This speech was written and delivered at the Annual Student Award Ceremony by graduating students, Kim Collins and Paris Master-McRae.
KIM: Good afternoon everyone. Paris and I are truly honoured to be jointly receiving the Malcolm Jeffreys Memorial Leadership Award and to have to opportunity to speak with you today. When we were initially asked to speak we briefly flirted with the idea of performing a skit, but ultimately decided that a conversation might work best.
PARIS: To begin this conversation we thought we should start with our introduction to the program. My introduction to the School of Disability Studies was through employment. Melanie Panitch who was the director of the program at the time along with Francis Hare who was the director for CYC were both looking for a program assistant. I was lucky to land the job, both programs, faculty, staff and students were amazing. When CYC was granted a FT degree status I was faced with the decision to select between the 2 schools and I must say I haven’t regretted my decision. There are many reasons why I chose to stay with Disability Studies, many more I discovered later and more I discover each and every day. Disability Studies is not just a job or a program it is a community, a family that fosters equity, inclusion and diversity. What was your introduction to DS?
KIM: I started in the Disability Studies program in 2009 and to be honest I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into. I had barely looked over the website and I had never heard of the social model of disability. I was completely unprepared. I remember walking into DST 501 with Catherine Frazee and seeing Dawne Wyers who had been my first supervisor in developmental services. Dawne was sitting with Seija Korpela who had been her first supervisor in the field. I knew then that if all of that collective experience was searching for something and had found disability studies, then I was definitely in the right place. I came to realize through my journey in the program that the School of Disability Studies is more than just an academic faculty it is, as Paris said, a family.
PARIS: We couldn’t speak to you today without talking about what disability studies means to us. WHAT DS MEANS TO ME Humm! It was the Fall of 2007 we were just gearing up for the new semester and DST501 Rethinking Disability the first core course the foundation course traditionally offered as a two week intensive on site every July was being offered online that Fall and the instructor was Catherine Frazee. Finally, I thought this was a perfect opportunity for me to take this course and see what it is all about. Since it was offered online I had the flexibility to log in anytime after work and on weekends to do my homework. But… there is always a ‘but’ and mine was the little voice inside my head telling me to be careful, are you sure you want to do this, if Melanie agree to let me take the course, will I be able to do it or will I embarrass myself most of all will I jeopardize my relationship at work and especially with the students. I felt very vulnerable but I had to try. Lucky for me Melaine said sure, I don’t see why not. And so began my journey into Disability Studies. DST501 made me feel like I just stepped through a vortex into another dimension. It left me with more questions than answers but most of all it sparked the passion for knowledge. Knowledge that didn’t tell you what to think but taught you how to think critically. Disability Studies problematizes and deconstructs what people know about disability. Now 21 courses and 7 years later I stand before you a graduate of the program. How about you Kim?
KIM: For me, Disability Studies feels like coming home. Everyone of us has disability in our lives whether we realize it or not. Society tries to separates us from disability, as if disability isn’t natural. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. While disability studies also offers many avenues for employment, it is more than just an means to an end. Disability studies is transformative, we are actively being taught to understand the world differently. That transformation is encapsulated in the School’s motto of Vision, Passion, Action. I recently learned the word POIESIS. It loosely means to make, it is an action that transforms and continues the world. Disability studies itself is a form of poiesis, it is a transformative process. In that process, there is always the ‘AHA’ moment. A moment when everything clicks. Paris, what was your ‘aha’ moment?
PARIS: Oh there are many, but the one that always stands out for me is the one that introduced me to the what the social model of disability actually means or looks like in action. When I started working in the school, every July during the summer institute we would have Disability Arts and Culture event. This event featured Disabled artists and performers. This particular performance was a short play featuring one of our students Emma Hardie and her friend I think her name was Cindy. The performance was Cindy expressing her feelings about being a woman with physical disability and the various ableist attitudes and encounters she experienced, even from her own doctor when she asked about a physical. He assumed people like Cindy could not and did not have relationship or sexual desires. That performance made me realize just how much of my own thinking and feelings towards disability and disabled people was structured in the medical and tragedy model. I remember Emma telling the audience just how much she disliked people dismissing Cindy as if she wasn’t there. They would talk to Emma and Emma would tell them why are you talking to me she, Cindy is right there look at her she can see and hear you. I will always remember that comment. Thank you Emma. Kim, what was your aha moment?
