfort or community I can see that it is because these films were deeply oppressive. They offered me no sense of the root causes of my own experience, suggesting instead that I could not mentally cope in a world that demands that people who present as female be very thin as well as unassuming, well-behaved and uncritical. My brain, I was taught, was ill-equipped for this world and the challenges it brings, while ‘normal’ people (i.e., people without eating disorders or any psychiatric diagnosis) were mentally strong enough, mentally well enough, to cope.

This way of understanding distress, as we as critical scholars know, in anemic. It is a reification of the social conditions underpinning eating ‘disorders’ (e.g., gendered violence, precarity, racism); a means of locating distress in the individual, clinicalizable, medicatable body. This is Mad Studies 101 (see LeFrancois, Menzies, Reaume 2013), but as a young woman, I did not have access to this critique. I did not have access to media or support that positioned my body and mind socially.

Which is why I was so excited when I read the reviews of “To The Bone”, Netflix’s new movie about eating disorders and one in a long-line of disability-themed movies and shows. This was a movie made by and with people with eating disorders that was supposed to be a fresh new take on anorexia and the ‘patient’-therapist relationship.

It was not.

The Freudian tour-de-force follows the experiences of Ellen, an anorexic woman with an absent father, pushy step-mother and bi-polar lesbian mother (sigh), through her ‘journey’ into residential treatment and then ‘recovery.’ There are some departures from the tradition eating ‘disorder’ film, for example, the patients live in a large house instead of a hospital and can eat what they want. However, in the film they are still subjected to weigh-ins and post-meal locked toilets. The film, which was supposed to challenge the typical ‘patient’-therapist relationship, instead sees Keanu Reeves (Dr. Beckham) taking the residents on supervised outings and their days being made up of individual and group counselling. Some of these scenes could come right out of the documentary “Thin.” There is no attempt to understand Ellen’s experiences beyond her own home life (remember absent dad, divorced parents, new step-mom and bi-polar lesbian mom), her individual ‘obsession’ with being thin and the fact that some of her Thinspo art contributed to a suicide. Instead, we are only inside Ellen’s head. There is no space for social relations of power in this film.
Instead, there is a mounting sense that unless Ellen can get a ‘grip,’ she will die. Fortunately, she comes around after a soul-searching night in the mountains and allows her mother to bottle-feed her rice milk to recover some of her lost childhood and their lost connection. It is a cringe-worthy as it sounds. What I found more upsetting that the rather blasé and individualistic plot that reproduced existing tropes about eating disorders, was the treatment of queerness, gender, disability, and race.

When considering the representation of queerness in the film, I was left both dissatisfied with the analysis and alarmed. The film seems to assume that the mother’s bi-polar diagnosis, her coming out as a lesbian and her subsequent romantic relationship with a woman had a negative impact on Ellen. Absent is consideration of persistent homophobia and the alienating impact this may have had on Ellen’s relationship with her mother. Moreover, the bi-polar diagnosis applied to the character of the mother, which is barely unpacked, is irresponsible as it ignores the long history of the psychiatric pathologization of queer people (see, e.g. Chesler 1972; Carr 2005).

When considering gender relations, absent is any consideration of how women with psychiatric diagnoses are cast as “bad mothers”. Instead, there is an undercurrent in the film that Ellen’s eating disorder, her mental ‘illness,’ was inherited from her mother both biologically and as a result of her coming out and leaving the family. Similarly, Ellen’s relationship with her step-mother is fraught as it is the step-mother, in light of the absent father, who is left to do most of the family labour involved in Ellen’s ‘recovery’ and who offloads much of the day-to-day work involved in running the household on to a racialized and feminized housekeeper played by Joanna Sanchez. While the father is portrayed as a troubling, unhelpful character, there is no consideration of how such normative gender roles create conditions in which women are exploited and undervalued and the role of such patriarchal relations in eating disorders. Against the backdrop of these patriarchal family relations, Ellen enters into a relationship with a male patient who is, frankly, obsessive and then ‘rescues’ her in a dream sequence at the end of the film.

