Western universities are based on whiteness, maleness, cis-gender, heteronormativity, and ability. In her essay, Heidi Kosonen considers the work for accessibility and equality between two cultures and asks if mandatory training could help transforming a university of many barriers into a genuinely accessible institution.
In November 2021, the following message landed in my University of Winnipeg inbox:
“Hello Heidi. All individuals who have a formalized employment relationship with the University of Winnipeg must complete a 30-minute mandatory on-line training course required by government legislation (Accessibility for Manitobans Act) as a condition of employment. This course must be completed as soon as possible following the commencement of your employment.”
I believe this to be the sixth time I have received the same email during my one-year post-doctoral stay in Canada. Funnily enough, I completed the course when I first received the message in the beginning of 2021, but this didn’t stop the automated reminders. The course introduces ways to increase accessibility and in the province of Manitoba you are legally obliged to complete it. The aim is to help you understand how different physical, mental, and intersubjective factors act as barriers to accessibility and equality within universities. You learn about things you can do to increase accessibility when you are planning your teaching. The basic message is that you should encounter people as people whatever differences might exist between you and them.
The ESOK network, which promotes the accessibility of higher education in Finland, defines accessibility as an attitude encouraging inclusion and equal participation with the aim to make any information, system, device, program, or service available and usable to anyone regardless of disability, minority group membership, or privation (ESOK 2013). Instead of just removing existing barriers, for example by making spaces wheelchair-friendly, accessibility seeks to anticipate and prevent future ones. In a diverse society, accessibility also includes acknowledging and reducing factors that create or help maintain discrimination based on gender, sexuality, or skin colour and minimising practices that are insulting, dismissive, or derogatory.
Canada has a long history in advancing human rights, democracy, and equality, especially in relation to ethnic diversity and the rights of indigenous peoples. It comes as no surprise that there is a half-an hour mandatory training which follows the simplest of guidelines: treat people they way you want to be treated and with respect to their dignity. In an academic context, this includes the use of desired pronouns and names, making studying easier for people with impaired vision, and the use of simplified language in instructions. The training also advises you not to minimise the experiences of anyone who has taken offense. Institutional limitations mean that the university is problematic for many people. Many of its practices, systems, and spaces are not designed with accessibility in mind. Tearing down the numerous glass ceilings and systems of privilege is an uphill battle against an essentially neoliberal institution. This reminds me of several occasions where in Jytte’s operations, too, accessibility has been little more than kind words: the desire to be accessible is simply not enough.
Institutional limitations mean that the university is problematic for many people. Many of its practices, systems, and spaces are not designed with accessibility in mind.
In December 2021, I started a new term of employment at the University of Jyväskylä. In Finland, which is often equated with Canada in terms of human rights, democracy, and equality, similar training might be useful. Finnish universities are of course committed to working for accessibility and have pledged zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour, but concrete actions are often missing. For this reason, as the recent scandal surrounding the Afrikan tähti -themed student activities at the University of Helsinki was followed by a proposition for compulsory anti-racist training at Finnish universities, this felt like a great idea. Few people intentionally want to enable inaccessibility or discrimination. In many cases the root causes are lack of understanding and the difficulty of fitting together numerous contrasting perspectives. How to put yourself in someone else’s shoes when there is only one me, the academic institution does not support accessibility or encountering others, and the established practices and systems work against the ideals of equality and accessibility?
Here are a couple of recent examples that show how the accessibility and equality talk in Finnish universities still needs to be supplemented with concrete actions. At Jyväskylä, there have been discussions about transgender people whose dead names live on in the university systems. Although usernames derived from dead names have caused anxiety and barriers that have led students even to drop out or move to a different institution (Sund 2020), the University has been reluctant to change usernames. Currently, activist networks in social media are discussing the exclusion of disabled students in situations where the accessibility-related problems are not limited to wheelchair ramps but encompass the barriers of teaching and study spaces on a wider scale (Räsänen 2021). Although both examples have to do with the University of Jyväskylä, the discussions around them have revealed that similar accessibility and equality issues are found in all Finnish higher education institutions (Sund 2020; Waldén 2021).
