Attitudinal barriers can be just as devastating as physical barriers and their combination spells doom for the disabled woman trying to get an education. In 1989, a developmentally disabled woman trying to complete a Masters Degree was told by her advisor that he could not work with her because she was learning disabled. I guess the fact that she had an undergraduate degree had slipped his mind. In another incident, a visually impaired woman wanted to complete a course requiring lab work and went to considerable trouble to find someone willing to work with her as her "eyes". However, this person was denied admittance to the lab, not on the pretext that the two may be cheating but from plain bigotry on the part of the professor.
The Ministry of Colleges and Universities has given funds to every college and university in Ontario to meet the needs of their disabled students. One such institution refused to allow the funds into the hands of the disabled students who had formed a committee for the purpose of administering them. In one of the most condescending gestures to disabled students, every request for special needs was forced to go through the administration on the assumption that able-bodied administrators know better than the students what these needs should be.
Another nightmare has turned out to be The Fine Arts Department at an Ontario University. A woman who cannot walk upstairs was admitted to the program and then relegated to using a freight elevator - often full of garbage piled high in green garbage bags, assorted boxes, and broken glass - which she cannot open by herself. The Department's response to her protests was that they did not have $10,000 to install a new elevator and that she should ask other students to assist her. Of course one is not likely to find many students hanging around freight elevators during the day on the chance that a disabled colleague might need help up to her classroom. Such an attitude leaves disabled women dependent and without dignity.
At another art college, the reputation with disabled women is only slightly better. People with mobility impairments often find it difficult to get up in the lift provided by the school, and some of the faculty have been known to state that they are not interested in providing special needs for disabled women students. One might ask what these institutions are doing with the funds provided for them by The Ministry of College and Universities to meet the needs of their disabled students. It is a great idea for the Ministry to give funds to make life easier for disabled women in higher education, but if no one is monitoring where they are going and what they are being used for, then the money might just as well have stayed with the Ministry.
In many cases a disabled woman trying to get an education is treated to a combination of sexism and bigotry. Blind women applying for grants are treated as if they lost their brains rather than their vision. The administration and faculties of educational institutions must learn to look through the disablement to the person.
Liz Stimpson is currently the chairperson of the Disabled Women's Network in Toronto.