Interview: Alex Wilson, MSU Maccess Coordinator

What need do you think Maccess addresses for the McMaster community?

In the past two years, students at MSU Accessibility Forums were constantly saying, “We need more” and the feedback by students experiencing disability has overwhelmingly been that there is a lack of community systems on campus. And events that are currently run by Student Accessibility Services don’t do enough in the social sphere, so there are a lot of barriers to do advocacy work through the organization that’s providing academic accommodations. So from this, the idea was born, and it aims to provide community and support and advocacy to students who experience disability on campus.

How did you get involved with this organization?

I was aware of Maccess as it was being created. When the job posting came out, I read it and thought, “wow”. It was a pivotal moment for me when I thought, “I can identify with these things.” You know, I’m a student who’s been registered with academic accommodations for the past eight years, and this was the moment when I thought that the response to the needs elaborated by individuals with disabilities was meaningful, and contributed to establishing a community. So it was really the fact that I could identify with the individuals that called for an organization like this to be created, that led me to take on this role.

What’s really cool about Maccess is that, you don’t have these students that are made to feel isolated, that are waiting to have these individual, revolutionary moments that I had where they realize that other people are going through similar experiences. Coming together as a community makes you realize that you’re not alone, and also empowers individuals to work together to address errors in the system.

Maccess provides peer support to individuals seeking it. Could you tell me about the importance of having someone with similar lived experiences as you providing support?

At university campuses, particularly within student unions, we see a lot of student services providing peer support. Oftentimes this is moved to a non-denominational kind of model, where both individuals are peers, and that’s the commonality. Recently, we’ve seen a lot of identity-based services popping up, such as the Women and Gender Equity Network (WGEN) which provides support to women and trans students, and all survivors of sexual violence. When talking about the value of peer support, it’s important to address where the notion actually came from. It actually originated from Mad Activism, outside the university context, where individuals identifying with madness or mental illness seeking out and talking to people who also identify with madness or mental illness. So from this, peer support ended up being integrated to university campuses. What’s great about Maccess is that we’re going back to the roots of what peer support originally intended to be. We are that non-medical, peer-led alternative that Mad Activism has called for since its creation.

Peer support is important because no one can really understand what you’re going through, unless they’ve been in similar circumstances. When we think of disability, we tend to think of isolated incidents that create specific barriers, but we don’t tend to think of it as an experience that permeates every aspect of someone’s life. We don’t think about how disability interacts with other intersections of our identity, like race or gender; and how all these things come together to create an intersectional, human experience. So when we’re providing peer support, even when it’s not in the specific area of the disability, it’s still incredibly important because you’re bringing those experiences, of the peer supporter and the student seeking support, together. You’re also getting better support, because with disabilities being so pervasive, there’s a lot of insider information that you tend to pick up as you navigate the system, which you can pass on to new students seeking it.

For someone seeking support, what can they expect when accessing Maccess?

In the next few weeks we’ll be launching “Peer Support by Appointment”, and it’s just a way to talk to someone about any given issue. That involves sending an email, and a Maccess volunteer who identifies with preferably a similar lived experience to the student, can meet them anywhere on campus that’s comfortable with the student for a conversation.

Additionally, it’s often very intimidating to go to that first counselling appointment at the Student Wellness Centre, or go to the first Intake appointment with the Student Accessibility Services counsellor. For all those times you want a friend, the volunteers at Maccess are willing to be that for you. Students can email Maccess and let us know the time and location, and we can promise that a volunteer will be able to accompany them when they need it.

What else do Maccess volunteers do beyond providing resource support or helping to navigate the system?

Primarily, we have conservations with people about personal lived experiences. That’s the type of support people typically seek out. Having someone listen to your experiences and be able to meaningfully validate them is extremely important. So while we do have a knowledge base on resources and referrals, and we’re constantly training our volunteers on that, our primary role is to be present in the capacity that students want us to be; and so far, that’s been to listen.

Can you elaborate on your plans in terms of advocacy work?

Advocacy takes a lot of different forms for students who experience disability. It plays out a lot on the individual level, where students self-advocate and facilitate policy changes. We can certainly support this self-advocacy, but as an organization we can do a lot more on a broader level. In November, we’ll be running the MSU Accessibility Forum, which is an annual event. We’re going to be changing it a bit this year, where we’ll be getting feedback from students before and after the forum, rather than just during the forum. The point of this is to have discussions with as many students as possible about their experiences as a student with disability, on the McMaster campus. These discussions can range from things like, relationships and dating, to the provision of accommodations, to physical accessibility of certain buildings, to anything and everything that they believe is relevant. This allows us to listen to and gauge the needs of the students, and implement meaningful changes in the future for the campus.

Beyond that, we don’t have a lot of disabilities studies courses at McMaster, or the opportunity for students to do a disabilities studies minor. That’s really unfortunate, especially when we see a lot of students with disabilities that are not attending post secondary education because they don’t believe that there are degrees out there for them. So it would be really important to have the institutional support in place to allow these students and others to learn about their personal experiences at an academically rigorous level. On this issue, I am working on the creation of a 0 unit introduction course to disability that we’re hoping to start from Maccess; and that 0 unit course could hopefully become a minor in the future.

What’s one misconception that people tend to have about individuals with disabilities, or that Maccess tries to dispel through its work?

To be honest, this isn’t really an organization that tries to promote learning experiences for an able-bodied demographic about people with disabilities. This is specifically a community of support for people with disabilities. This is for us. It’s only for us, and that’s what makes us unique.

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