UNB law grad ‘humiliated’ by inability to cross stage at own graduation

UNB law grad ‘humiliated’ by inability to cross stage at own graduation

Crossing the stage at graduation for many is the official symbol of being done with your degree and moving onto the next chapter of your life — a moment of pride and joy.

Blair Curtis didn’t get that moment.

Curtis was graduating from the University of New Brunswick with a law degree, but at the ceremony on Thursday at the Richard J. Currie Center, he was unable to get onto the stage to accept his diploma. 

“It was a hard day,” he said through tears.

“It should have been a day of celebration and happiness and feeling proud to get my degree,” he said. But I just felt so embarrassed and humiliated the entire time.”

Curtis’s humiliation came from the fact that at his graduation, the ramp to get onto the stage was too steep and therefore inaccessible for wheelchair users.

A man in a wheelchair wearing a cap and gown with a golden retrieve service dog. A man stands beside him and holds a diploma.
Because of a steep ramp up to the stage at Blair Curtis’s graduation, he received his diploma on floor down in front, without having the opportunity to cross the stage like other graduates. (University of New Brunswick livestream)

Curtis said he tried to feel proud and excited about how far he’d come. 

“When you start law school, you know, the whole thing is, I’m done when I get across that stage, and I couldn’t even get on it. And it wasn’t my fault.”

Curtis said he had been worried something like this would happen, so in December, when he sent his request to graduate, he said that he would be coming in his wheelchair with his service dog, DJ, to make sure accommodations were made in advance.

Curtis has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that causes joint dislocations and severe pain, which is why he uses a wheelchair and has a service animal. 

From the time he sent his request onward, Curtis said he had conversations with people within the university and requested a walk-through so the ramp could be adjusted, if needed, before the graduation ceremony.

But Curtis said he was told in March that the earliest walk-through would be on May 14, two days before the ceremony.

When the time came, he said he couldn’t get more than a foot up the ramp because of its steepness.

UNB responds

CBC News requested comment from the University of New Brunswick on Thursday and Friday and in a response on Friday afternoon, spokesperson Natasha Ashfield did not offer an apology and instead disputed Curtis’s account, saying that “communication with the graduate in question started in March.”

“Several accommodation options were presented and discussed,” the emailed statement read. “The accommodation plan was developed in consultation with the graduate prior to graduation.”

Curtis said there were suggestions thrown about at the walk-through for how to get around the ramp issue, with one of them being to have someone push him up.

But Curtis said, as someone who has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, being pushed up the ramp was not an option.

“I have a service dog to try and increase my independence,” he said.

I was the only one in that ceremony who used a wheelchair, but I’m not going to be the last.– Blair Curtis, UNB graduate

“But having someone push me, it takes that independence away, which, you know, as someone who advocates for disability rights, I’ve been trying so hard to make people aware that people with disabilities, a lot of them want as much independence as possible.”

The other option given to him, said Curtis, was to have someone push him up prior to the ceremony, where he would wait in the back until it was his turn to cross.

But that option made Curtis feel like he would be “out of sight, out of mind,” and he also wouldn’t be able to see his friends cross the stage.

So, the last remaining solution, since the ramp couldn’t be adjusted within two days, was to go across the carpet down in front of the stage. 

Curtis said it’s especially disappointing given UNB’s graduation page on its website has a section on accessibility that says the university “is committed to providing accessible and inclusive spaces and experiences on campus.” 

Curtis said that doesn’t mean the university didn’t have the accessibility features, such as accessible entrances and elevator access, it claimed to, but to not be able to cross the stage at his own graduation represented a gap in that accessibility. 

Happy to help improve accessibility 

With degree in hand, Curtis will now be heading back to his home province of Newfoundland to work in a law firm there, but he said he would like to see UNB change and prove its commitment to accessibility. 

He would even be happy to come back and do whatever necessary to help the university adapt for the next time. 

“I think it’s important to recognize disabled students,” he said.

“I was the only one in that ceremony who used a wheelchair, but I’m not going to be the last.”

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