After finding out that he failed six of his classes last April, Didier Chelin, a blind student from the McGill Faculty of Law, decided to file a complaint against McGill University with the Quebec Human Rights Commission (CDPDJ). Chelin alleges that the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) and the Faculty failed to accommodate his disability and mental health issues.
During a press conference held by Chelin in August, he explained that the OSD failed to act as a mediator between his rehabilitation centre and professors, which resulted in him spending two months without class material during his first semester in 2014. He needed the material in advance so that his centre, the Institut Nazareth et Louis-Braille (INLB), could transcribe it in an electronic format. Additionally, Chelin needed a scribe for exams and assignments. The OSD, as mandated by the Ministry of Education through the Programme d’allocation pour des besoins particuliers, is tasked with securing funding for resources essential to its students—such as scribes—by completing forms on their behalf. The OSD allegedly failed to fulfill their responsibilities, leaving Chelin to rely on friends and family members for help until he had no choice but to hire a scribe himself.
Moreover, due to his late access to course material, Chelin repeatedly needed to stay up all night, which eventually resulted in generalized anxiety. Following a mental health crisis in May 2017, wherein Chelin experienced suicidal thoughts, the OSD did not give him an opportunity to receive a diagnosis or therapy, a situation that is still persisting over a year after the event. He resorted to seeking help from a private psychologist, once again paying out-of-pocket.
The complaint is set to be officially filed with the CDPDJ by October, but the process will be arduous. Once the Commission receives the complaint, it has to decide if it can intervene and whether it should. If the Commission decides to proceed with the complaint, the parties have the opportunity to settle in mediation. If mediation fails, the file is transferred to an investigator who collects evidence and testimonies to enable the CDPDJ Complaint Committee to make a decision. If corrective measures are suggested, McGill will be obligated to respect them or else risk facing a lawsuit.
“There is a clear pattern of systemic discrimination from the OSD through the adoption of policies that work against the interests of students with a permanent disability,” Chelin said. “The Law Faculty has a disposition to take on rigid accommodation policies that are inappropriate and unresponsive to the distinct situations each student [faces].”
This litigation provides an opportunity to thoroughly examine the treatment and support offered to disabled students within the University.
“Due to the number of systemic barriers involved [in Chelin’s case], we will also be looking at the global situation regarding the access of students with disabilities to McGill services, programs, and activities,” explained Fo Niemi, head of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, the organization through which Chelin is filing his complaint.
Advocating for students in need of special accommodations is the role of the Students Affairs Office (SAO), but students are sometimes left to advocate for themselves and, without support from the SAO, the struggle can be overwhelming. Julie Tee-Michaud, a student suffering from an autoimmune disease which affects her mobility, also had troubles with the SAO and the Law Faculty throughout her years as a law student.
“There are people who are allies and genuinely caring,” Tee-Michaud said. “Unfortunately, others in positions of authority are making a conscious decision by creating and enforcing policies of systemic discrimination.”
When asked for their perspective, the OSD chose not to comment on the matter.