culture & community health

Forced to Self Advocate for Your Own Education [Interview]

by Meghan — April 2, 2020
woman's hands typing on laptop with tea beside her

An enlightening Q&A with a Canadian student struggling with her university. Having to advocate for herself, she fights for accessible lessons. ~

I first met Bailey Coty through a mutual friend on social media. In getting to know her, I learned of a struggle she was having with an ableist professor not allowing for her medically necessary class modifications. I decided to interview her to help bring this issue to light. Unfortunately, self advocacy becomes necessary for many disabled people to combat ableism in many instances in their lives; in both simple and complicated situations. Enjoy!

Bailey Coty is a disability activist, consultant, and a full time MacEwan University student majoring in Anthropology and Sociology.

Bailey Coty, a self advocate, sitting in wheelchair

What is your disability and how does it affect your daily life?

I had a brain tumor when I was eight, and had several brain surgeries, which caused twelve strokes on the operating table, which in turn caused my right side to be paralyzed. I use a power wheelchair to get around, and certain things I need help with. I also have vertigo from a fall, so it’s safer for me to be in the chair. The wheelchair itself is a tool of freedom for me, I love it, and it allows me to do everything in a day that I want to do without hurting myself or getting fatigued.

What’s your major?

I’m majoring in anthropology and sociology.

Why did you choose the university you did?

I’ve always loved MacEwan University. I used to attend multiple events there every year. The other option was the University of Alberta, but it’s spread out over multiple buildings, and I knew I would have serious trouble going from building to building, especially in the winter. MacEwan is a condensed campus and allows me to move from class to class easily.

Can you tell me a little bit about the university you attend, the problem you were having with said university?

I’ve gone to MacEwan university since Jan 2016, and recently I had a professor refuse to accommodate my disability accommodation. Which was for power point slides before every class, which allows me to have the notes as I can’t take physical copies myself due to my paralyzed hand. And it also allowed me to take audio notes with the specific slides, which was frustrating, as my accommodations were made due to my doctors referral.

Did the university do anything to mitigate the issues you’re having?

It’s an ongoing thing, but they are. I went to the student ombudsmen, and the Dean of Students, and straight to my student’s services for disabilities worker trying to mitigate this issue. The problem I was facing is because I had to drop that class and couldn’t be in another (due to it being a night class, and the disabled transit option being inflexible) student loans had turned $4,300 dollars of grant money into loan money because I dropped below full time.

Were there easy avenues to advocate for yourself and your disability needs?

Yes, as was stated, I went to the student ombudsmen, who led me to who I needed to speak to.

How do the disability laws in your country help or hinder your attempts to get an education?

The law is that professors have a duty to accommodate up until “undue hardship” which is intended to make it harder for them to refuse accommodation, but I found the opposite. It was so vague, what is undue hardship? How do we quantify that? It was a struggle to get this far, and no one has been able to even tell me what undue hardship is.

Is there something you would like your educators and classmates to know about the issues you have been having in trying to get proper adaptations for your classrooms?

I think I would just like them to listen without getting defensive. When people get defensive, it immediately puts a barrier between the issue and resolving the issue. There’s a lot of ableism in academia, and I’m trying to break down that barrier, not just for myself, but for others who follow in my footsteps. If someone who’s part of a minority comes to you and says that there is a problem, listen to them. We all can and need to learn from those experiences, even if they are sometimes uncomfortable.

I know you have chosen to use the online resources to continue your education and still remain safe from coronavirus, has this avenue helped you to achieve your goals more fully?

Absolutely. Disabled folks in general have been asking for work from home options for years. I’m chronically ill and immunocompromised, and sometimes getting out of bed is a struggle, so online classes really help with that. It’s unfortunate that it took people so long to realize that it helps, and that the able-bodied people of the world had to be affected before the extension was made.

Do you think all of the online learning avenues help people who are non-disabled to better understand your stance on things?

Maybe marginally, yes? The reality of it is you don’t think about these things until you must. People often tell me that a place is accessible but there’s three steps in, which means that it is not accessible. With this whole Covid-19 thing going down, many able-bodied folks are seeing just what it is we go through on a day to day basis, and that working or going to school from home is an option, and should be utilized as such.

In this experience of having to advocate for yourself, is there anything you would change?

It’s a lot of emotional labour, that’s for sure. I wish that disabled people didn’t have to do so much of it, but unfortunately, largely, it falls on us to advocate for ourselves.

What did you learn about yourself in trying to self advocate?

I learned that I’m a lot stronger than I give myself credit for, and that inner strength and my morals are something that I am willing to put myself out there, and fight for.

What would you tell someone else who is forced into advocating for themselves because the things they are in need of were not provided?

You must choose your battles wisely. It’s tempting to go out swinging and to give it your all, but sometimes you don’t have the energy to, and that’s okay. I know I’ve let some stuff slide because of my emotional energy at the time, and don’t let anyone tell you that you are not an advocate because of that. We need to rest our souls sometimes.

Lastly, has this experience in anyway negatively and/or positively affected your view of the college/university experience? Or in anyway dampened your desire to learn?

You know, it did for a while. After the experience went down, I really struggled to go to my other classes and missed three of them, because I feared what I was going to encounter there. It feels as if I’m walking into an institution that doesn’t want me, essentially, and that’s something I had to wrap my head around. It made me question in the moment, if I really should be trying to pursue academia, or if I wanted more of this.

That feeling didn’t last long, because that professor (and others like her) doesn’t get to win. She doesn’t get to have that much control over who I am and what I can accomplish. I’m going to make her think twice about ever doing this to another student, and that’s what keeps me going.

In closing I thought I would recommend a documentary to show the resiliency of disabled people and their fight to have equal rights in education, jobs, and transportation in the United States. Crip Camp tells the story of a group of disabled activists having met at summer camp and the thirty year fight for non discrimination and equality in all things. Though things have vastly improved in the intervening years Bailey’s story goes to show that educating people and striking down ableism is an ongoing fight. This documentary might teach you things you didn’t know about the trials of being a self advocate or inspire you as it did me. Check out the trailer below and give it a try on Netflix.

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