University of Manitoba researchers committed to dismantling ableism at Canadian institutions among the inaugural winners of the Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity

The world’s biggest minority group is disabled people, a group Nancy Hansen is proud to be a part.

“I am a physically disabled academic. I’ve been a proud disabled person my entire life,” says Hansen, professor and director of the University of Manitoba's Interdisciplinary Master's Program in Disability Studies.

“There are 1.3 billion disabled people worldwide. Still, for some reason it seems to be a surprise when we show up,” Hansen adds. “I’m just waiting for the rest of the world to grow up and see disability as a social justice and human rights issue.”

At the University of Manitoba, she sees first-hand the barriers students, staff and faculty with both visible and invisible disabilities face due to the culture of ableism on campus. From inaccessible computer programs and a lack of sign language interpretation to a multitude of other physical, attitudinal and administrative obstacles, systemic barriers have built up due to decades of inequities and disadvantages in learning environments and the research ecosystem.

“We need to stop looking at disability as a deficiency or a weakness. We need to recognize that disability is simply a difference, one that is welcomed on any university campus,” adds Hansen.

Hansen and a team of colleagues at the University of Manitoba are now confronting ableism head-on in hopes of laying the groundwork to ensure that all bodies and minds are welcome on campus. The research team, led by Tina Chen, distinguished professor and executive lead of the university’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, a position created in 2022, has received a Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity for their project Dismantling Ableism and Promoting Equity for Persons with Disabilities: Institutional Action and Accountability.

“There is a lot of talk about racial equity, and other forms of equity but none of them address ableism,” says Chen. “This project will help us create a framework for educating all of the university decision-makers.”

The University of Manitoba team represents one of three projects at Canadian institutions to receive the inaugural Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity. The award, funded through the Canada Research Chairs Program (CRCP), is a tri-agency initiative of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and is administered by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat (TIPS), housed within SSHRC.

The award is named in honour of eight Canadian academics—professors Marjorie Griffin Cohen, Louise Forsyth, Glenis Joyce, Audrey Kobayashi, Shree Mulay, Susan Prentice, and the late professors Michèle Ollivier and Wendy Robbins—who spent nearly two decades fighting to increase equity within the CRCP.

“It’s a huge honour to be among the first set of recipients of this award, knowing that these women pushed so hard for decades and were part of this movement to hold the CRCP accountable. It’s a source of inspiration,” says Chen.

Each project is awarded $100,000 to fund bold and potentially game-changing projects that will challenge the status quo and take action to address systemic barriers in the research ecosystem and academia.

“The Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity is designed to help universities across Canada address equity issues. This award recognizes the hard work undertaken by the team at the University of Manitoba. The funds will provide the support necessary to continue making headway in ensuring that changes across their programs and policies create a more accessible university experience for students, faculty and staff with both visible and invisible disabilities,” says Valérie Laflamme, associate vice-president of the TIPS.

The research team also includes lifelong disability rights advocates Reg Urbanowski, dean of the College of Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Manitoba, and Diane Driedger, assistant professor in the university’s Interdisciplinary Master's Program in Disability Studies. The year-long project will feature a speaker series to create a safe space for conversations on building a community around disability issues. From that, the team intends to develop sweeping anti-ableist recommendations to bring forward to the university’s senate and board of governors.

Urbanowski says their goal is to reconstruct accessibility, accommodation, mental health and wellness for people with disabilities on campus. “Why can’t we be a university that brings in universal design into our teaching spaces? Why can’t we teach faculty how to teach to a universal audience?” asks Urbanowski, who calls the current course and program designs "archaic."

“At the end of this project, we will have recommendations that actually come from people with disabilities about what would make this place more welcoming and inclusive. If we’re going to be a university for all people, we have to have an environment that includes all people,” he adds.

Driedger says institutions, like the University of Manitoba, must be open to the changing state of disabilities. “Disabilities evolve, so our idea of access needs to evolve, too.”

She uses the pandemic as an example, pointing to the impact video conferencing has had on students' lives.

“We’ve had several students with disabilities who have just breezed through their program because they didn't have to travel in the winter, on Winnipeg streets, to campus. Instead, they went to their screens to join their classes. They are thriving,” she adds. “This project will help us redesign everything so that the maximum number of people can find success.”

The team knows their targets are are ambitious, but call the Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity a signal that times are changing, and momentum is building.

“We are looking at deconstructing hundreds of years of thinking around disability and disability issues,” notes Hansen. “No one project alone is going to make massive changes. This is just the beginning of the shift, a shift that is an important first step.”

Learn more about the Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity.