Category Archives: Campaigns & Advocacy

READ OUR NEW OP-ED IN THE STRAND: The University-Mandated Leave of Absence is discriminatory and harmful

Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA) is an organization led by mad and disabled students at the University of Toronto, an institution located on the territories of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of New Credit. SBA advocates for equity and the removal of barriers to accessing education. As a group of students located at the intersections of multiple identities, we are committed to resisting ableism and sanism, and to creating safer spaces for marginalized students on campus.

As students, community leaders, and advocates, we strongly oppose the proposed University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy. This policy, which is informally being referred to as UofT’s new mental health policy, specifically targets students with mental health disabilities and would allow the University to place these students on a mandatory leave of absence if (1) the student’s behaviour poses “a serious risk of harm to themselves or others” or (2) if the student is deemed “unable to engage in activities required to pursue an education.” The proposed policy raises numerous concerns for disabled and mad students, and our allies.

First and foremost, the logic framing this policy seems to indicate that the University has been providing appropriate accommodations to students with mental health disabilities. The policy itself is represented as one of last resort for the University, and it claims that it would only be applicable in a small number of student cases where accommodations are not successful or feasible. However, as the 2015-2016 Report of the University of Toronto Ombudsperson clearly illustrates, appropriate accommodations are not being provided to students. In fact, the Report states that the Ontario Human Rights Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate have been unevenly and inconsistently followed across University departments. Some academic programs were found to refuse to implement all but the most minimal accommodations for students with mental health disabilities.

Although the number of students with mental health disabilities enrolling at UofT has been rising significantly, due in large part to the advocacy work done in the disability community, the University has not matched this rise in enrolment with an increase in Disability Counsellors, Counsellors, or traditional healers. This has meant longer wait times for intake appointments at Accessibility Services and for meetings with Disability Counsellors, and unacceptable waitlists to see Counsellors for support. Given this and the findings of the Ombudsperson, the University’s proposal to place students on a mandatory and non-consensual leave without having met its obligations with respect to the Duty to Accommodate is appalling.

Another glaring problem with the proposed policy is that, contrary to the findings of numerous studies, it perpetuates the stereotype that people with mental health disabilities are prone to violence and thereby pose a risk to their communities. This perception, and its irresponsible reproduction by the University administration through a policy that targets people with mental health disabilities as a known and identifiable group, is an act of discrimination. As history and current events have repeatedly shown, it is particularly people located at the intersections of marginalized identities—racialized, queer, and trans people with mental health disabilities—who bear the brunt of these unfounded stereotypes, institutionalized discrimination, and violence. Furthermore, research has shown that people with mental health disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and that gender and age are more reliable predictors of violent behaviour than mental health disabilities.

Equally troubling is the callous approach to students with mental health disabilities should they be in distress or experiencing crisis and at risk of harming themselves. How can the University, which purports to be a community that “embraces the broadest range of people, that helps them achieve their full potential” justify evicting members who are in need of urgent support and care, who need to be embraced by their chosen community? Rather than holding space for its community members that are in crisis, the proposed policy would enable the UofT administration to remove students from their classes, their colleagues, and their student community.

Other potential impacts of this mandated leave of absence include the removal of students from campus housing and the revocation of financial assistance through programs like OSAP and the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment for Persons with Permanent Disabilities (BSWD/CSG-PDSE), as maintaining one’s student status is a condition of access to student funding and housing. Graduate students who are often employed by the University could also lose their jobs and primary source of income if placed on a mandated leave of absence. Removing financial supports for students experiencing crisis will only exacerbate their distress and increase the barriers to access that they will be facing. For international students with mental health disabilities, the policy is especially concerning, as being placed on a mandated leave could put their study permit in jeopardy.

Returning to studies after being placed on a university-mandated leave presents its own indignities. In order to be able to return to their studies, students must apply to the Vice Provost Students in writing and are encouraged to provide documentation from a healthcare practitioner attesting that they are able to return “safely” to their studies. At the discretion of the Vice Provost Students, students may be subject to a psychiatric risk-assessment or behavioural assessment, and reacceptance is in no way guaranteed.

