ASFA and ableism: An unsurprising pairing

Navigating the unseen barriers in ASFA

Graphic Panos Michalakopoulos

Writing my end-of-mandate report as a Concordia’s Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) executive is one of the most dishonest things I’ve ever done in my life. After having read everyone else’s reports, admiring their time spent as executives, I thought, “Am I crazy for not finding a silver-lining in all this fucking bullshit?”

After the last three years of struggling with a disability, chronic pain, and my mental health, it was impossible for me to reflect positively on my experiences at an organization that repeatedly put progress and work before the health, safety and comfort of its workers. 

I got to be part of the team that attempted to reverse this reputation by creating positive change in the union space. This work involved long hours behind the scenes on policy initiatives, staff restructuring, and the creation of a pay scale for ASFA employees. 

In my second year as an executive, to prevent premature quitting on the team, a motion was put in place that stipulated a salary increase for executives that would pay them biweekly. My total income per month was about $1520; significantly better though we were still making under minimum wage for running a non-profit. 

As we continued to burn out at the hands of the never-ending work, we were confronted by our consultants with the following question: “Is there a way you can do less?”

This was a huge relief, since I’d been juggling a full-time courseload on top of working 25 hours per week. I knew there were different initiatives and projects that could easily be dropped so that we could focus on more significant organizational changes without burning out. 

Other members disagreed, citing the immense amount of post-COVID outreach left to do. Supposedly, we were doing the bare minimum, if even that.

The situation worsened over time. I was excluded from different Mobilization and Advocacy initiatives, as ASFA became very clique. This was a result of my team assuming my needs in my precarious mental state without consulting me.

In August, I switched from Student Life Coordinator to the Internal Coordinator position because Frosh 2022 truly sucked the life out of me. 

People at ASFA attributed my failure at organizing Frosh to my age. I took on too much because I’m only 20, the baby of the group, and didn’t know better. My age became a convenient excuse for my shortcomings. I was constantly feeling pressured to prove myself. 

My difficulties with Frosh shouldn’t surprise people since I was never trained as an event planner. That’s not anyone at ASFA’s fault. We hadn’t had a full executive team, let alone a functional one, in several years. As a result, I was more depressed than I had ever been in my life and I wasn’t able to recover in the way I needed. So, I got medicated and moved forward! 

At first, my team was supportive of my ailments. It’s really funny how the first time you tell a group of people that you want to die, they become activated and ready to engage. However, the second, third, and fourth times you tell them, they will shrug you off or refuse to accommodate you properly.

Being one of several mentally ill or disabled people on the team, it was really discouraging to discover that I just couldn’t endure or hide my mental health struggles as well as others.

I asked for accommodations regularly, I kept my team informed about my state of mind, and I tried to resign because I knew I couldn’t handle being an executive anymore.  I was told by my fellow executives that they’d rather have me stick around and be at low capacity than have me resign. So I stayed, and then everyone was surprised when I was incapable of working on my projects. 

Things came to a head after the Member Association Skills Conference event in May of 2023. I found out that individuals had come out of sick leave, or had sacrificed classes in order to pick up my slack. 

If anybody had told me any of this beforehand, I would have sacrificed my own well-being to prevent that from happening. I was publicly blamed for most of the event’s shortcomings in a meeting afterwards, which sucked. I took responsibility for what happened, but I think it’s unfair that it was made to seem like I asked people to do my job for me.

I learned a lot as an executive, but I am not sentimental about my time. This summer has been the first time in my studies that my work has not been overwhelming and has not made me depressed.

ASFA continually demonstrates that they do not care about accessibility for all students. For one, efforts to get a new office that students can easily access have disappeared. When a student flagged that my Frosh was inaccessible, I asked the team for solutions to fix the problem, but I was told it was too late to make changes. Later, at Frosh, I heard some fellow executives making ableist comments about another team member.

There has been discussion about how to get more engagement from member associations this year, and the consensus was that monthly regular council meetings should take place in person. 

When I was still an executive, I pushed to ensure that these would remain hybrid, and we did offer the option for councilors to attend our meetings in person if they wanted.

When my mandate ended, the next team continued to push for in-person council meetings. I signed up as the ASFA Consul which was a nice change of pace for me. In July 2023, a survey had been sent out to Member Association executives asking what they needed for in-person council. I was one of a handful to respond.

Post-survey, ASFA executives asked me about my responses regarding hybrid meetings. I didn’t anticipate discussing this, so I was not familiar with other ways of having an effective, equitable hybrid meeting. This was treated as a sort of “gotcha!” moment. To them, it was proof that I had no better solution than Zoom. The decision was made to have meetings in-person, because “if people really want to come they will.” I pointed out that certain people who wanted to attend wouldn’t be able to if it was only in-person, but the executives said that they just “couldn’t accommodate everyone” without having even tried.This was the final straw, which led to my resignation from ASFA Consul after just one month due to ableism, as well as the resurgence of burnout and anxiety.

I didn’t even get a response to my resignation letter. I only heard back about it after pestering about my honorarium

Now, I am just the Students of History at Concordia (SHAC) Councillor and Academic Coordinator. I have found peace in working with a small team that understands my needs and capacity. 

Individuals with health issues and disabilities have been ostracized at ASFA over the years, and they continue to be, as other members with disabilities have quit the organization, citing ableism as a primary reason for their departure. These departures and issues go largely unnoticed because of the gravity of previous ASFA controversies; compared to lawsuits or sexual misconduct, ableism may not seem like such a big deal.

There are a number of interesting ideas and initiatives at ASFA, but there are other things that the student body would find more useful: better mental health services or a movement for 100 per cent accessibility. Without these efforts, positions of power on the university community stage become saturated with a smaller pool of individuals, reduced until it isn’t diverse anymore.

I hope nobody in the future will experience the same difficulties I did, and that these institutional issues will be addressed properly so that other marginalized students will be given an equitable opportunity to participate in student government.

This article originally appeared in Volume 44, Issue 1, published September 5, 2023.