When I think back to my first week of university, I recall mainly the heat: how it invited itself into my cramped dorm room, spread itself thick in the humid air, pressed up against my chest. I would crack my window open for relief, but the air outside was stagnant, windless. The only thing that drifted in was the loud, pulsating music: a mix of low bass and upbeat notes throbbing in pace with my joints, each song a reminder of
what you cannot do, cannot do, cannot do.
In the fall of 2017, I arrived on campus one week before the start of term. Like most, I was nervous and excited about moving into residence, and for my first year of university. However, I was also dealing with a chronic pain condition: a combination of fibromyalgia and repetitive strain injury. My feet and ankles ached with walking or standing, and my hands burned with any sort of activity. The smallest movements, like walking down a staircase or across a grassy field, could result in injury. Yet, I had been accepted into McMaster. I had packed up my things, dragged them into my stifling double room, and tucked them away into the corners. I was here. I sat down on my narrow bed, took a look outside, and prepared myself to join the festivities.
When you ask me to describe my first week of university, I want to tell you the story where I meet a dozen girls that first day — link arms with them and stroll along the sunny fields of Burke Science Building. Or the one where I dance the night away at a campus concert with my roommate, my face glowing brighter than the lights strung above the crowd.
But my story is a different one.
That first day, my limbs were already aching from the strain of move-in. Sitting on my bed, I looked down at a pamphlet listing the dozens of events happening that week: an obstacle course, a tug of war competition, a sofa-pushing contest, a guided hike through Cootes Paradise, a Class of 2021 photo on the football field. One by one, I crossed them off in my mind:
No, I can’t do that one, or that one, no.
I remember my roommate whirling back into our room in the evening, a flurry of face paint and excitement, asking me if I would be attending the bonfire that night.
I wasn’t; I couldn’t walk the distance from our dorm room to North Quad.
I remember attending a residence song battle out in the open air — my every bone aching from sitting on the hard dirt.
I can’t even sit without pain.
I remember going home for the long weekend feeling defeated, knocked down — before the semester had even officially begun.
I’m certain I was not alone in these feelings of isolation. McMaster University’s Welcome Week has a fundamental problem: it’s made for able-bodied people. It’s designed for students who have the ability to run and jump and tumble. It’s easy to understand why this is the case: tug of war, obstacle courses, sofa-pushing competitions — these events are big, flashy, and fun. They give first-years an incredible opportunity to meet others while doing something incredible. But there are so many students who can’t participate in these activities: students with physical disabilities, like rheumatoid arthritis, as well as temporary injuries, like a broken leg. In my case, I was unable to attend all but two Welcome Week events, one of which still caused me pain.
I’m sure that if I had emailed regarding my accessibility needs, they would have been met with wholehearted enthusiasm. Overtime, I’ve experienced just how accommodating event staff can be, and learnt how to advocate for myself. But as a nervous first-year student, I had no idea who to turn to. It didn’t even cross my mind that I could get assistance with attending a Welcome Week event. And how could it have?
No one told me you can request a chair.
No one said we can drive you to North Quad.
Therefore, we need to introduce accommodations for Welcome Week. This could include giving students the option to rent a wheelchair, book transport across campus, or request a chair for outdoor events. Put together, these opportunities would have eliminated many of the social barriers I faced. Moreover, we need to make sure these accommodations are easy to request, and that students are aware they exist. We need to make Welcome Week accommodations open to all, with faith that people will request them as necessary.
That being said, even with the provision of accommodations, certain events are still inherently inaccessible. If I can’t walk, I definitely can’t slide down a bouncy castle, or push a sofa across a field. Thus, we also need to greatly increase the number of events that don’t involve physical activity — things like coffee houses, board game competitions, painting sessions, and movie nights. In addition to benefiting those with physical disabilities, these events may also be more appealing for neurodivergent students, or introverts who feel uncomfortable belting science chants across a football field. Such activities can add a new dimension to Welcome Week, one that is more inclusive of all abilities and socialization styles.
I am no longer that sad seventeen-year old who sat painfully on a twin bed in Matthews Hall, looking out the windless screen at all the activities she could not participate in. Despite my disheartening Welcome Week experience, I went on to make a whirlwind of friends in university, and attend many, many social events.
However, I do wish that the story of my first week of university could have been a happier one.
So, on this first day of spring, with birds chittering away in the trees and tulips peeking their heads through the earth, I whisper these words into the wind. Let them travel far, across our campus and others, to clear the air, cool the heat, seed brighter beginnings.