Category Archives: Social Justice

Birds Make Me Think About Freedom

This was in written by alumnae Carling Barry-Spicer and the members of Sol Express.

poster which reads "L'arche Toronto Sol Express Presents birds make me think about freedome". A labeled woman looks up at a bird.

For over 35 years, L’Arche Toronto has provided support to individuals with developmental disabilities and their families in regard to daily living, employment, and community participation as well as Sol Express.

Sol Express is a day program that is open to committed individuals who have been labeled with a developmental disability and love to perform. The group meets twice a week to develop skills, and explore the creative process which results in original works in front of various audiences. Sol Express involves music, movement, dance, arts & crafts, theatre games and story development.

Last year at the Toronto Fringe Festival Sol Express put on a play called Seasons. In Seasons, Sol Express performers explored life through the lens of the four seasons as well as the seasons in our lives (the changes we go through) in a one hour play full of movements, dance, music, poetry, film, as well as a funny clowning piece. Seasons was a great success with almost every show sold out. Audiences loved it and felt greatly entertained.

Sol Express is performing another play this year at the Toronto Fringe Festival. The play is called “Birds Make Me Think About Freedom”. The play reflects on our humanity inspired by the stories of people institutionalized for being labeled with developmental disabilities, their families, and friends. The play goes to dark places by touching on sensitive material regarding institutional mistreatment of individuals with developmental disabilities. However, it doesn’t end there as it delves into thoughts and discussion on freedom, hope, choice and living on our own.

Birds Make Me Think About Freedom was created by L’Arche Toronto’s Sol Express, in collaboration with Victoria Freeman, and their team of supporting artists: Angela Blumberg, Natalie Breton, Madeleine Brown, Katherine Duncanson, Carrie Hage, Ruth Howard, David Rawlins and Lieke van der Voort. The play is in consultation with their project’s survivor consultants.

Sol Express Performers are R. Boardman, Robert Gray, Nicholas Herd, Nafiz Ismail, Agnes Kenny, Michael Liu, Melissa Marshall, Irene Pollock, Andreas Prinz, Matt Rawlins, Kevin Schmidt, Cheryl Zinyk. Volunteer performers are Carling Barry-Spicer, Fiona Strachan, Madeline Burghardt and Joan Curran.

Dates & Times of Performance
Friday 6th July 6:30pm-7:30pm
Saturday 7th July 7:00pm-8:00pm
Sunday 8th July 3:15pm-4:15pm
Tuesday 10th July 1:00pm-2:00pm
Friday 13th July 6:15pm-7:15pm
Saturday 14th July 5:45pm-6:45pm
Sunday 15th July 3:30pm-4:30pm

Information on Theatre and Accessible Performances

The Al Green Theatre is located at 750 Spadina Ave in Toronto, Ontario, M5S 2J2. The Theatre holds 215 people. Al Green Theatre is barrier-free. Only certain building entrances are wheelchair-accessible. Accessible seating is in front of the front row, and may have poor sightlines for certain productions. Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.

The Accessible Performances are as follows:

Friday, July 6th,6:30 pm – Open Audio Description
Sunday, July 8, 3:15 pm – Relaxed performance
Tuesday, July 10, 1:00 pm – ASL & Relaxed performance
Friday, July 13, 6:15 pm – Open Audio Description
Sunday, July 15, 3:30 pm – ASL

The Touch tour table is available 30 minutes before all performances. Tactile Audio Display (TAD) seating is available at all performances from July 8th to 15th. Seating can be reserved through the box office. For more information on accessibility please contact

Tickets are $13.00. You can buy tickets to Birds Make Me Think About Freedom online at for $13.00 with a $2.00 order service fee. Tickets are also available at the Theatre before the performance (do come early if this is the option you want to take) but watch out they could be sold out!


Reflections on Regina

This post was written by current student, Michelle Hewitt.

photograph of woman in wheelchair who is looking at camera
Michelle Hewitt in Regina at the Canadian Disability Studies Association conference.

It’s my final night at CDSA-ACEH in Regina, and I’m writing this while it’s fresh in my mind. I’ve been to conferences before (I introduce myself as a medically retired school principal) but this is my first conference as a disabled person, and my first conference on Disability Studies – and I feel invigorated! Well, that’s not completely true. I’m exhausted, but when my body as recovered, I’ll definitely be invigorated.