There are, to my recollection, two people of colour with named roles in the film. There is the previously mentioned Latinix housekeeper, Rosa, whose accent is mocked by Ellen’s sister (and whose contribution to the family is never unpacked in relation to the feminization and racialization of social reproduction (Arat-Koc 2006)) and a Black female played by Lindsey McDowell. Kendra, the only Black woman with a speaking role in the film, is not thin unlike all the other white women in the film. While it is good, I guess, to recognize that eating ‘disorders’ impact people across social location and that that not all eating disorders result in thin bodies, I am left to wonder precisely why it was a Black body was expected to represent the non-thin contingent. I was left to conclude that this film, precisely because it did not explore Kendra’s Black body and her experience, was ignoring the whiteness embedded in the beauty myth and the implications for women of colour. Moreover, given the weak healthcare coverage in the USA, I was left wondering precisely how these ‘patients’ paid for their residency and whether or not this was a movie about eating disorder or white rich women’s experiences with eating disorders.

Overall, I found the film absent of social critique and heavy on individuals, erasing the very social context from which these individuals emerged. Also, some actor had to starve herself to play this role…is this truly a new form of storytelling about eating disorders? We need to do better. We need Mad interventions into eating disorders.

Works cited

Carr, S. (2005). “The sickness label infected everything we said”: Lesbian and gay perspectives on mental disorder. In J. Tew (Ed.), Social perspectives in mental health: Developing social models to understand work and mental distress (pp. 168-183). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Chesler, P. (1972). Women and madness. New York: Avon Books.
LeFrancois, B., Menzies, R., & Reaume, G. (Eds.). (2013). Mad matters: A critical reader in Canadian mad studies. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Inc. Press.

Introducing the Student Alumni Advisory Committee

This post is an introduction to the members of the School of Disability Studies Student Alumni Advisory Committee. You can find the latest meeting minutes on this site. To learn more about the committee contact Kim Collins at

Committee Chair: 

Kim Collins is the student engagement facilitator for the School of Disability Studies. She is an alumna of the program class of 2015.

Committee Vice Chair:

Greetings! My name is Carolyn Lee-Jones and I am a 2016 graduate of the Disability Studies program at Ryerson University. I first joined the Disability Studies Student Advisory and Alumni Committee (SAAC) while I was still a student in the program. After completing the DST course Strategies for Community Building I was looking for a way to increase my involvement and activism at Ryerson and becoming part of the SAAC was just the ticket. I am thrilled continue on with the SAAC, now as an alumni member.

Influenced by over a decade working front line in the disability sector my research interests include social justice, accessible learning and equity through social policy, Mad studies and the geographies of space and movement. When I am not engaged in research or working I keep a healthy balance in my life by pursuing my other passion; training for and running ½ marathons.

Members at Large:

Driven by passion to promote access to education for all, Marsha Ryan entered the program to explore how Disability Studies can enhance her knowledge and skills. On her academic path, Marsha immersed into a vast pool of theoretic and practical tools to further advocate for access. This resulted in her thesis project, in which Marsha described her journey of following (virtually and live) a charismatic Canadian disability rights advocate David Lepofsky, as she believes David will be one of the first to bring the Canadians with Disabilities Act. After her graduation, Marsha continues implementing educational strategies that would meet the needs of so many. She is proud to be a Disability Studies alumna and part of the SAC, as this is a way to bring change.

My name is Laura Mele.  I am in my second year of Disability Studies and a member at large. I join the SAAC last January to become more involved in the school. I grew up in a small town called Point Edward in southwest Ontario. I have been involved with individuals with various disabilities for the past 23 years. If you want to gain experience you should considering joining the committee.

Ms. Pauline Wangari Mwangi is a passionate community leader. As a
Developmental Service worker with over 10 years experience, she stands
for more than simple approach to leadership, her goal is to  inspire
unconventional thinking and transparency that delivers unparalleled
results  in the area of developmental services, community housing,
women’s rights & mental health. Ms. Mwangi currently sits at Human Rights Committee Review board and Student Alumni Advisory Committee (SAAC).

Hi. My name is Hazel Williams and I am currently taking my second course in the Disabilities Studies degree program. I am really excited to be in this program and looking forward to expanding knowledge and continuing my work as an advocate.

Trevor Smith is a member at large who is in his second year of Disability Studies.



