Dealing with disability

As diverse as human bodies are, there is a tendency towards privileging certain body types and disregarding non-compliant bodies. This results in a very limited body ideal that very few people can attain.

Susan Wendell, who has written extensively about the politics of disability, refers to this phenomenon as creating the “rejected body” and the “negative body.” She elaborates that these terms refer to “[ . . . ] those aspects of bodily life (such as illness, disability, weakness and dying), bodily appearance (usually derivations from the cultural ideals of the body) and bodily experience (including most forms of bodily suffering) that are feared, ignored, despised and/or rejected in a society and its culture.”

This discrimination, which is tacitly enforced in a myriad of different ways, has the effect of creating societies that make disability a topic that is surrounded by silence. This can be seen in disability’s stark absence from mainstream television shows and movies, as well as architecture plans with able-bodied bias.

Barriers in Manitoba

In Manitoba, obstacles that people with disabilities face are articulated by the organization Barrier-Free Manitoba. The group estimates that 170,000 Manitobans with disabilities face barriers that hinder them from fully participating in activities that most people take for granted. This staggering number drives Barrier-Free Manitoba’s call for legislation that limits the barriers that disabled people are forced to confront and hinders the formation of new impediments.

Patrick Falconer, consultant to Barrier-Free Manitoba’s steering committee, contends that legislative changes are happening too slowly. “Barriers are not being removed at an acceptable rate and new ones — particularly in relation to communications and other new technologies — are being added every year.”
Part of the problem involves insufficient mandatory accessibility measures. This currently means that buildings that are already established have little responsibility to become more accessible; whereas new buildings and buildings undergoing major renovations have more of a legal obligation to be accessible. Accessibility also becomes mandatory in the case of Human Rights Commission rulings and successful Charter challenges.

Falconer elaborates: “There are also voluntary codes in place, as in the case of both the Province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg, but these again tend to focus on buildings and only apply to the jurisdiction that adopts them. Of course, many organizations have adopted their own policies to provide for accommodation and many persons with disabilities have been successful in advocating for the removal of particular barriers.”

Both mandatory and voluntary accessibility measures have been beneficial, but Falconer acknowledges that more work needs to be done. “These are all making some difference but hardly enough. Last year, 47 per cent of all formal complaints to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission related to disability discrimination — more complaints than for almost all the other grounds for complaint combined.
This 47 per cent figure is only slightly higher than the 40 per cent norm that has existed for over a decade.”

Living with a learning disability

Due to society’s general emphasis on controlled bodies and conforming minds, dealing with a disability can be exceptionally challenging. When disabilities enter the realm of learning disorders, there can be much frustration and denial.

Darlene Meissner, a student working on her second degree at the University of Manitoba, is currently going through the process of getting an official adhd diagnosis. Originally diagnosed in Grade 6, Meissner was not put on medications or told about the diagnosis until Grade 10. It is when she entered university that she realized that she learned differently than her classmates. “Learning has always been difficult for me, and I really noticed this in university because all my friends were much smarter than me. Learning by reading was the most difficult, which is why I always attended all my classes.”

Without the knowledge of having a learning disability, Meissner’s self-esteem suffered. “I have always felt stupid, especially in university. Since then, I have felt that my brain works differently than others around me. I can’t always remember things, and can’t always keep on track in a conversation. I have a hard time sitting down to read and keeping my focus. I love books and I love learning, but the way
I learn best is orally, visually and hands-on.”

This situation prompted Meissner to seek assistance. “I thought about getting tested a couple of times through Disability Services at the U of M and had contacted them twice. Both times didn’t work out, so I kept on doing classes and exams as everyone else was for my ba.”

After three years and deciding to commence another degree, this time in social work, the experience of a friend with dyslexia prompted her to once again go for testing. “I have a friend who knew she had a learning disability. She was tested in her graduate program and the diagnosis came back as dyslexia. At first she thought she had add, but the more she read about it, the more she didn’t feel like it was what she was going through. She prompted me to go for the testing again.”

Meissner filled out a lengthy form, went for an intake meeting with a doctor on campus who does the testing, and learned that adhd can pass and does not necessarily last forever. This also means that for an official adhd diagnosis, an individual has to be retested every five years. However, there is a 10-month wait to be fully tested by the doctor.

For students who think that they may have a learning disorder, Meissner advises first going online to find out what your symptoms may be indicating. “Also, go to Disability Services at University Centre and get a formal diagnosis. I would suggest that you do it sooner rather than later because it takes about a year from when the form is sent back to them to do the testing. Going through the university is also a good idea if it is paid for through Student Services. I’ve heard that the testing on its own costs a lot.”

Speaking up about disability

The language that surrounds disability can also be troublesome. There are terms that were once in common usage that are now considered derogatory, but there are also limiting implications to many of the words used to describe disabilities.
There is still much work to be done in order to accurately represent the broad spectrum of disabilities that people live with, and actually talking about the topic is small progress.