KIM: My ‘AHA’ moment came much later in the program. I remember thinking that I must have missed something in DST 501 as it seemed as if everyone was having these transformative moments and not me. DST 501 gave me the language to express what I was experiencing while working front line, it clarified my understanding of vision and passion but it wasn’t until DST 613, Strategies for Community Building with Eliza Chandler, that I understood action. As the pieces fell into place I began to understand how narrative, as action, could weave it’s way through the tangle of vision and passion. Until that point, I had not considered the many diverse ways in which activism could occur. For me, that understanding was transformative.
PARIS: We could also not let this opportunity to speak pass without talking about leadership and our great privilege to be receiving this award. When Kathryn handed me an envelope with my name on it, I thought it was work related but as I read the content “After a full discussion about all of this year’s applications for student awards in the School of Disability Studies, the Awards Committee has selected you to be one of two recipients of the Malcolm Jeffreys Memorial Leadership Award” end quote. I was shocked so much so that I had to reread the letter over again to make sure I did not misread it. I am truly honored and feel extremely privileged to be receiving this particular award for many reasons. First and foremost because I knew and worked with Malcolm Jeffreys. Malcolm taught DST726 Leadership in Human Services every July on site during our summer institute. He was always very pleasant, approachable and a lovely person. Just as we were getting to know each other and building a good working relationship we were informed of his untimely death. To receive an award in his name and it being presented by an Alumni of the program is the best graduation present I can think of. The second reason is sharing this wonderful moment and recognition with my fellow student, colleague and friend Kim Collins.
KIM: Examples of leadership and opportunities for leadership are woven throughout the program. We are taught that leadership starts with the personal and that the personal is political. Personally, I couldn’t begin to talk about leadership without referring to DST 727 Leadership for Social Action. Winnie Ng taught us that leadership, the work of creating a new future will require our heads, our hands and most especially our hearts. To me, leadership is using our passion, to fuel our actions to achieve our vision. This is not at all an easy process, it is one which requires self reflection, a sense of humour and a willingness to understand failure as a creative space for growth. As agents of change we need to expose our vulnerability; expose our shared humanity, and revel in the humour of it all. Leadership cannot happen in a vacuum and we would be remiss if we failed to mention all of the people who have helped to make our leadership roles possible. Frankly, the list is endless but we would like to highlight a few.
PARIS: All of our faculty and instructors are amazing people. They possess a wealth of knowledge and experience and the best part of it all is they want to share what they know with us. As Kim mentioned Leadership can not happen in a vacuum, it involves people, School of Disability Studies produces leaders by helping students tap into their passion. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Melanie, first for hiring me and always making me feel as a valued part of the team. Secondly for saying yes and allowing me the opportunity to register in DST501. You have impacted my life in more ways than you can imagine. Thank you.
KIM: I would like to thank Kathryn for giving me the opportunity to take on the student engagement facilitator position. Paris for making the transition into a new position easier, for her friendship and support and for the countless emails and phone calls she calmly answered over the several years that I was enrolled in the program. I also would like to thank all of the members of the student advisory committee whose ideas and commitment over the past three years have made all the difference.
PARIS: I would also like to thank Kathryn Church my boss, my professor, a friend. Thank you. You have been instrumental in my academic career by eliminating the fear of writing. The best advice you ever gave me was to pick up a pen and notepad and just write. Start from ‘I’, I think, I feel, I don’t agree, I agree and just write, don’t worry about spelling, don’t worry about it being perfect you can edit it later. Your advice helped me the most when I was doing my DST99 Final Thesis, it wasn’t all easy but it was definitely less painful then when I first started the program. I no longer dread or fear writing but in a strange way enjoy it. I will always cherish this gift and will pass it on to other students including my son when and if he comes to me for advice or help with writing.
KIM: I would to say a heartfelt thank you to Esther, whose mentor ship has had a powerful impact on my life and I am sure on the lives of countless others. She has given me new ways of thinking about access, inclusion and research. I would like to thank Eliza who is always there to support and encourage students despite her busy schedule. We would also like to thank all of the sessional instructors, too numerous to be named, who go above and beyond their contracts to ensure that students are supported, engaged and motivated.
PARIS: We would like to end by congratulating all the award recipients and acknowledging our donors without whose generous contributions this amazing event would not be possible. Your support to our students and our School is greatly appreciated. While the awards financially assist students to make their way through the program, they also foster and grow a community dedicated to disability studies and inclusion. Each award represents a different voice but shares a similar message in that everyone has the potential to make a difference and every individual has value. We would like to conclude by paraphrasing Catherine Frazee who said get angry, stay angry and do it with style. Change is possible but it takes time. Thank you.