Rachel Desjourdy: Breaking down barriers

Meet Rachel Desjourdy, McGill's inaugural Accessibility Advisor for staff and faculty
Rachel Desjourdy comes to her position as Accessibility Advisor with significant experience in improving access for persons with disabilities in varied institutional contexts.

While the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) provides critical services to McGill students with disabilities, there has been no similar resource for staff and faculty with disabilities situated in one place at the University.

Until now.

Meet Rachel Desjourdy, the inaugural Accessibility Advisor within the Office of the Provost. While the position is new, Desjourdy comes to it with significant experience in improving access for persons with disabilities in varied institutional contexts.

Self-identifying as a person with a disability, Desjourdy and holds an MA in Critical Disability Studies from York University. She has worked as an Inclusion Consultant at Combined Jewish Appeal, and later as an Access & Inclusion Officer and Advisor at the OSD. “I have always been passionate about accessibility, and have dedicated my career (and many of my extra-curricular activities) to this topic,” she tells the Reporter.

Desjourdy is embarking upon a Meet and Greet tour of McGill in which employees with disabilities are invited to come meet her, connect with others, and share their experiences. It’s a space to learn about this new role, discuss accommodations at work, and help identify the accessibility needs so we can work towards creating more inclusive workplaces at McGill. Two dates are currently available: February 24 and March 9, from 12 – 1:30 pm. Get more information and RSVP online.

In advance of the Meet and Greet sessions, Desjourdy spoke with the Reporter, giving us an overview of the position and her short- and long-term plans.

What is the mandate of the Accessibility Advisor?

The Accessibility Advisor guides, supports and implements McGill’s equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives, particularly in relation to disability and accessibility. The Accessibility Advisor promotes campus accessibility and advises members of the McGill community – including Deans, Chairs, HR advisors and staff with disabilities – on issues related to disability, accessibility and universal design specifically in connection with McGill faculty and staff.

Who are your clients?

All McGill employees, whether they are teaching staff, administrative staff, professionals or researchers, are the focus of this role. The goal is to support all staff with disabilities on campus by collaborating with various academic and administrative units, implementing elements of universal design, all while identifying, evaluating and addressing structural barriers that employees with disabilities encounter at McGill.

What are some examples of “workplace barriers” and how can they be rectified? Are you primarily concerned with physical barriers or are there other inclusivity issues that fall under your mandate?

When people think about accessibility, they often think “ramps, accessible washrooms, door openers,” but don’t realize that that’s just a small piece of the puzzle.

Barriers actually present themselves any time an individual and their environment conflict. When that conflict is caused by a disability, chronic health condition, or mental health condition, we can look at what can be modified in the environment to reduce or eliminate barriers.

Barriers can be physical (e.g. the building, workstation, etc.), but they can also be linked to social norms and attitudes (e.g. ableism, implicit discrimination), communication (e.g. hearing, speaking, writing, accessing information), transportation (e.g. wayfinding on campus, parking, adapted transit), policies or programs.

What are some examples of the kinds of cases in which the Accessibility Advisor might be able to play a role?

  • A faculty member is newly diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. How does the faculty member request workplace accommodations? How can a supervisor respond to this request? What accommodations would be reasonable for a faculty member who has teaching, research and service commitments?
  • A staff member is returning to work following a concussion, but still experiences intermittent issues with focus and concentration. What strategies might that individual implement for managing their workday/work life post-concussion, once back at work?
  • A new employee is hired, and discloses that they require workplace accommodations. Their HR advisor has never dealt with this type of request before, and is looking for ideas on how to approach this.

How does the Accessibility Advisor complement the work of Human Resources?

While Human Resources are responsible for and manage accommodation requests and disability benefits on campus, the Accessibility Advisor acts as a resource to the entire McGill community (including Human Resources) to educate, collaborate with creative problem-solving, and support the inclusion of employees with disabilities on our campus.

You have just started as Accessibility Advisor. What are your short-term and long-term goals in terms?

My immediate goals are to introduce myself to as many people as possible! I am starting with employees, because I want my work to be grounded in the lived experiences of the people with disabilities on campus currently navigating barriers while in the workplace.

Making sure that employees, supervisors, and human resources know about my role, is my first step. I want to support creative thinking in the accommodations process, and provide institutional support in addressing barriers.

My longer-term goals are to embed accessibility into people’s conscious decision-making. Whether someone is planning a construction site, making a hiring decision, or creating a policy, I hope to build our capacity to look at decisions through an “accessibility lens.” Responsibility for thinking about accessibility is collective and I hope I can draw on my expertise to enhance the capacity for each of us to take up this responsibility.

I also hope to break down some of the isolation and stigma that people with disabilities can experience by creating a community on campus. As a person with a disability myself, it has been helpful to connect to colleagues with disabilities in other units for advice, tips and strategies.

At present, how does McGill rate in terms of accessibility and inclusivity?

I think there’s a lot of work to do. The latest employment equity survey shows that employees with disabilities are currently underrepresented at McGill, based on targets set forth by the Commission des droits de la personne.

This means that as an institution, there are opportunities to improve recruiting, hiring, retaining and promoting talented individuals who happen to have disabilities. McGill prides itself on being a world-class institution, and it’s important that we work to make sure that we’re not putting up obstacles that deter people from coming here to work, teach, research or study.

McGill deals with some particular accessibility challenges given the historicity of its buildings, the fact that it’s built on a hill, and we have winter. Those architectural/environmental barriers make it particularly difficult for individuals with mobility-related disabilities to navigate campus.

While these barriers require a significant investment of time and resources to address over the long-term, with retrofits and designing new buildings accessibly, we have opportunities for change and improvement in the very short term.

We already have initiatives happening across campus to promote a more accessible/inclusive university experience (e.g. Fitness Access McGill, the Interactive Accessibility Network Map project), and it’s important that we start by highlighting what is currently available, while making plans to address the gaps.

Why are accessibility and inclusivity so important to McGill?

Disability has a unique characteristic of being an identity category a person can transition into/out of in their lifetime. A disability can be something you’re born with or something you acquire later on in life, and it can be temporary or permanent.

As an institution dedicated to promoting sustainability, planning with accessibility in mind is a concrete way we can be socially sustainable. Promoting accessibility and inclusivity also connects to Principal Fortier’s priorities.

In particular, accessibility and inclusivity are essential elements of a healthy workplace, allowing us to unleash our institution’s full research potential by providing an environment where researchers can thrive. Accessibility also allows us to transform our campus in a sustainable way that celebrates the full diversity of our community.

Reach out to Rachel Desjourdy for questions and advice regarding accessibility, disability and universal design via email at rachel.desjourdy@mcgill.ca