On Feb. 6, I was reading Jean Vanier’s “Loneliness” from his book Becoming Human as part of the required reading for a graduate course in the department of Theological Studies. In 1964, Vanier founded L’Arche, a community where people with disabilities could share their lives together. His remarks about the “love that grows in and through belonging,” the “discovery of our common humanity” and “working together for the common good” made me reflect upon my own experience of working with students with disabilities and my desire to communicate and share my experiences with my fellow Concordians.
I thought about contacting The Concordian for some time, but an idea never came into fruition until now; I thought what I had to say would not be interesting enough or worthy of publication. Yet, as I was reading through “Loneliness,” I could not help but be overwhelmed by a deep feeling of sadness, but also hope.
I came across the opportunity to help students with disabilities in 2014, while still an undergraduate student in the process of completing a double major in Honours English literature and theological studies. During this time, I volunteered as a note-taker, still unaware that I could somehow get paid (not that the money should matter for such a great cause, even though when you’re a university student, let’s face it, it kind of does). At the end of every semester, I would receive an acknowledgment of gratitude in the form of a certificate and a $20 gift card to the Concordia Bookstore.
One day, I asked the Access Centre for Students with Disabilities (ACSD) if there were other opportunities to receive financial compensation for my notes. Having the opportunity to work with all of these wonderfully talented students has fulfilled me in a way that striving for success in our capitalist society can’t. They continue to remind me of what it means to be human every single day.
Disabilities should not define a person—they are merely a part of the person, not their entire story. These students have demonstrated ambition, strength, courage and perseverance despite all the odds, obstacles, stereotypes and judgments thrown their way. I can see drive in each and every one of them to make a name for themselves, to succeed and prove all of those who doubted them wrong.
I am currently employed with the ACSD as a note-taker, tutor, exam invigilator and most recently, academic coach. I have taken notes for students in courses that span several programs. The way I see it is I’m basically getting paid to learn while making a difference in these students’ lives. I can see the difference I’ve made just by looking at them. Seeing a smile on their faces and just the manner in which they thank me and have continued to request me as their note-taker and tutor for future classes has been so gratifying to me.
Although my experiences can’t be compared to Vanier’s tremendous output in providing a secure environment for people with disabilities to flourish and grow, working with students with disabilities has taught me a great deal about what it means to be human. Working in retail, I’m exposed to countless people on a daily basis who always seem very rushed. We sometimes forget what it means to be human, to take a step back and be grateful for just being alive on this particular day. We would be so much kinder and more humble towards one another if we took the time to reflect on ourselves and the vulnerability of the human condition.
Working with students with disabilities is like being in front of a mirror; they mirror your own humanity and vulnerability. Notes are a gift and a sign of hope which remind students with disabilities of their own humanity and their potential to succeed. Rather than simply disregarding invitations to participate as a volunteer note-taker, I encourage students to share their notes with other students in need. It really doesn’t take that much, especially if students are already typing their own notes on a laptop. All you need to do is upload your notes onto the site. Imagine the difference it would make if more students joined; if we all come together, we can make an even greater difference.
Graphic by Sasha Axenova