The Alma Mater Society (AMS), or student council, of the University of British Columbia (UBC) is generally considered by students to be an inherently problematic institution in which a select few young, power-grabbing students are able to fulfill their power-trip fantasies. The actions of the council are usually met with little more than a flippant but indifferent “I hate the AMS” from frustrated students, who view the body contentiously but as essentially harmless.
Two weeks ago, however, the council voted down the proposed installation of a disability representative to the body, an action that has students reacting with more fervor than usual.
The AMS is an important organization: from providing free services to students, to negotiating less expensive bus fares, to communicating with University powers at large to lobby for students rights, the theoretical importance of the association is undeniable. Yet while the AMS is often responsible for tasks and details that students take for granted, many argue they are an inaccessible bureaucracy that does not come close to representing the entire UBC population.
It was hoped that the creation of a non-voting disability representative, who would attempt to bring the concerns of students with disabilities to the council, would help to broaden the interests and agenda of the now-selective AMS. But after an hour of tear-sparking debate wherein concerned students attempted to persuade the council of the position’s importance, the AMS voted down the motion.
Creating a specific seat for individuals with disabilities is necessary because students with special needs are intrinsically and systematically given less access by the system at large. Having a representative to speak specifically about issues of access for students with disabilities makes practical and theoretical sense. It would not only help create a space that is physically accessible (it is currently near-impossible to access the student union building if one has a physical limitation), but also one that is emotionally safe and supportive.
Arguments against the position centred around the structure of the council system itself, in which students are meant to be represented via their faculty, not through “non-voting equity seats.” The logic goes that Science students should voice their concerns and opinions to their Science representative, while Arts students should do the same through their respective representative, and so on. As such, rather than creating a new position, council members suggest that faculty representatives should do more to include all students by encouraging the marginalized to raise their voices. This is inherently problematic and ineffective, as the very definition of marginalization is that such populations do not feel that they can highlight their concerns, and furthermore that if they do, they will not be listened to. As a Arts student with a disability myself, I do not feel comfortable talking to my faculty representative, who made it clear in a public debate on the issue that my needs were insignificant by claiming that the position is comparable to creating a “New German Cinema Enthusiast Seat.” Faculty based representatives without equity training are ineffective, unapproachable and furthering the too-prevalent notion that students with disabilities should just “learn to fit in” with the pre-established system.
Based on the AMS’ recent actions, it is apparent that the council fears making allowances for non-voting equity seats. The mentality seems to be that “if you let one in, you have to make special positions for everyone.” I’m still looking for the bad in having a First Nations rep, an international student rep, and/or an LGBT rep, but apparently the council sees something I don’t. This lack of equity in a body that attempts to be representative is appalling. Clearly a larger issue than including a disability position is at play here: in general, creating an environment of equity for marginalized groups is trivialized and undermined by the council.
By voting this motion down, the AMS has demonstrated not only that the rights of students who are already marginalized by the system are not a priority, but also that they should continue to remain voiceless. It is embarrassing, upsetting and disgusting those we, the students, chose to act in our best interests don’t understand access to student government and fair representation to be of importance. Until now, I had been operating under the impression that at university students are not only gaining knowledge of the world, but also learning how to interact and make change in a meaningful way. Apparently, members of the AMS are learning how to maintain and promote the oppressive systems that already exists. As members of a university that prides itself on so-called “global citizenship,” UBC students should be leading the fight not only for inclusiveness, but more importantly the celebration of difference.
Carlye Cunniff is a 5th year sociology student at UBC. She is currently involved in The Vagina Monolouges and the UBC V-Day Campaign.