Given the enormity of the consequences of this policy on students with mental health disabilities, the Office of the Vice-President and Provost should be concerned that it will deter students from seeking the support and guidance they may need, leaving them increasingly more isolated. Faculty and staff wanting to refer students to mental health supports may hesitate to do so for fear of reprisal on the student.

On Friday November 10th, SBA released a letter in resistance to the University-Mandated Leave Policy. As of the time of writing this Op-Ed, over 400 students, staff, and faculty have signed on, and two of five University of Toronto student unions, APUS and UTGSU, have endorsed the petition. We collectively call on the Office of the Vice-President and Provost to immediately revoke the proposed policy, to do their due diligence by engaging in a broad and in-depth consultation with disabled students and the wider disability community, to increase the mental health supports available on campus, to hire additional counsellors and traditional healers, and to increase funding and staff at Accessibility Services. The University is obligated to meet its Duty to Accommodate, and we call on UofT to do so before instituting punitive and harmful policies.

 The original article has been published in The Strand and can be found here.

The SBA’s “Re: University-Mandated Leave Policy” letter can be accessed on The Strand’s Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as at the following link.

#NotUpForDebate; SBA responds to the University of Toronto forum on Bill C-16

#NotUpForDebate; SBA responds to the University of Toronto forum on Bill C-16

Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA) is an organization led by mad and disabled students at the University of Toronto (U of T), an institution located on the territories of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca and the Mississaugas of New Credit.  SBA advocates for the removal of barriers to accessing education. As mad and disabled students located at the intersections of multiple identities, we are committed to creating safer spaces with marginalized students on campus. We believe in the right to gender self-determination and the right to access post-secondary education free of transphobia, anti-black racism, racialized and gender-based violence. As an organization committed to actively resisting transphobia, anti-black racism and settler colonial violence on campus and within the larger community we condemn Jordan Peterson’s anti-black statements and his hate speech directed at trans, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, and two-spirit students, staff and faculty.  Attempts to reduce these statements simply to a speech act is a violent erasure of the material impacts of Peterson’s and his supporters’ oppressive practices.

Over the past few weeks, Peterson has continued to assert that the refusal to use people’s pronouns will result in the criminalization of individuals under Bill C-16 and the Canadian Human Rights Act. This privileged position taken by Peterson, a middle class cis-white man, clearly indicates his lack of understanding of the criminal code and the prison industrial complex. As illustrated through the work of Black Lives Matter, the criminal code is enforced in a way that specifically criminalizes genderqueer, gender non-conforming, trans and two-spirit people. Black, indigenous and people of colour are disproportionately targeted through these processes of criminalization.

Gender self-determination which includes the right to use and demand that others refer to us by our pronoun is an act of survival in the face of societal violence that forces all people to conform to a binary notion of gender. In fact, this violence has always been at the core of the colonization of Turtle Island, where settlers enforced conformity to a gender binary and Western gender roles and tried to erase indigenous beliefs and systems of gender.  Transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and two-spirit people who do not fit into colonial cis-heteropatriarchal notions of gender often face violent repercussions, including death.

As illustrated clearly in many of Peterson’s comments, transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming and two-spirit people are often pathologized, where gender non-conformity is seen as a symptom of an illness that is in need of diagnosis and cure. Through this framing, transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming, and especially black, indigenous and racialized transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and two-spirit people are represented either as objects of pity to be saved or as dangers to our society that need to be punished. In either case the proposed solutions are incarceration either in the prison system or in psychiatric institutions. Peterson’s hate speech and refusal to recognize non-binary pronouns works to further pathologize, medicalize and criminalize communities who are disproportionately labeled as ‘mentally ill’, putting them at further risk of criminalization, incarceration and death.