Ordinary Extraordinary Activism

In 2017 students and staff at The School of Disability Studies launched five web-docs aiming to bring current disability activism into online classrooms. This project was a collaboration between Student Advisory Committee members Marsha Ryan, Nicole Meehan, Emily Delbecchi, Pauline Mwangi, Carolyn Lee-Jones, and Laura Mele. Chelsea Jones, Kim Collins and Melanie Panitch were the primary investigators on this project.

Developed with a grant from Ryerson’s Learning and Teaching Enhancement Fund, these web-docs responded to requests from part-time online students to form “real world” connections with Toronto-based disability activists. This multidisciplinary project asked contemporary disability activists to think through the ways in which they challenge the status quo in their day-to-day work. Activists spoke to themes of: online queer movements, mad activism, accessible city building, crip arts, and institutional survival.

Some of the web-docs highlight more than one disciplinary theme. For example, activist Melanie Marsden discusses the politics of parenting and allyship in this 6-minute film:

Many students enrolled in this part-time program are Southern Ontario-based professionals who take classes across faculties. They are online learners with particular understandings of disability espoused by their workplaces, such as school and health care systems. They are often required to respond to disability in ways that are in opposition to disability-related activism and its intersections, including, for example, mad and queer activists whose social justice work resists and disrupts school and health care systems. In her discussion about siloed services and sexuality, Fran Odette describes the significance of interdependent and independent decision making within these and other systems:

As learners, Ryerson students are called to orient themselves to broader understandings of disability in order to effectively engage in community. Therefore, our objectives in producing these films were to:

Produce fully accessible teaching tools for online instructors
Build connections with disability communities beyond our work and school
Learn from real world disability activism/s that connect theory and practice
Highlight Toronto-based social justice movements
Develop a digital archive of disability activism

Wide-reaching in scope, these accessible web docs bring Toronto’s disability leaders into online classrooms, thus empowering students to forge knowledgeable connections with the wider disability community that may be difficult to access from their professionalized vantage points. For example, Disability Pride March co-creator Kevin Jackson discusses his work organizing the annual event in Toronto:

This project started in January 2016 and was completed in June 2017. Our commitment to accessibility was that involved consideration of the ableist barriers over which all of the contributors behind these web docs have little control. The need for flexibility in any disability-based project stems from features of its diversity: a dependency on attendants, extra time needed for accessible transportation, equipment malfunctions, an ableist encounter with a stranger that interrupts filming and shifting understanding of consent (Kafer, 2013). Eliza Chandler offers some examples of the ways in which it is important to think broadly about access in creating cultural spaces and representation of disability in this film:

Importantly, these web docs are be accessible in that they apply to the AODA’s Integrated Accessibility Standard Regulation. The web docs are transcribed, captioned, and presented with ASL interpretation. However, through the production of these films we learned that accessibility is fluid; our understanding of access changed throughout the production process. We learned to think through crip time, the politics of storytelling, ethics, and collaboration:

Crip time: Working in crip time means understanding that accessibility is a broad concept; accessibility means meeting AODA barriers and simultaneously understanding that people face ableist barriers as they tell their stories
The politics of storytelling: often stories are not told in linear ways, but rather in fragments as Barry’s film demonstrates.
Ethics: Consent is an ongoing process that can change and impact production.
Collaboration: Negotiating creative differences and the importance of being entrusted with others’ stories is a key part of the creative process.

Each of these features–crip time, the politics of storytelling, ethics, and collaboration–emerged in our work with Barry Smith, whose story emerged gradually through one interview Here, Barry tells his stories of living both in and outside of Huronia Regional Centre.

In total, the project lasted spanned 19 months and cost approximately $13,000 in total. Our costs were divided as follows:

Pre-production (research such as interviews and participant honorariums): $1400
Production (filming): $4,500
Post-production (editing, captions, audio descriptions and ASL interpretation): $7,000
Cost of dissemination (conferences, posters, and screenings): $100




2017 Graduating Student Reflection

This post was written by Darlene Murrain.

colour photo of Darlene Murrain at podium


Good afternoon everyone. I feel honoured and humbled to have been asked by Kathryn and Esther to deliver the Student Perspective speech today as well as being awarded the Jake Edelsen Award in Community Organizing. I want to also extend my congratulations to all the award recipients who have been recognized for their efforts and thank you to the donors for your contributions who made these awards possible.

