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Standing up for the silent

23 October 2012
Author Mohamed Omar

The first day of class has come to an end, and students are packing their bags and getting ready to leave. But the day isn’t over for Mark Dukes.

He rises from his seat and walks between the rows of desks to the podium, because students with letters from the Access Centre have been asked by this professor to hand them in by the end of class.

Dukes stands six-feet-tall, weighs about 225 pounds and has been told he looks pretty fit.

Though he shows no outward signs of having a disability, he has just revealed himself as a registered user of Ryerson’s Access Centre to his professor and any student who has stopped and stared at his walk of shame.

Dukes has had enough.

“So what do I do, wait around outside of class?” the public administration and governance student asks angrily. “Lurk in the shadows and throw a paper airplane at him?”

Dukes, 39, decided the only way he could protect himself and his fellow students was to make his voice heard, and hold Ryerson’s Access Centre accountable for its flaws.

It’s a mission he has taken on alone: he wants to refocus Ryerson’s accessibility policies. Dukes has gone to the trouble of speaking up as a student with chronic mental health and addiction issues in order to fight for others like him who may be afraid to act.

Getting the form to his professor is a necessary part of the accommodation process. Yet his professors can to refuse him the measures recommended by a qualified psychiatrist and a student accommodation facilitator (SAF) from the Access Centre – and they have done so more than once.

Marc Emond, manager of the Access Centre, explains that the process has been updated as of this semester. Now students can arrange the entire process, from the accommodations procedure to the submission to the professor, via email.

“[The old process] suited some students … but it was archaic in this day and age,” admits Emond. He says the long line-up of students coming to pick up their forms made it inefficient for other students waiting to meet with the centre.

Heather Driscoll, director of the Office of the General Counsel and Information and Privacy Officer, clarifies that students were never required to go to the front of a class and had the option to meet with professors outside of the classroom before the email option was available.

Dukes’ professor did not extend other opportunities.

When the Access Centre sent out a mass email on Oct. 15 that compromised the private email addresses of registered students, the centre dragged Dukes’ identity into the open. It was the last straw in a series of wrongdoings that sent Dukes over the edge, and he says there has been no formal apology.

“You’re going to change your policies, Ryerson, surrounding disabilities,” says Dukes. “I’m not asking.”

He says he took his concerns to Driscoll, who states that if someone files a privacy complaint with her office, the office will keep it confidential and look into the problem. Dukes says Driscoll was not of much help: when Dukes got frustrated over the phone, she hung up.

Dukes suffers from depression and anxiety. When he began at Ryerson in 2009, his only concern was succeeding in school and making the most of the opportunity to get his education.

“Unfortunately, my mental health issues don’t see it that way and sometimes things get out of control for me. Sometimes I can’t manage it,” says Dukes.

When he started having trouble managing his schoolwork, Dukes sought help.

It was suggested that he go to the Access Centre, which, according to its website, “[facilitates and supports] accessibility and inclusion through education and academic accommodation for the diverse mix of students with disabilities…” However, when Dukes first arrived to register with the centre the line was too long for him to speak with anyone. Dukes felt vulnerable; waiting in line would identify him as someone who needed accommodation. Day after day Dukes would stop by the centre only to leave without help.

In Winter 2010, he gave the centre another shot. Upon arriving, he was greeted by a sign on the door saying the office would re-open after lunch.

Mark waited until after the stated time when an employee finally returned. She entered the office, flipped the lunch sign and immediately put up another saying the centre would be closed for the rest of the day. That was when Dukes had had enough.

Dukes fought back tears of frustration as he marched down the hallway to the manager’s office where he says he grovelled – just to reach someone who would allow him to register with the Access Centre.

Finally, Dukes was in – but that was just step one. The next step was to ask for the accommodation letter that would help him manage his course load, a multi-layered project that requires both doctor approval and SAF to produce an official recommendation.

The problem is professors can deny that recommendation on the basis of academic integrity and, according to Dukes, it has happened to him at least twice.

Emond says that if a professor denies the measures suggested, the student should inform the may try to find an accommodation that works better for the professor.