Peterson has grossly misrepresented his comments as “free speech” creating an environment that is unsafe and violent for Black, Indigenous, and racialized trans, gender non-conforming, genderqueer and two-spirit students, staff and faculty on campus. He has defended his resistance to what he refers to as nonsensical calls for ‘political correctness’ by claiming that the duress of a so-called politically correct (PC) culture (for example, of having to respect gender self-determination) can lead to ‘insanity’ in immigrants and Muslims in particular. We reject this claim as a racist, Islamophobic, transphobic and sanist representation of our communities which simultaneously erases our members that are located at these intersections and our radical history of collectively reimagining community and organizing spaces and movements that honour and uphold the complexity of peoples’ existence and lived experience.

As a direct result of the anti-black, racist, and transphobic public comments made by Peterson and his supporters, and the violence at the protests held in support of  so-called ‘free speech’, students at U of T are concerned for their safety when attending classes. The University of Toronto administration, despite requiring that Peterson  respect pronouns, have actively contributed to this unsafe environment by hosting a public forum which will allow for hate speech to continue under the guise of a debate on “free speech” and Bill C-16.  As stated in the Open Letter released  by the Queer Caucus of CUPE 3902, “We object to the basic premise of this event. Human rights are not up for debate.

The demand for the use of our pronouns is not an issue of free speech, nor does it infringe upon any rights associated with free speech. The refusal to use the pronouns of  trans, gender non-conforming, genderqueer and two-spirit people is a direct attack on those bodies and on the right to gender self-determination. To claim otherwise is not a defence of free speech. To claim otherwise is a practice of racialized, gendered, and colonial violence.

In Solidarity,

Students for Barrier-Free Access

Below are various resources including crisis services for students who require emotional support during this unsafe campus climate. We are also linking some resources to encourage the U of T community to learn more about gender, and the barriers affecting non-binary and binary transgender communities. In addition, we are sharing resources on anti-black racism. We strongly encourage the U of T community to learn more about anti-black racism and the barriers affecting black communities. We will continue updating these resources over the next few days.

Crisis Teams Across the GTA:

  • The Gerstein Centre: 416-929-5200
  • Youthline 1800-268-9688
  • Scarborough Mobile Crisis Program: 416-495-2891
  • Trans Lifeline: (877)-330-6366 (CANADA)
  • Distress Centre Peel: 905-278-7208
  • Barrie Crisis Team: 705-728-5044
  • Crisis Services of Waterloo Region: 519-744-1813
  • COAST (Hamilton area): 905-972-8338
  • Durham Mental Health Services: 1-800-742-1890/905-666-0483
  • 4 County Crisis Community Mental Health Crisis Response Program: 705-745-6484/866-995-9933; serves Peterborough, City of Kawartha Lakes, Haliburton and Northumberland. Short-term crisis counselling and crisis bed available.
  • Peel Crisis Services: 905-278-9036
  • Mental Health Chat Rooms

Peer Support and Referral Services:

  • Students for Barrier-free Access

215 Huron St, Toronto, ON M5T 1R2

Phone: (416) 967-7322

Binary and nonbinary Trans Resources:

  • Trans Girls/Guys Against Violent Assault

  • Emotional First Aid

  • Find local resources

  • Sherbourne Health Centre – LGBT Health

Statements by U of T community members challenging Peterson’s arguments

Beyond the Binary; Resources on gender and gender self-determination

Resources on anti-black Racism





  • 300 Hours; What I learned about Black Queer and Trans liberation at BLMTO Tent City
  • Black Lives Matter Toronto

Read Our Op-Ed in the Varisty: Op-ed: Accessibility is a worthy investment

Op-ed: Accessibility is a worthy investment; The Accessibility Services volunteer note-taking system is not hitting home for many students

By Chandrashri Pal and Nadia Kanani

Published on

Note-taking is a recognized accessibility need for students with progressive hearing loss, deafness, poor vision, ADHD, and various other learning, sensory, and physical disabilities, disorders, and impairments. This service is an essential accommodation for departments that have historical and existing systemic barriers to entry for disabled students, such as sciences, technology, engineering, math and architecture (STEMA).

For example, note-taking services for students with low vision allows for better contextualization and interpretation of math, equations, graphs, diagrams, and code languages, a necessity for disabled students for whom STEMA classes may otherwise be inaccessible. Lack of access to notes, especially in the STEMA fields, often means that disabled students have to switch out of those subjects.