This was such a safe place to be. Safe to be myself, and, although I found myself apologizing for my limitations, it was only through force of habit, not through necessity. In fact, the opposite happened. I found my arguments for being who I am, and doing what I do, strengthened and affirmed. When I would say to various people “I’m sorry but I need to…”, the response was “Don’t worry! This is Disability Studies! If we can’t get that right here, where will we get it right?!?”

Having done all my Disability Studies course work from Ryerson online it was great to get to meet people face to face, and also meet people whose work I had read and had wanted to have a real conversation with them. I was only able to make it to two sessions a day, but hopefully I made it count. In fact, what I meant to say was – I made it to two sessions a day and I made it count!

I didn’t make it to much anything of Day 1, other than a brief visit to a drop in session. But that’s fine. That’s what I learnt at the drop in session. Just do what you can do. And I met Diane Driedger! I was so delighted to meet her face to face and wanted to learn so much from her.

In my first session, I travelled through “Homes for the Handicapped in Thunder Bay” to “Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Me” to “Thalidomide Babies” to “Leprosy Narratives”. The link between them was strong. People dealt with the same issues before us in the most creative ways, but, also, we are still dealing with them. The “Me” was Diane Driedger telling us how Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale both worked from their beds and both worked with reduced stamina – and so does Diane – and so do I. It really was what I needed to hear. And, I also go away with a new understanding of “survival of the fittest” – I am a survivor. I am one of the “fittest”, because working from my bed is simply my adaption.

Next came my session to present. I arrived at the conference pretty worn down, and I knew that speaking for 15 minutes wasn’t going to happen, so I turned to Rachel, the voice in the Proloquo4Text app that speaks for me. I was conscious that there were 3 groups presenting remotely after me, and that I didn’t want to take up anymore time than I could, so, foolishly, I turned up Rachel’s speech speed one notch from slow to “normal” (there’s a discussion we could have!). The session started and there are 4 lecturers from my Ryerson courses – Eliza, Esther, Tobin and Chelsea! It’s a good job Rachel doesn’t have nerves – but perhaps she does! Having not tested her at the faster speed, for some reason she decided to miss the first word of every sentence! Rachel is now being hip and chill! “Met my MLA. Talked things through.” I was mortified. I’ll get back to the topic of my presentation later.

My apologies to the next presenter – Lindsey Miller – because I spent most of her presentation recovering from mine. I refocused for Michael Miller, and was particularly interested in his points about the call to order, in classrooms, and what it means to transgress. The former principal in me wanted to talk about the emphases in classrooms on control, and how certain bodies are shown from an early age that they do not belong because they cannot conform to the expectations.

The fourth presentation brought me back to my topic – age appropriate care, as Katie Aubrecht discussed the research that she is involved in in just this topic, with a particular focus on Nova Scotia. I found myself wanting to shout out as it went on – THIS!!! THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!!! Although Katie was in Nova Scotia presenting remotely, I googled her, and we are in contact already. This is the power of us meeting like this, even remotely. It strengthens us, it brings common threads together and it sparks new connections.

And that was it. Day 2 was done for me.

I hit Day 3 with a plan. As much as I wanted to see Esther get her award, and hear her speak, I knew that 1:30pm just wasn’t going to be a possibility. Instead, I did the first session of the day (9 to 10:30) and the last (3:30pm to 5pm) and in between, I slept like a log!

The first presentation was from Raya. Of the 12 presentations I heard, this is the one that is going to keep me awake at night. Raya presented on the Judge Rotenberg Education Centre, a nightmarish place set in leafy Canton, Massachusetts, that we could all wish was dystopian but is very real. Please google it, be shocked, and protest its existence in any way you can. Jane followed, and opened up the challenges in Universal Design, when it is seen as the “destination” (my word not hers) rather than the “welcome”.

After my long sleep, my alarm woke me to go to 3 presentations based on research practices – Fiona and Chelsea talking about the place of silence and its interpretation in field research, Thuy talking about her research in Vietnam with disabled girls and women, and Cynthia talking about her PhD research into supports for blind students in further education which, in turn, included the challenges that academia placed on her as a blind researcher. All 3 were completely fascinating and an excellent end to the conference for me.

I’m completing this blog post a couple of days later from home. I didn’t want to change what I had written in that final night, because it captures the excitement I felt. For those of you who haven’t attended Congress, it brings together many associations from many different areas within the Social Sciences and Humanities. I met with former students of mine who were there with other organizations, and even though they are much more seasoned at this than I am, we all had this same feeling of excitement and possibility. Next morning I woke physically exhausted but mentally exuberant. So much to read, so much to learn, so many avenues opened. Since I got home, physically, I’ve done little, but mentally, I’m ready!

