A student perspective

This was written by graduating student, Kelly Smith.

Photograph of Kelly Smith
Kelly Smith delivering her student perceptive at the annual student award ceremony.

Good afternoon,

First I would like to congratulate all of the award winners that are here today.  It is a true representation of the hard work and commitment that each of you.r have put into your studies and your work.  I would also like to thank the donors for their generous contributions without which we would not be able to recognize the work that students are doing.  Thank you!

I would also like to say thank you to the award committee for presenting me with the Nancy C. Sprott Disability Studies Award.  When Kathryn contacted me to let me know that I had won the award for excellence in my thesis I was truly surprised and deeply honoured.  I almost felt like it wasn’t really fair since I had such a great time working on my thesis.  Not that it wasn’t a lot of work, which it was, and it was certainly stressful at times but I really enjoyed the process as a whole.

I was also very honoured to have been asked to give the Student Response speech today.  It has meant a lot to me. Thank you again.

A little about me:

I was first accepted into the Disability Studies program here at Ryerson in 2002.  I had been scheduled to start in the fall but lost my job during the summer months and had to withdraw from the program at that time.  While my living circumstances changed, I always knew that I wanted to complete the Disability Studies program.  So, fast forward to July 2013 and I finally, after many years, got the chance to start the program!  

When I started DST 501 with Kirsty Liddiard, I came into the class feeling as if I had a pretty good foundation to start from.  My experience in the field of Disability had started at age 12 when I began working with a running coach at Variety Village.  At a young age I was exposed to an environment where I could ask questions and experienced so much diversity that it just became a natural part of life for me. I started working at summer camps with Variety Village when I was 16yrs old and at that time I was also training with a coach who was a paraplegic and the other athletes that he coached were all wheelchair racers.  I continued working recreation programs for kid with disabilities through Toronto Parks and Rec (as it was called back then) in evening and summer programs for many years.  I graduated from the DSW program at Centennial College in 1995 and up until the time that I stepped back into the classroom for DST 501, I worked many different jobs within the Disability field…from working in group homes and supportive living environments, teaching life skills at Bloorview MacMillan Centre (again dating myself), providing behaviour management training to people with acquired brain injuries, managing an Employment program for people with disabilities, as  well working as a Sign Language Facilitator with the Toronto District School Board.  With my background and experience I wondered just what new things this program would or could teach me.

Well, it taught me a lot and there’s still so much for me to learn.  I remember having my world shattered to some extent in that first class, having things that I had learned and believed in thrown on its ear.  One example is the use of “people first” language.  For as long as I can remember it was something that I had always done and taught others to do as well, so to learn in that first class that it was not always supported….well, it really shook things up and made me second guess all that I thought that I knew.

I was one of those people who took a long time to really assimilate what I was learning in my classes.  Logically I knew the answers to the questions and how to respond to my instructors but it took me a long time to be able to really understand, internalize and to formulate my own thoughts and understandings that were in line with the program, so if you’re a new student or even have been in the program for sometime and haven’t reached that point yet, don’t worry, keep working and critically questioning the information that you learn and it will come.

As a recent graduate I have some advice to offer to new students.

The first is that it is really important to keep yourself organized and disciplined with the classes…and I say this as someone who was at times taking 3 courses and working full time.  I don’t really recommend that though!   Treat your online courses like a job.  Schedule the days that you will complete your readings, go online and post your responses and complete assignments into your week.  It’s much easier to develop a schedule that can be flexible, rather than leaving everything to the last minute or not having a plan at all.  I actually used to take the TTC to work instead of driving to give myself 45min in the morning and 45mins in the evening each day to complete my reading….and I might have fallen asleep at times but….I did try!

Secondly, I highly recommend taking some courses from other departments when possible for your electives.  There are a few reasons that I say this.  One reason is that people are made up of many different parts, and for those of you who have gotten this far, it’s what we refer to as intersectionality.  People are never just read by one part of themselves, such as their age, culture, sex, economic status or disability but instead are read at different times by their different intersections together.  Taking courses from other departments help us to learn about different aspects of people.  For example, I took Sociology of Food and Eating and in it I learned how a person’s socioeconomic status can affect their access to foods not only through cost but also through the area that they live in which might be a food desert and food swamp. This is something that I had never thought of before and would certainly impact many of the people that I work with.  I found that there was some unexpected cross-over in what would seem like unlikely places as well.  For example, in Geography of Recreation and Leisure I saw how the “rupture” had taken place and influenced research in Geography just after I had learned about how it had affected the field of Disability studies in DST 88.

Some classes can also offer insight into how society works.  For example, in Pop Culture I learned about the power that the media plays in social construct and used ideas from this class as well as Eliza’s class as a jumping off point for my thesis.  

Another reason is that in taking these courses we become, as Paulo Freire suggests, co-creators in our education.  We have the chance to share the information that we learn in our core courses with other student’ and instructors from different departments.  As we learn from them, they are learning from us at the same time but it also gives us the opportunity to learn how to share our learnings with others who don’t have a Disability Studies background.  I found that after taking a few classes, and many of you may have experienced the same things, that I would want to come home and share this new way of thinking that I was learning with my friends, family or co-workers, only to be surprised that they didn’t agree, didn’t understand or at times even become defensive about what I was saying. I had some good conversations about this with my mum while working on my thesis and I found that it this because in our program we use specific word and phrasing and are taught to critically think about things in different ways than we did when we first came into the program.  So while we can hold conversations with those who have taken or who teach the classes, we sometimes struggle with how to put our new perspectives into different words.  I think that taking a range of classes from various departments can help us to learn how to have these conversations and say the same the things that we need to but to do it in ways that invite conversation and understanding.  This is an important skill to have when going back to our communities and workplaces with new ideas and philosophies that we learn over the course of our program.   

Finally, I would just like to say that the instructors and other staff in our program are truly amazing.  They come from diverse backgrounds and are great resources and a wealth of information and are willing to help whenever they can.  We are truly lucky to have them in our department!  On behalf of the graduating class, I would like to thank them for the help, support and commitment to us throughout our time in the program.  Without you, we would not be able to reach the heights that we have.

To end, I would like to say to all students: throughout the rest of your time in the program I urge you to ask questions, critically examine with passion, create your vision and take action!

 

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