It is therefore imperative that lecture notes, textbooks, exams, quizzes and all class materials are made available in alternative formats in order for disabled students to have equitable access to education.

At the St. George campus, the note-taking program is administered through Accessibility Services. The program relies almost entirely on volunteers; students in the same class as those in need of notes are asked to sign up as note-takers with Accessibility Services. In return, volunteers receive a certificate from Accessibility Services. If the volunteer takes on note-taking positions for multiple classes, they may be eligible for co-curricular record accreditation through U of T.

The current volunteer note-taking program has over 1500 volunteers and serves over 1200 disabled students. Fortunately, U of T provides volunteer note-taking as one way to level the playing field for registered students with disabilities.

However, the volunteer system has many limitations that create additional barriers for students with disabilities. One of the first challenges of this system is that it is dependent on professors making an announcement in class in order to recruit volunteers. Many professors do not make this announcement, make it only once, or fail to adequately emphasize the pressing need for volunteers.

In addition, reliance on a volunteer-based system — as opposed to hiring paid note-takers — frequently leads to a lack of consistent note-taking in class. Rather than submitting and uploading lecture notes after every class, note-takers often submit and upload their notes every few weeks. Thus, lectures notes are not uploaded in a timely manner and students often do not have access to the lecture materials prior to midterms, course assignments, or labs.

Lecture notes are often shared in formats that end up being inaccessible; for example, handwritten notes that are not readable by screen readers are virtually useless to students who need to access them.

In addition, it is rare that tutorial notes are provided to students, as it is not required for volunteers to share notes from non-lecture based class sections. In fact, there is no formal mechanism in place for students to be able to request note-taking for tutorials, labs, or field courses if they require them.

Not having access to notes promptly after lectures take place makes it difficult for students with disabilities to absorb lecture material and work through it in the sequential manner necessary for complete understanding, or to learn through the framework in which the material is intended to be taught.

In sum, due to the inconsistent submission of lecture notes, lack of guidance for note-takers, and failure to provide note-takers in non-lecture based learning spaces, disabled students are placed at a significant disadvantage. As a result, rather than levelling the playing field, the note-taking system at U of T systematically leaves disabled students behind and struggling to catch up in their courses.

The university’s reliance on an almost entirely volunteer-based system for note taking is puzzling, as the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) claims to provide $250 per class per semester for note-takers through the Bursary for Students with Disabilities and Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment (BSWD/CSG-PDSE). Funding through this grant is decided on a case-by-case basis using a standardized application.

While all students with disabilities requiring note-takers should, in theory, be able to get funding for this service, there seems to be an uneven distribution of this government-allocated money. At U of T, many students who have received funding for note-takers repeatedly advocated for this service prior to being approved.

Across the province, we find that some universities and colleges consistently pay for note-takers while others, including U of T, do not. Inconsistencies also exist within U of T, which raises questions about how Ministry funding is being allocated to students. If it has been determined that a student requires note-takers, why is funding for note-takers not being provided? What are the reasons for relying on a volunteer-based note-taking program?

While U of T is is considered a publicly-assisted institution, education here is still framed through notions of meritocracy, competition, and performance. From this perspective, competition is regarded a necessary precursor to research innovation. Within the context of accessibility needs, this competition-driven system has significant consequences for disabled students. In the case of note-taking, disabled students are represented as having an ‘unfair advantage’ or a ‘competitive edge’ over their peers when they receive lecture notes from a classmate.

These unfounded perceptions lead to both professors and non-disabled students de-valuing the importance of note-taking services and, at the same time, create an even more hostile classroom environment for disabled students. Programs that are inaccessible remain inaccessible, while the lack of support often pushes disabled students out.

Without a broader discourse on equity and a reconceptualization of classroom accommodations as accessibility needs, the conversation remains focused on individual needs. Such an approach cannot lead to meaningful structural changes. In order to have a note-taker system that works for disabled students, it is urgent for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and U of T to begin to engage with disabled students and to center our needs.

Chandrashri Pal is a Board Member and the current Vice-Chair of Students for Barrier-free Access. Nadia Kanani is the Advocacy and Volunteer Coordinator at Students for Barrier-free Access.