Congress 2019 is in Vancouver and I hope to see many of you there!

Y/our Vision, Passion, Action

This post was written by alumnus Kevin Jackson.

photograph of sidewalk on which read

At a point in one’s life…

One tends to make a few general realizations, especially when considering higher education. First, life always takes you on a journey. Second, having direction within your life journey is not only a unique gift, but is the difference between having the time of your life verses just ‘getting by.’ The perfect motif for this idea is that of this blog’s title, Vision, Passion, Action. That is to say, if you possess, and can allow yourself to appreciate, your own unquenchable thirst to learn from life, in all of its numerous forms (Vision), and your educational opportunities and situations allow you to match and realize your goals (Passion), then conceivably your life while completing these goals (Action) may offer you a more meaningful and enjoyable experience. So yes, you can do it, and yes you can have the time of your life (while getting paid! …very little).

However, there are a few conditions—what works for one may not work for the other, and if what is stated here does not resonate with you, then this information may not be as useful to you. For example, we all have different interests, goals, and means’ to accomplish those goals. Essentially, if you can easily work out the logistics of doing graduate work (MA or PhD), then for you it may simply be a choice of either going or not going. However, this post was written specifically for those potential graduate students in Disability Studies or Mad Studies who find themselves face-to-face with challenging obstacles (perhaps facing resistance from family, friends, culture, socio-economic situation, etc.). For people living in precarious environments, graduate school may seem out of reach, even though it may not be that far out of reach. When considering graduate school, I have found the following three overlapping considerations (and series of questions, comments) to be helpful, based on the DST’s blogs maxim, Vision, Passion, Action!


Is there an issue or topic that is thematic within your life that you would love to research full-time for the rest of your life? Do you possess a burning desire to explore a set of thoughts, assumptions and/or phenomenon?  Do you think, somewhat obsessively, about how you would carry out your own unique style and type of research projects(s)? If so, please proceed to the next section….


What is that you have always wanted to research with almost full autonomy? Do you find yourself thinking that a Disability or Mad studies framework could provide you with a set of (almost) perfect models upon which to help you realize your research goals (…with a little tweaking)? Do you find the thought of doing an MA or PhD alluring, yet also a tad stress-inducing? If so, please proceed to the next section….


The above questions are important to keep in mind, but are, for the most part, not really much more than a thought experiment. Unless one actually throws their hat into the ring, so to speak, one will never realize their own Vision and Passion. Action is the doing part; but Action may also include not doing. In this case, I mean that it is perfectly acceptable to simply apply to an MA or PhD program (that resonates with you), which you may actually end up turning down. I said and I did just that. In my case, I just wanted to see if I would get accepted (NB: each program application can cost upwards of $200 CAD). However, I found that, after the shock of being accepted into York University’s Critical Disability Studies PhD program (the only one I applied to), I might actually be able to do my own PhD! Why not? I was accepted, was I not? So, while I continue to feel like an imposter within ‘the academy,’ I have come to realize that I may just simply be where I am supposed to be in life. It was under these sets of assumptions (as informed by reflection, information gathering, and careful assessment of resources and family connections) that I finally made my decision to follow the path before me.

Final Words:

Aside from your exploration of all other practical considerations, the above questions and ponderings may help you to make an informed decision about whether or not to do your graduate work. So, if you have a burning desire to learn about social issues that focus on inequality, social justice, or anything in between, then doing focused graduate/post-graduate work may be the vocation for you.

I wish you all the best, and urge you not to limit yourself. If you are careful, and have the desire to learn (to live in your head a bit more than you did yesterday) then you may be ready to (gradually and gently) commit to graduate school. If the above information resonates with you, perhaps it is time to speak with one or two of your favorite faculty members, friends and family about the process (for me it was Kathryn, Rachel, Tobin, and my friend Russell from York U’s, PhD program). These teachers have supported me, and I am very fond of them. Such teachers will mentor you through your academic career, if you can open yourself to their wisdom and guidance. The last piece of advice I can offer you is about people: Pay-it-forward is always a good motto to follow in graduate school. As professional teachers, you will both teach and be taught. Final words of advice: be informed within y/our own VPA (whatever that means to you), and simply be there, open to the experience and your potential.

I wish you the best of luck on your next great life adventure!