The cases have certain similarities although they deal with different aspects of accessibility with one being about harmful systems and the other about equal opportunities in education. First, in both cases the universities are delegating responsibility to the students who must find ways to fight for their rights – often without getting any institutional support or managing to instigate permanent systemic or processual changes. Many of the cases are treated as isolated incidents, with the structural aspects ignored, and forgotten as soon as the student graduates or gives up the fight. Both cases also include invalidation: the students raising the issues have been belittled by university employees in privileged positions who have made them repeatedly explain what exactly is problematic about their cases.
Privilege has a blinding effect. Being used to having normalised abilities and the ease of navigating an institution that is built for people like you make it easy to think that the world lacks barriers and is also accessible to everyone else. If you have always felt comfortable in your own social identity and in a heteronormative patriarchal Western university, it can be difficult to imagine the burden someone who belongs to a minority might be carrying. Problems around accessibility highlight privilege and the lack of understanding. As a result, discussions about accessibility and equality may feel unfair and frustrating, and the related emotional work and self-education is all too easy to demand or simply expect from the minorities. Since the university is far from being an institution without issues around accessibility or equality and the dismantling of structural barriers is a work in progress, the whole academic community must be responsible for bringing change about. In situations like this, educating people about diversity and respectful encounters may seem like an ineffective way to get things done, but it is an important first step.
Privilege has a blinding effect. Being used to having normalised abilities and the ease of navigating an institution that is built for people like you make it easy to think that the world lacks barriers and is also accessible to everyone else.
This is not to say that things run particularly smoothly in Canada where concrete actions towards equality, such as diversity training, are written in the law. As part of the Storytelling for Justice project at the University of Winnipeg, I learned of discrimination based on race, sex, and sexual orientation, which highlighted the gap between the praise for Canada’s human rights record and the concrete experiences of students in local universities. Furthermore, in my experience a system that did not appear to have registered my completion of the accessibility training and offered no way to report the problem is hardly accessible. On the streets, the social inequality between indigenous people and white Canadians was blatantly obvious. The power structure built by settler colonialists is reflected in the structures of academic institutions. Still, without the uncomfortably laborious slow work for equality done through training, a more equal university would never see the light of day.
This essay is a cautious call for members of the Finnish academic community to demand training as part of larger work for accessibility and equality: we do not have enough awareness to do the right things. Although training is not a magic powder that will bring about an inclusive and equal university overnight, it will raise awareness of the kind of barriers that exist in the world. In time, this will lead into action. Of course, we must not forget the structural nature of barriers and inequality. Western universities are based on whiteness, maleness, cis-gender, heteronormativity, and ability. They cannot be made accessible by simply training staff and students and demanding that individuals adjust their behaviour. A genuinely accessible university where choices are based on equality instead of performance and productivity must remain the goal. Fixing disproportionate structures requires a lot of work and resources, which we, as a union, must dare to request from both ourselves and Finnish universities.
ESOK. 2013. “Käsitteet ja sanastot,” Esok.fi, URL (checked 11.11.2021): http://www.esok.fi/stivisuositus/termit/kasitteet-ja-sanasto#est
Räsänen, Piritta. 2021. “Korkeakoulujen yhdenvertaisuus ei ulotu vammaisiin, sanoo opiskelija Marja Puustinen – Hän on odottanut yliopistolta yksilöllisiä opetusjärjestelyitä jo puoli vuotta,” Helsingin sanomat 20.1.2021, URL (checked 12.11.2021): https://www.hs.fi/nyt/art-2000007750876.html
Sund, Saara. 2020. “Transihmisten kuolleet nimet kummittelevat — yliopistoissa ei haluta vaihtaa vanhoja käyttäjätunnuksia, vaikka se olisi mahdollista,” Jylkkäri 31.8.2020, URL (checked 12.11.2021): https://www.jylkkari.fi/2020/08/transihmisten-kuolleet-nimet-kummittelevat-yliopistoissa-ei-haluta-vaihtaa-vanhoja-kayttajatunnuksia-vaikka-se-olisi-mahdollista/
Waldén, Sinipilvi. 2021. Institutionaalinen deadnaming: Korkeakoulujen kutsumanimikäytäntö cisnormatiivisen kulttuurin ilmentymänä ja marginalisaation ylläpitäjänä. Bachelor’s thesis: University of Tampere.