If you were to ask me back in 2008 when I freshly graduated with my Behavioural Sciences diploma what my next endeavour would be, my answer probably wouldn’t have included Disability Studies. I didn’t know it existed until a former professor told me about it but in all honesty, I believe Disability Studies chose me and I’m glad it did. For a majority of us students, it all begins at the summer intensive, DST 501 “Rethinking Disability” with Esther Ignagni in what I like to call the “unlearning stage”. Unpacking and questioning disability was something I’ve never considered before and this opened up a whole new understanding of disability from the perspective of disabled people.. For me, this was not only revolutionary in altering my understanding but it forever shaped the way I interacted with the world: from the language I used, to the models and theories I referenced to the way I repositioned myself as an advocate and ally to the disability community. We were introduced to varying schools of thought by experts in the field like Kumari-Campbell, Razack, Freire, Finkelstein, Tregaskis, Garland-Thomson, Bell and Crenshaw just to name a few. What I loved most about the intensive was having the chance to spend a couple weeks with my classmates and bounce around our ideas and individual experiences with disability.

I always knew I wanted to be involved in community organizing for the inclusion of people with disabilities: I ran free a tutoring club for low-income children with learning disabilities, wrote a few proposals for international programs focusing on education for children with disabilities yet it wasn’t until I progressed about halfway through the program, I got that moment of truth. I learned about Inclusive Design in DST 614 and for me that was it, I found my calling! Now as a graduate, I can say that I have found a tangible way to apply my learnings and my passion for advocacy by considering future graduate studies in the field of Inclusive Design. My thesis project was a great wrap-up to my academic career at Ryerson as I explored inclusion for people with disabilities in the Anti-Black Racism movement. What I enjoyed most about the program is there were always opportunities to refresh your perspective and apply it to your everyday life. Let’s take the social model of disability for example. Think about how that one concept alone has altered the way you are in the workplace with coworkers, disabled people and their families. And also, how many teaching moments you had where you were talking to family and friends and you educated them about how societal barriers perpetuate disability. Sound familiar?

All-in-all, this program taught me how to think critically and consider new point of views. I never knew what a “critical lens” was before but eventually I found myself applying it to my studies. This leads me to give some advice to current students in the program. My first piece of advice to current students would be to take as many electives as you can and see what role a critical disability lens can play. The diverse range of elective courses give you the freedom to pursue other fields of study that enhance your journey through the Disability Studies program and I believe, makes you more well-rounded. One of the electives I took was International Community Development. I enjoyed this elective very much and being a Disability Studies student allowed me to bring the theoretical framework into it for my final essay about children with disabilities living in improvised communities. I also found that I was able to do that with a majority of my elective courses.

My second piece of advice is get to know the members of the faculty and staff. They’re awesome! They are so knowledgeable in the field and are so hands-on. Ask Paris about the random emails I sent her almost every semester about my course selection or Esther about the amount of times during DST 99 I showed up to her office just to pick her brain about my major research project. They were each always so gracious and accommodating to assist me.

My last piece of advice is to take your time through the program so you can really engage with the learning process. It took me a full 8 years to complete the program and it was not a fact I liked to share with people when they asked me but when I arrived on the presentation day for our final projects, I heard the journeys of other students and what it took for them to reach this point of completion. This made me proud of what taking this program has made me both professionally, academically and personally. I hope that throughout the remainder of your studies here at Ryerson, you will continue soak up all that comes your way to help you forge your academic path and ultimately become creators and influencers in the world at large.

I would like to end by thanking the biggest creators and influencers, our professors who exemplify the school’s motto of vision, passion and action. Your contributions impact not only our academic lives but help to shape the future climate of our society to be more compassionate, knowledgeable and inclusive. We appreciate all that you do to allow us to reach our highest potential in this field through your continuous support. You provide us opportunities to grow, to get involved and to lead. For me personally, your mentorship has molded me into the woman standing in front of you today. Thank you for choosing me 8 years ago to be apart of the Disability Studies family.