Read Our Article on the BSWD/CSG-PDSE published in Action Speaks Louder!!

“Barriers Related to Disability Related Educational Supports: Mapping Funding Discrepancies Across the Province”

by Fady Shanouda and Nadia Kanani

published in Action Speaks Louder, Winter 2016 Edition (re-printed below)

The Bursary for Students with Disabilities and the Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment for Persons with Permanent Disabilities (BSWD/CSG-PDSE) is a provincial and federal bursary administered by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.  The provincial/federal split is reflected financially in a 20/80% division, respectively. This means that out of the possible $10,000 of funding disabled students can apply for annually, $2,000 is provincially funded (BSWD), while $8,000 is federally funded (CSG-PDSE).

To be eligible for the BSWD-CSG/PDSE students must: have a permanent disability; qualify for OSAP ($1.00 minimum); be a Canadian citizen; and be enrolled in full-time studies (40% workload for disabled students). Even when students do meet all of this criteria, they still face various obstacles in accessing the bursary that often go unrecognized and that, in turn, limit their access to funding and support. To eliminate these barriers to access, the Ministry, along with universities and colleges, should make information about the bursary, including how funding is allocated and the process through which funding decisions are made, easily available and accessible to students. We have yet to see this level of transparency concerning the bursary and, as a result, Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA) has initiated action to learn more about the administration of the bursary.

Copies of the manuals that outline the management of the bursary are not available to students. Students have been denied access to the manuals when we have requested copies. Counselors and staff deny our requests for information arguing that the documents are government issued and, therefore, that they have no legal right to distribute them without the government’s approval.

This lack of transparency, and the idiosyncratic decision-making that is part of this process, could no longer go uninvestigated. Therefore, on May 27, 2015, SBA filed two Freedom of Information (FOI) requests: one with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities; and, the other with the University of Toronto’s internal information and privacy office. The University denied our FOI request, suggesting that they did not have to comply with the request because the Ministry developed the documents and, therefore, owned the copyright. The Ministry, however, did comply with our request, and SBA received copies of 15 manuals spanning the same number of years, from 2000-2001 to 2014-2015 (SBA has since filed for and received the manual for 2015-2016).

With only a few months since the request was received, SBA has not yet completed a full and in-depth  analysis of the manuals. We are diligently working our way through each manual to determine how the bursary operates at the Ministry level, and the changes that have been introduced and implemented over time. Still, our preliminary analysis has lead to one significant and astonishing finding. We have discovered that each university or college can set internal caps or maximum funds for each specific disability support that are different from the Ministry’s caps, as long as they are below the Ministry’s caps. For example, note-taking services are covered under the bursary. The Ministry cap for note-taking for the 2015-2016 year could be set at $250 per course. However, York University could choose to set a cap of $200 per course for note-taking while the University of Toronto’s cap could be set at $150. As long as both caps do not exceed the maximum set by the Ministry they would be in compliance with Ministry guidelines. Thus, in effect, disabled students in different parts of the province could be receiving different levels of funding for the same service. What this amounts to is an inequitable distribution of funding for services for disabled students across the province.

The fact that each University or college could set their own internal caps or maximum funds also leads us to think that there must be internal manuals at each university and college that governs the internal operations of the bursary and sets these internal caps for services. Therefore, there may be two sets of manuals, those developed and distributed by the Ministry to the universities and colleges and that set the maximums for the province, and another manual or guideline developed by universities and colleges and that govern the internal operations of both the disability office and financial aid office. Evidence of these internal manuals are still missing; and if no internal manuals or guidelines exist, then there is no clear sense of how disability and financial aid officers make decisions around the bursary. Having consulted with students in different parts of the province, we know that students are receiving significantly different information in regards to the maximum level of funding for particular education-related disability supports. Whether or not internal manuals exist, and there is still nothing to suggest that the internal manuals do not exist, officers in universities and colleges are making decisions at their discretion and disabled students, in different parts of the province, are still receiving different levels of funding for the same type of service.

