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SSMU revamps accessibility policy, creates commissioner position

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) adopted a new Accessibility Policy during the Legislative Council meeting on Jan. 28. Last updated in 2016 and having expired on Jan. 1, 2021, the new policy expands beyond its previous focus on physical disabilities to include a more comprehensive commitment to accessibility and introduces a new Accessibility Commissioner position to SSMU.

The policy’s amendments are grouped into six categories: Communication and promotions, programming and events, physical access, student groups, external and internal advocacy, and SSMU governance. This expansion is an effort to embody the “social model of disability,” which maintains that it is systemic barriers, including physical, attitudinal, social, that are the primary factors to an individual’s experience of disability, rather than one’s own individual experience. 

Vice-President (VP) University Affairs Brooklyn Frizzle explained that the policy aims to improve the resources offered by SSMU’s Communications Department to reduce existing barriers to accessibility.

“There are a lot of big operational changes with the Communications Department offering accommodations in terms of whisper translation or sign language interpreters […] which we’re supposed to be offered anyways, but there hasn’t been necessary financial allocations or pressure,” Frizzle said. 

Frizzle noted that the lack of enforcement mechanisms contained in the previous 2016 policy limited its effectiveness during the five years that the former policy was in effect. 

“The biggest problem was that it was just frankly unenforceable,” Frizzle said. “There weren’t any clear mandates for executives or governing bodies. From [2016] on, I don’t think there was a single report on accessibility […] presented to the council.”

To address these concerns, the new policy will mandate the creation of an Accessibility Commissioner who will be responsible for leading an Accessibility Committee that will convene biweekly. VP Student Life Maheen Akter will be responsible for the hiring and training of the new commissioner. 

“The Accessibility Commissioner is responsible for ensuring that mandates are followed,” Akter said. “The commissioner will  serve as a resource for SSMU and […] student groups in efforts to expand accessibility.”

The commissioner and their committee will work to engage the entire university population to ensure that all operations and communications are accessible.

“We’re now able to hire someone with expertise, […] somebody who will consult with student groups and staff in order to make sure all our operations are as accessible as possible,” Akter said. 

Akter will correspond with student clubs to address barriers to student participation and provide resources to address concerns about accessibility. 

“One of the other things […] that is also part of my role [is] making sure that there’s inclusion and awareness [within student clubs, and] part of that is providing training materials in clubs workshops,” Akter said.

Under the leadership of the new commissioner, the Accessibility Committee will aim to create space for students to voice concerns on accessibility at SSMU, which Frizzle notes is lacking on campus. 

“The creation of an accessibility committee [serves as] an oversight and auditing body that identifies inaccessibility at SSMU, makes recommendations and acts as […] a forum for students with disabilities,” Frizzle said. “[Right now this] doesn’t really exist on campus aside from the University Joint Board Senate Committee on Equity Subcommittee on Persons with Disabilities.”

The policy states that the SSMU Funding Committee will now ask at least one question concerning accessibility when evaluating funding applications. The accountability committee will be held responsible for ensuring that this takes place, and report to the SSMU Legislative Council at least once a semester.

Teri Phillips, director of the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), emphasized the organization’s shared goals with the SSMU’s reformed Accessibility Policy and explained that the OSD will apply the central aims of the policy to continue to improve their services. 

“I do welcome and look forward to working with SSMU representatives to advance our mutual objective of improving access and creating an accessible learning environment for all our students,” Phillips said.

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