“In general I would say it runs smoothly, but there’s no rhyme or reason to it,” Emond says. ”Students may encounter difficult professors occasionally, others won’t.”

Though Emond asserts that the system mainly runs smoothly, Dukes does not find it acceptable.

“There is no way that anyone without a medical doctorate has the right to supersede what my doctor has said,” he says. “My psychiatrist says I need this accommodation. The Access Centre backs him up. And then buddy with some fancy-pants degree says no.”

Dukes says the decision has also jeopardized his ability to succeed academically: he has two incomplete courses from last year due to missed exams (which he insists he won’t finish in time), and has received an F on an assignment after missing a deadline in another course. Without accommodations, Dukes is worried he won’t be able to graduate.

The missed assignments are stacking up.

“I’ve also spent years not being able to do anything about [being intelligent] because my society and my school aren’t accessible,” he says. “They accommodate themselves. Not me and not others like me.”

Education is immeasurably important to Dukes. He spent two years living on the street and has an almost ten-year gap on his resume due to not being able to get a job while on his disability pay, which provides only $1000 a month. An opportunity for rent-controlled income housing helped him get a place and gave him the chance to finally raise enough money to come to university.

“I pay Ryerson a lot of that money to receive F’s on courses where I had high 90s at the midterm,” Dukes says.

He’s spent a long time advocating for mental health and addiction issues in Toronto and by getting his degree he will be able to work in that sector and actually be paid for his work, something his disability did not previously allow.

“The only way that I can be validated in this world is with one small, little piece of paper,” says Dukes. “And if I can’t get that, I don’t know. I can’t quit. I don’t know what to do.”

In his years of unpaid advocacy, he has sat on the Toronto Drug Strategy for six years as their drug user representative and consulted with the ten-year mental health and addiction strategy for the province. He is currently working on regulatory change for people in Ontario with disabilities.

“I didn’t want to be that guy here, I just wanted to be anonymous,” says Dukes. “I wanted to be left alone and I just wanted to get my education.”

Unfortunately, events such as the email from the Access Centre revealing many students’ information and the death of a female classmate who was struggling with mental health issues, have forced him to come out of hiding as a defender of the people who are hurt by the system.

“I want those people to know that I’m doing it for her,” says Dukes. “I was going to walk away, but there should never, ever be anyone else like her that has to go through shit and not get help.”

He says student wellness centres, including the Access and counselling centres, aren’t serving Ryerson students effectively: too often, he found more roadblocks than immediate assistance.

“It’s about the fact that they don’t have the resources or the capacity to handle the influx of people with mental health or addiction or any other disability that they come across here,” Dukes insists.

According to Heather Lane Vetere, vice provost students, about 1,100 students are registered with the centre, and that number is only expected to grow.

“Everyone that we can add reduces case loads for the others, so they’ve got more time and energy to spend one-on-one time with the student. Would that be desirable? Absolutely. Is that likely on the horizon? I don’t see it,” Vetere admits.

Darren Cooney, manager of the public education and partnerships unit for the accessibility directorate of Ontario, says there’s flexibility for an organization like Ryerson to figure out how to meet the requirements that work best for their service.

“At the end of the day it’s up to Ryerson,” says Cooney. “Right now [they] need to have a policy for accessible customer service.” Ryerson is responsible for submitting a report to the department every two years confirming they meet legislation. Cooney’s department then audits them and the rest of the public sector.

In 2010, Ryerson submitted a report that they were fully compliant and the department is in the midst of its audits.

“It requires that the organization have a feedback process and they state how they will respond to complaints,” he says.

His department does not have the power to investigate complaints or get involved in issues between customers and organizations.

They do track broad trends in issues and concerns in the sector but cannot get involved in individual problems.

Dukes is determined to take his message to the top. He wants Sheldon Levy to consider the next “mega-deal” to focus on providing reliable mental health resources, to smooth out cracks in university-wide policies – and he says he won’t give up until the university hauls itself out of its “antiquated” accessibility procedures.

“I don’t give up,” Dukes says. “I don’t quit, I don’t stop – and the reason being has nothing to do with me: it has to do with the people who do quit, with the people who do stop, with the people who are compromised by the system. I’m doing it for them.”

Reproduced from