Violent Incompetence: Memorial University and Disableism Violent Incompetence: Memorial University and Disableism


So, I didn’t really want to write about this right now. I was intending to write about religon, interestingly enough, but I’m quite disgusted with goings on at Memorial University (my alma mater), so… here we are.

In my four years at Memorial and in spite of valiant efforts by some students, staff, faculty, and what have you, I can fairly assuredly say that tackling disablism is a shockingly low priority.

You see for a number of years I served on the Grenfell Campus Advisory Committee on Students with Disabilities(a committee that, in all honesty, most folks likely are unaware even exists). And, while some former committee members were solid in their working with me, the overall process was disheartening and directionless.

Now, why has this come into the fore? Well, a deaf member of the Memorial community has been denied access to a class because his professor refuses to utilize his assistive device (an FM system) out of a commitment to their religious belief. Further reports describe incidents in 1985 and 1996 which have played out similarly–leading to an agreement between the professor and the University which allowed the professor to simply walk away from such responsibility.

“Unfortunately, we recently learned that there was an accommodation reached with the faculty member in that class in 1996 and that accommodation meant that she would not be asked to wear the particular technological device that he [William Sears] required for his hearing needs,”

The above quote is taken from Cecilia Reynolds,Deputy Provost (Students) & Associate Vice-President (Academic), Undergrad. As you can see, it is a rather pathetic statement and one which, apparently, was made after the Deputy Provost had “learned about that just yesterday”. Ultimately, much of the media then is placing the blame on the professor in this case and that has some justice to it. Particularly since her supposed belief is of questionable foundation.

Former student Nancy McDonald has provided a letter to radio station VOCM that she received from the university in 1996 from the vice-president academic at the time. In it, Panjabi is quoted as telling the dean of arts her religious reasons weren’t based on a particular religious tradition, but were part of her “personal spirituality and commitments.”

But, let us step back here. It is easy to blame a bigoted and mal-intented professor for actions taken here. It really, really is… but, in the end, the authority of the professoriate in this matter is curtailed by human rights law and, frankly, the corresponding judgement of the rest of the University apparatus.

The very idea that such an agreement was signed by any Administration of Memorial University, especially by the late 1990s, is boggling. However, as I alluded to above, it is not atypical in my view. Instead, disableism runs free within the space of Memorial’s administration.

Before I go into some examples, I want to give rightly kudos to those who do deserve it. Lorna Payne (Coordinator, Learning Centre), Mary Sparks (Former Director of Student Services), Matthew Janes (Director of Student Services), and all of the faculty members who taught me had my back personally on these issues when at Memorial’s Grenfell Campus. But, people’s positive acts do not counter systemic deficits entirely.

The Grenfell Campus has a long history of, well, parts of it simply not working. It’s an older building and parts for replacement of things broken tends to take more time than is often reasonable. The central elevator for the building, for example, had a habit of failing (I’ve found countless email records of such happenings over four years). Now, when constructing a new facility, one would imagine rectifying this would be a priority.

Instead, in the campus’ then new Academic extension, plans were developed that simply left out an elevator–following cost overruns requiring changes to the overall building plan. These plans, of course, were not locally derived but dealt with through the central St. John’s administration at the time. At the time, the aforementioned committee was in uproar and the student union unsettled deeply.

Five years ago, then, I sent the following as part of a letter to Dr. Gary Kachinovski, President of Memorial:

The GCSU has recently been informed that a portion of the new Academic Extension, the proposed atrium, will not be built at this time. This, of course, being due to cost overruns created by the high-priced market in Corner Brook for larger-scale construction. This, in itself, is not an issue as we see it, however in a domino effect other issues have arisen from it. Most notably, we are deeply concerned that the elevator for the Academic Extension will now no longer be built. This is due to the fact that it was located within the atrium and there are, according to local administation, no plans to adjust the current design to accomidate such an elevator.

The lacking of such an elevator, while on the surface may appear minor, is of great concern when considering students with physical disabilities. Ease of access for such students allows them to engage freely in academic endevours and this can only be a positive force within our institution. The lacking of this elevator, however, will increase the stress placed upon students who already face difficulty in maneuvering around campus while decreasing their overall ability to have proper and prompt access to our facilities.

Following much anger and much force of will from many engaged in the University, we won and were able to secure the elevator (which, still, took years to open) for the building in spite of the broader administration.

Meanwhile, on the St. John’s campus, MUNDisC (MUN Disability Information and Support Centre) have spoken loudly over the years regarding issues on that campus. While their work has been hampered over the years by inconsistently supportive student union, MUNDisC members have talked to me of similar physical plant and administrative failures. Then again, this cannot be too unexpected when deferred maintenence on the main campus looks as described in one CBC article (link).

For me, this is the University where rather than plow walkways of snow, one administrator openly suggested to me that a student in a wheelchair would simply have to come home to residence early, before it snowed.

This is the University where it has been seen as ‘OK’ to tokenize and trivialize the experiences of disabled people…


An actual email sent out from the University.

This is a University where it took three years to respond to a request from the Grenfell Campus Student Union (which I made, before I left the university) to install automatic door openers on the Union’s entrances.

This is a university where I have seen, first hand, disableism perpetuated in large and small ways… all with a knowing upper administration. And, let’s be clear, I’ve only spoken about visible, physical disabilities and physical plant issues for the most part here, if I went into mental health or invisible disabilities, I’d be here all day.

The fact is aggressions, macro- and micro-, have been a long feature of the Memorial University experience. I got lucky, for myself, that I had good people in my corner and a campus (at the time) that was filled with an energy to defy its central administration.

But, the student in this situation has not been. Williams Sears, like I was, studies History at Memorial and has been outrightly discriminated against by a professor, yes, but by the Memorial University administration also. This handwringing and lack of perspective on their part now is just part of a culture where disablism is only meaningfully tackled–on a systemic level–when backs are to the wall and people in the community are willing to fight with all they have.

What has happened to Sears is violence perpetuated by an adminstration and an institution. It is sheer and utter incompetence. If any of us alumni have any devotion to social justice, any at all, we would cease all support of this institution until it rectifies not just this situation, but the lack of failsafes to prevent these things from occuring again.

In one Muse article from last year, a student psudeonymously named Michelle noted that the disability services at St. John’s campus(the Blundon Centre) was understaffed, saying….

“I personally don’t think the university as a whole recognizes how serious a need this is,” she said. “It’s not serious because people with disabilities are a big problem, it’s because when you don’t have enough resources it becomes a big issue […] They’re doing a fabulous job, but you can only do so much with what you have.”

This is a systemic set of problems with systemic solutions and the solutions must be derived from a wholesale Memorial admin and on through the institution approach.

Now, mind you, this is not to say Memorial is the exception to some accessibility rule. It is not. Far, far from… however, this is the battleground in Newfoundland on disableism that has to be given some note and support from where ever we are.

To those who have other stories, send them along and I’ll add them in updates to the post, if you desire so. I’ll do the same as I remember more. But, this is not enough. We must be with William Sears however we can and with the full force of our will. We must fight back.

All the best,
– Brad.



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