Within this complex process, disabled students are expected to be compliant with the decision they receive and the funding level the university or college allocates to them, even if this limits the level of support and services they can receive (such as with the note-taking example above). This labyrinthian process excludes disabled students from making informed decisions since it remains unclear how decisions are made, who is responsible for making these decisions, and what appeal process, if any, exists.

SBA is moving forward by filing 20 FOI requests to every university in the province, asking for the internal manual or guidelines that governs the administration of the bursary. There are also plans to file similar FOI requests with every college in the province. SBA received files, this past week from a second FOI request for internal documents from the University of Toronto; the successful request included over a thousand pages. Analysis of these documents will take some time, but SBA plans to release its findings sometime in the new year. If you are interested in assisting us in this process, please consider joining our Advocacy Committee (contact:


view past issues of Action Speaks Louder at

Access is a practice, not a statement; A message to UTSU members ahead of the October 7th AGM

Access is a practice, not a statement;  A message to UTSU members ahead of the October 7th AGM


Published on

On October 7, 2015 at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the University of Toronto’s Students Union (UTSU), you will be deciding whether to make a substantial change to the democratic process at this institution: namely a change from paper ballot voting to computerized and online voting. The change to computerized and online voting is presented in the motion as “improving accessibility,” creating a “fairer system,” and removing barriers to participation in campus life. It is the opinion of Students for Barrier-free Access (SBA) that these claims misappropriate the discourse of disability in misleading ways. Accessibility is not a statement; accessibility is a practice. It requires a deliberate and meaningful engagement with, and involvement of, disabled people.

With respect to the voting process, we believe that paper ballots allow for accessibility needs to be met more efficiently than computerized and online voting. The process of holding a paper ballot vote requires the union to address the physical, attitudinal, and informational barriers that exist on campus through the active inclusion of disabled voters, thereby ensuring that the process is accessible to all students. Computerized voting at home, even if it sounds convenient to some, actually alienates persons with disabilities from participating fully in the voting process at U of T and relegates us to the margins of the electoral process.

In fact, we believe this proposed change will actually create additional barriers to accessibility. The motion does not clearly indicate how computerized and online voting systems will be made accessible. For example, if a student requires a screen-reader and uses Job Access With Speech (JAWS) software for blind people), or other accessible technology, will they be able to vote online or at a computerized voting booth on campus? How will accessibility features be incorporated into the computerized and online voting systems? These concerns should be addressed before members can make an informed decision on this issue. These questions must be answered before a new voting process is introduced.

Furthermore, we think that it is irresponsible that a new voting system that is purportedly “accessible” is being voted on without first consulting representatives of students with disabilities on campus, like SBA. Again, accessibility is a practice, and one of its primary tenets is the inclusion of disabled people in the decision-making process. This lack of consultation creates barriers that will need to be addressed retroactively. Not only is this unnecessary, the issues behind this change are unavoidable.

Sometimes, accessibility sometimes means using materials that are characterized as wasteful or unsustainable. Although paper balloting can be inaccessible for some disabled people, this inaccessibility can often be remedied by having trained staff willing to help disabled people fill in their ballots. This offers disabled students the opportunity to engage in the process of voting similar to their peers. Finally, we do not discount that the voting process uses “enormous” amounts of paper; however, we do not think that sustainability can or should be used as an argument for reducing access or creating barriers. Paper is surely more sustainable as a recyclable product than a system that contributes electronic waste from the eventual disposal of laptops, iPads, tablets, and other devices.

It is SBA’s opinion that members of the UTSU should vote down the motion on computerized voting as it fails to outline a truly accessible voting process, was not proposed in consultation with disabled students, contains no qualified accountability measures, and does not sufficiently meet the needs of students at this institution. As disabled students, we want to vote alongside our peers. We want to meet you in line and discuss the issues. We want the opportunity to check-off a box and we want to slide our paper ballots into the slot – hoping that our opinions are respected, encouraged and counted. Voting is essential to the democratic process and hasty and unorganized changes, as those proposed in this motion, will affect this process. Please vote down this motion and encourage UTSU to continue with the paper ballot system.