Graduate studies at OISE after disability studies

This post was written by graduate, Brittney Van Beilen.

photograph of books with mortarboard on top

Throughout my last year in the disability studies program I didn’t quite feel ready to leave my studies behind just yet, so I decided I would pursue a Master’s degree. I did some research online to find a program that would suit my needs and allow me to continue to engage in disability studies enquiry. The Social Justice Education program at University of Toronto – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) seemed to be the perfect fit, so I went to an Open House that was held at the OISE library. There I was able to meet some of the professors, hear testimonials of current and past students, and learn more about the courses offered. It wasn’t long after that I made my decision to apply.

I began preparing my application in late fall of my final year. As part of the admissions requirements, I had to write a 2-3 page statement of academic and professional intent relevant to Social Justice Education and list one or more faculty member/s whose work is relevant to my interests and concerns I was also required to obtain two letters of reference – one academic and one professional, provide a resume, transcripts from previously attended post-secondary institutions, and provide a sample of written work related to social justice education. For this, I had many options thanks to the coursework and experience from the Disability Studies Program. Once I had all the required documents, I was able to easily apply online via OISE’s admissions application. I have to admit, it was quite a busy and stressful time, and as daunting a task it seemed to be, it was all worth it in the end. My advice for applying to grad school is to do a lot of research to find out what programs are available, which ones will work for you in terms of delivery and timing, which ones match your interests, goals and lifestyle, what the admissions requirements are, what types of courses are offered, when they’re offered, who the faculty is and who you might want to work with (especially if you plan to pursue an MA).

The Social Justice Education department offers both MA (Master of Arts) and MEd (Master of Education) degree options and students may choose to study full time or part time. This was one of the aspects that drew me to the program. It was a nice transition from the Disability Studies program, allowing me to continue to work full-time while pursuing my education part time. The MA requires less coursework but students write a thesis – something graduates of the Disability Studies program are well-equipped to do after completing the capstone project. MEd students complete more coursework but do not write a thesis. The Social Justice Education program offers studies in education, with a focus on equity and social justice from various perspectives such as history, philosophy, sociology and political science. Students are encouraged to focus their studies on one area or discipline as courses are offered in a variety of studies and I am focusing on disability studies. The Disability studies program at Ryerson helped me to think critically about my role within a “helping profession” and to consider the power relations at play that work to individualize and pathologize disability. It taught me to analyze and critique the social, cultural and political aspects of disability, giving me a solid critical framework to move forward with and at OISE I feel like I’ve picked up right where I left off at Ryerson.

CDSA-ACEH Tanis Doe Award for Canadian Disability Study and Culture

The School of Disability Studies is proud to announce that Dr. Esther Ignagni has been awarded the 2018 CDSA-ACEH Tanis Doe Award for Canadian Disability Study and Culture. She was nominated by the Student Alumni Advisory Committee. Below is her nomination letter.

Dear Selection Committee,

We are pleased to nominate Dr. Esther Ignagni for the 2018 CDSA-ACEH Tanis Doe Award for Canadian Disability Study and Culture. Over her 25 year career, Esther has consistently brought together innovative teaching strategies, community-based research, and fierce advocacy for the purpose of enriching the field of Disability Studies and furthering disability justice within and outside of academia. Esther upholds the feminist legacy of Tanis Doe for whom this prestigious award is named.

A proud disabled woman, Esther is a mainstay in the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University where she figures prominently as an Associate Professor. She joined the faculty eight years ago as a community-based intellectual, and she continues to teach and research community-based strategies, politics, and practices relating to disability. Her teaching and research is informed by her lived experience. In 2010, she won the Ryerson Faculty of Community Services Sue Williams Excellence in Teaching Award. In the nomination letter students described Esther as an extraordinary teacher, noting in particular her longstanding influence, her accessibility and approachability and “how much of a superb role model she is in terms of her intellect and critical approach to teaching.” In particular,students credited their success and engagement in the area of local disability rights to Esther’s finely honed capacity to communicate complex and important issues in an accessible manner. Her passion for teaching, research, and learning is infectious. She encourages students to grapple with concepts, engage with research, think through access broadly and have confidence their ability to engage in their community work and to move on to further education.

Students also benefit from Esther’s willingness to hold space for discomfort. Discomfort often accompanies learning, especially when that learning can complicate and trouble your professional work. Many of the students enrolled in Disability Studies at Ryerson University are working professionals, with particular understandings of disability espoused by their workplaces, such as school and health care systems. In these workplaces students are often required to respond to disability in ways that compete with disability-related activism and its intersections, including, for example, mad, queer and Indigenous activisms whose social justice work resists and disrupts such institutional systems. Esther has an innate ability to deftly guide students through that process of discomfort, nurture the desire for future learning and help her students enact disability justice in their workplaces, homes and communities.

