Erin Naef and Rod Murphy


Courses and obstacle courses

SYLVAIN-JACQUES DESJARDINS | Making her way to McGill from her Prince Arthur Street apartment, Erin Naef carefully scans the streets for obstacles.

While she zooms easily through puddles, a sidewalk that's being repaired on Milton Avenue forces her to detour onto the street until the next intersection. Like most of the people around her, Naef's mind is focused on the afternoon ahead. And like most downtowners making their way to their appointments, she drinks in the sun on this pleasant day, knowing that winter is edging ever closer.

Naef has a lot in common with the people around her, but there is one factor that clearly sets her apart: her wheelchair. The 23-year-old has cerebral palsy.

Although Naef can walk with the aid of canes or crutches, she relies on a power chair to conserve her energy and get around. So when she's out and about, she has to be extra careful. Each curb has to be negotiated, every passer-by noticed, all potholes avoided to ensure her wheelchair gets her where she's going.

Today she is accompanied by a reporter interested in what the campus looks like through her eyes. With some time to kill before her class, she leads him on a brief tour.

As she rolls towards McGill, Naef points out some of the hurdles students like her face: an automatic door for the disabled in the Stephen Leacock Building that's been broken since last summer; a ground floor door in Dawson Hall that's very difficult to open from her level; and an elevator in the Birks Building that's only accessible through a professor's office.

The University has spent millions of dollars in recent years to make McGill a more user-friendly environment for students with disabilities, but there are still plenty of challenges for these students.

Naef ends up being late for her class today because vans belonging to a construction crew are blocking the disabled access door to the Birks Building. Although workers promise to move out of the way in "a couple of minutes," the arts student is forced to wait for 10 and then waits some more for a security guard to unlock the door. "I don't mind waiting," she says. "Then again, it depends on my mood. On a crazy day, I might get annoyed."

One thing Naef admits being annoyed by is winter, since snow impedes her mobility. "I have to rely on para-transport during the winters," she says with a bit of a frown, noting the transport service obliges her to confirm her schedule one month in advance. Extra trips require 24 hours' notice, granting her little spontaneity. "I'm thinking of moving to western Canada or southern Ontario when I finish school," says the fourth year student. "The climate there will make it a lot easier to get around on my own."

Since Naef is set to complete her studies in English literature this spring, moving out on her own and deciding whether or not to pursue a master's degree are increasingly on her mind. For now, living on her own seems a bigger concern. For the past few years she has been living with her younger brother Brendan, who is also a McGill student while their parents live in Mont-Tremblant. But Naef is thinking of getting her own place -- it would be her first.

"There are days when I'm ready to live alone and then I wake up the next morning terrified about it," she says, laughing. "But I can't live my daily life constantly thinking about the future. Besides, the future always has a way of taking care of itself."

As finals and assignments pile up, Naef would rather focus on her studies. An honours student, she maintains her high academic standing with the help of McGill's Office for Students With Disabilities (OFSWD), where she also works 10 hours a week as a reading services coordinator.

The OFSWD, founded in 1986, provides the University's nearly 300 students with physical or learning disabilities with services that facilitate their studies such as note takers, sign language interpreters and technology like Braille computer keyboards, voice-activated computers or print enlargers. The office also looks after a specially equipped bus that helps disabled students make their way from one part of McGill to another. The OFSWD provides Naef with a scribe for exams or assignments -- writing for long periods is a strain.

"Our job is to make sure disabled students can go to school and concentrate on their studies," says Joan Wolforth, OFSWD director, "without them running into physical problems on campus or professors switching exam rooms to classes that aren't accessible. These students have enough to worry about."

Rod Murphy, a visually impaired psychology student, is grateful for the services the OFSWD offers, which, in his case, include a print-enlarging screen, note takers and a special magnifying computer screen. "They've been very helpful," he says.

Murphy, 34, has been slowly losing his sight since the age of 12 due to glaucoma, and has been operated on twice to thwart the condition. He is legally blind and retains only partial sight in his right eye. "It's like looking through a dirty lens," he says of his sight, which is also hindered by tunnel vision.

Murphy admits he was reluctant, at first, to seek help from the OFSWD. "I was too stubborn and proud," he says, noting he thought he could get by on his own as he had when he first came to McGill, from 1988 to '89, to complete a teaching certificate. And as he had done earlier at Concordia University, where he obtained a BA in math in 1988. But with his vision constantly in flux, he finally sought help.

It was at the OFSWD that he met other visually impaired students who seemed incredibly at ease with their conditions and encouraged him to obtain a walking cane to protect himself in public.

"I did not want a cane," he remembers. "I thought it was like a neon sign that said, 'I'm blind, I'm blind.'" But as he became increasingly tense walking on campus or bumping into people on streets, he finally relented. "Having a cane is like a parting of the seas," he says, chuckling. "People move right out of my way. I realized it helps put me at ease."

Being at ease is essential for Murphy to fully apply himself to his studies, which he's completing while he works as a part-time teaching assistant at the Fine Arts Core Education (FACE) School on University Street. He wants to maintain good grades so he can switch into the School of Social Work, with the goal of becoming a career counsellor. "Being a teacher," he says, "is too stressful."

Even with cane in hand, Murphy remarks, he has narrowly avoided being hit by cyclists on campus several times. "They really shouldn't go on sidewalks," he says. Since he has no depth perception, he also appreciates campus stairs that are edged with yellow paint. "Unfortunately," he adds, "not all stairs provide this."

Murphy, who taught in California for a few years before returning to McGill, says he is grateful Montreal is a compact city with excellent public transportation. "It makes getting around easier," he says, noting that he lives on his own in N.D.G.

Over time, Murphy has gradually learned to accept his limitations and has also sought help from the Montreal Association for the Blind, where he recently joined the board of directors. "It feels good to have an opportunity to give something back," he says of his position. Having been integrated with regular students all his life, he also stresses that the MAB and OFSWD provide him with an opportunity to be with other people who understand his condition.

Naef, who also attended integrated schools says there is little difference between her and her able-bodied peers -- except she takes longer to get around and twice as long to complete assignments. Does she have to work twice as hard as other students as a result of her disability? Uncomfortable with the question, she asks: "How can I answer when I don't know how hard everyone is trying?"

Joan Wolforth has met all of McGill's students with disabilities in the course of her work. She says they tend to share three attributes: motivation, intelligence and stamina. "It takes a lot of energy to face the obstacles they face every day," Wolforth comments, citing the downtown campus's steep and icy sidewalks in winter, for instance. "Disabled students have to be extremely independent and creative problem solvers to manage at this university."

For her part, Naef says her disability is certainly a factor in her life, but it isn't what defines her as a person. "It's like stepping over a log," she says of her disability. "You don't say, 'Hey, I just stepped over a log.' You just do it and move on.