No Seat for Disabled Students on AMS Council

By Kalyeena Makortoff
kmakortoff@ubyssey.ca

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

A motion to create a non-voting seat for students with disabilities was voted down by AMS Council last week following a heated 90-minute debate.

The position was put forward by the External office and student Andrew Rooney, and would have allowed a representative to sit on AMS Council, add motions to agendas and sit on committees as a general spokesperson for students with disabilities.

Over 20 students were present at AMS Council Wednesday night to express their opinions. The motion was defeated with 12 councilors for creating the seat, 21 against, and five abstentions. A few students left the room in tears, with one shouting “shame on you all.”

Non-voting seats already exist on AMS Council, including representatives from the Alumni Association, international students, Regent College and St Mark’s College.

Arts representative Matt Naylor explained that he opposed the motion partly because he was concerned that creating the seat would be out of line with the faculty-based system of AMS Council. “Creating any kind of non-voting seat for a specific constituency that isn’t one of the faculties has a lot of problems. We, as faculty representatives, should be the voice for all of our faculty, and we should be considering what is best for the society holistically,” he said.

“Creating special seats for special groups specifically dissuades that because they are responsible for articulating a viewpoint, and not articulating what they think is best for the entire society, so it creates a really fractious system.”

Naylor added that problems regarding representation lie in representatives’ engagement with their faculties, and not necessarily the structure of AMS Council. Councilors should make a larger effort to engage their constituents to make sure everyone’s voices are being heard.

AMS Equity and Diversity Coordinator Emma Ellison believes that there are deeper issues to be addressed. “There’s never a sort of focus on what some of the [barriers are]…that actually affect individuals’ decision-making processes,” she said. “In AMS Council, we actually heard [from students with disabilities] that the meetings are inaccessible, that it’s an environment where students have felt that their concerns aren’t voiced, aren’t listened to; their representatives don’t actually take into consideration their views.

“The AMS exists as a student union. It should be advocating for student rights, for access to education, for participation on campus in the broadest sense, and that is fully and inherently within the mandate of the AMS,” added Ellison. “For councilors who choose to ignore that aspect of their responsibilities as an elected representative, they’re completely negating the purpose of them being elected.”
Amongst the supporters and advocates were a number of students with disabilities who left the meeting clearly unimpressed with Council’s decision.

“I’m disappointed that the motion…failed because I believe that students with disabilities should have equal representation on the council,” said Rosalind Ho, a UBC student with profound hearing loss in both ears. “Having a disability is a part of ourselves, something that affects our daily functioning and our daily life. Students shouldn’t be slotted into the faculty they’re in….[We] should have our views, our issues—that affect our lives as students—heard.”
Rooney, a student with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, noted the challenges students with disabilities may face in solely attending AMS meetings and engaging with representatives who currently sit at the Council table. “I guess the main problem for myself is just getting to these meetings and going to say what’s on my mind,” he said. “Frankly, its something I just can’t do because of my disability…part of autism is a communication barrier.”

Science representative Tahara Bhate said she would like to see the results of the AMS Equity Review before making any decisions on how to properly represent students with disabilities. “I think there’s other ways to do it,” she said. “I personally abstained on the motion because I didn’t think that this was the best way to create engagement within our society.

“But to have all those students come out and think that by voting against this motion we were saying that we didn’t want to hear their views, that’s something I wasn’t comfortable with, either.”

Other student councils across Canada have already implemented non-voting seats for students with disabilities, including the University of Victoria and the University of Toronto.

Despite the motion being defeated, Bowen Tang, a student with profound hearing loss, says this isn’t the end of the issue.

“Even though tonight the motion failed, I believe that given enough time, that when we gather more people with disabilities, get them to know more about what happened tonight, and if they voice the same concerns that we do, then we’ll eventually bring this motion back to Council, and that this time it’ll be more successful.

“Right now I guess that all we can do is to continue advocating for ourselves within our faculties and be able to speak our voice as loud as we can.”

Reproduced from http://ubyssey.ca/news/?p=11116