Esther’s commitment to excellence in the classroom in pursuit of social justice is matched by her commitment to developing and sustaining a rigorous program of community-based research that furthers disability justice. Committed to grassroots advocacy and activism with disabled people in their everyday contexts, her program of research draws upon participatory, collaborative and community driven methodologies. For example, she was co-investigator with Dr Ann Fudge Schormans (McMaster University) of Reimagining Parenting Possibilities, an Ontario-wide community-based, participatory research initiative. This project grew out of Strength-based Parenting Initiative (SPIN). SPIN is a user-led provincial network, created and operated by and for parents and prospective parents with disabilities of which Esther is member. The project responded to the acute marginalization and containment of people labeled with intellectual/developmental disabilities with respect to parenthood and intimate life. Esther’s sensitive facilitation across universities, with the project advisory committee, community based organizations and participants from First Nations communities made this a truly collaborative project. Creatively, the researchers, including labeled co-researchers, mobilized the knowledge gathered from this inquiry using forum theater, drawing upon Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed. This project culminated in the 2015 Making Space for Intimate Citizenship International conference which brought together people labeled with intellectual disabilities, community partners, academics, Indigenous leaders and artists from around the world.

Esther’s commitment to community-based and informed research is well established. She completed her PhD in 2011 within the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation, Disabled Young People, Support and the Dialogic Work of Accomplishing Citizenship, used sociological theories to explore citizenship as a determinant of young disabled people’s health. Over a period of ten years, Esther engaged a group of disabled youth in creating short films about their experiences of home support as they made the transition from living with their families of origin to living independently. Her analysis brilliantly links these informal conversations to larger theoretical debates on citizenship circulating both locally and nationally.

As stated, Esther’s engagement in Disability Studies and grassroots research and advocacy extends from her own lived experience. To quote Esther directly: “As someone whose everyday life has been shaped by medicine, I am committed to directing critical inquiry towards and with this powerful institution.” Her unique blend of research and advocacy also extends from her time as a community health worker in the anti-violence and HIV/AIDS action movement in the late 1980s and 1990s. Esther asserts that this work shapes her understanding of difference and disability and reinforces the need for intersectional analysis attentive to disability, gender, race, sexual orientation, and class.

Esther is a highly collaborative faculty member who is willing to share her expertise and who contributes a great deal to the overall functioning and spirit of the school. Esther is actively involved with the Ryerson community. She is on the Scholarly, Research and Creative Activities committee for the Faculty of Community Services, she sits on the Internationalization committee at Ryerson, and was the part of the Universal Design for Learning committee. Esther skillfully brings her community engagement into the academic community. She also plays a central role in mentoring new instructors, researchers and students and is highly creative in finding opportunities for them in her growing research program. Certainly, Esther’s research, like that of Tanis Doe, advances the study and culture of disability by “speaking the unspeakable.” More than this, however, Esther’s dedication to creative and ethical community-based research challenges the widespread ableism in the academy and charts new possibilities in knowledge production. It is also fitting that Esther be awarded this prestigious feminist honour, as her work, in many ways, is a continuation of that of Dr. Doe’s. Prior to her death in 2004, Tanis contributed to the development of disability studies programs internationally, challenged barriers to postsecondary education, worked to draw attention to issues of violence against women with disabilities, and explored parenting from the perspective of motherhood within the disability community. In this she was a trailblazer, making space for scholars, including Esther, to continue asking questions about education, gender, and intimate citizenship among others in the scholarship of disability and culture.

Many years ago Ryerson’s School of Disability Studies acquired the Tanis Doe archives, a generous act from her family cementing a relationship that began in 2000 when Tanis Doe was recruited to teach the first research course in our emerging program. In the spirit of remembering Tanis Doe’s legacy the committee would do well to recognize the excellent candidacy of Esther Ignagni for the 2018 Tanis Doe Award for Canadian Disability Study and Culture.

Respectfully submitted,

Ryerson University, School of Disability Studies, Student Alumni Advisory Committee

Marsha Ryan, Hazel Williams, Laura Mele, Trevor Smith, Carling Barry-Spicer, Carolyn Lee-Jones, and Pauline Mwangi

(with Dr Kathryn Church, Director, School of Disability Studies, and Kim Collins, Student Engagement Facilitator)

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.

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:

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